The mood was buoyant as supporters trickled out of Christina Corpus's election night watch party.
In one of the county's most contentious races, Corpus has taken the lead over incumbent Sheriff Carlos Bolanos, according to unofficial election results. As of the results late Tuesday night, Corpus was leading with roughly 55% of the vote.
If the results hold, San Mateo County may soon see its first female, and first Latina, sheriff. But even as her supporters shared hugs, high-fives and congratulations, Corpus remained calm and quietly cheerful.
"The numbers are still looking really good…I'm optimistic. And I am hopeful," she said. "I'm not calling it but I am very, very excited."
Around 10:30 p.m., with a steady 9-point lead over her opponent, Corpus addressed the crowd who gathered inside.
"I am overwhelmed right now," she said. Thanking each of her campaign volunteers, family members and supporters individually, she added, "We stood up to an establishment, and it's been amazing."
Anticipating a win, several team members joined Corpus to present her with a large, custom-designed bottle of Mailly Champagne. Emblazoned in glitter were her name, the year, the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office logo and the words: "A sheriff we can trust."
Corpus described the watch party as a "surreal" experience, after nearly a year of campaigning. Regardless of the final result, she said was proud of herself for having the courage to challenge her boss and incumbent sheriff.
"Everyone discounted me in the beginning," she said. "Whatever the outcome is tonight, I feel like I've won."
A passionate crowd of more than 50 supporters, family members and local officials turned out to watch the results from a rooftop in San Mateo.
California State Senator Josh Becker, D-13, was among those in attendance. After meeting Corpus a few months ago, he said he was impressed by her energy and message and called her a "breath of fresh air."
Describing concerns he's heard from his constituents about crime rates, Becker said he appreciated Corpus's interest in seeking innovative solutions while recognizing the limits of law enforcement.
"I think she's got the ability to be an important figure in the Peninsula for many years to come," he said.
Former Sheriff's Captain Paul Kunkel referred to Corpus as "Sheriff" and spoke passionately about her vision for the role.
"I love the county of San Mateo, and I love our Sheriff's Office," he said. "But we desperately need change."
Confident in her odds against the incumbent, he added, "If I didn't believe in her 100%, I wouldn't be here."
As the first results came in just after 8 p.m., a hush took over the rooftop, followed by scattered cheers. Marketing manager Terry Downing announced Corpus's 9-point lead over Bolanos.
"Let's f---ing go!" she yelled to laughter and applause.
Corpus looked tentatively excited.
"It's a good start!" she said over the phone.
"I really think that it's time for a change in the Sheriff's Department," said Redwood City resident Johanna Rasmussen. "And we haven't had what I would consider a viable candidate to date. So when Christina came along, I thought, ‘she can do this.'"
Rasmussen's husband, former Redwood City Police Officer Chris Rasmussen, shared her desire for new leadership in the sheriff's office.
"Law enforcement's changed, especially in the last two years," he said. "We need people with the vision to move law enforcement to the next century."
Broadmoor Chief of Police, and 2018 Bolanos challenger, Mark Melville was also in attendance. Though he said he considered running again this year, he ultimately decided to back Corpus, who he said had both the endorsements and the experience for the job.
"Having worked all these different assignments makes her ideal to take over to just the sheriff's office," he said.
Melville, who served as a deputy sheriff for 10 years, said it was frustrations with the leadership that led him to retire from his position in 2019.
"I want a change. I want Carlos out of office," he said. "Let's just put it this way: His time has come."
At the Bolanos watch party, more than a hundred supporters packed into a San Carlos brewery to watch as election results trickled in. The enthusiasm in the air was almost palpable, optimism high. As the clock drew closer to 8:10 p.m. — the moment when the first results were expected to go live on the county website — excited supporters, including those who had been outside, inched closer to a projector screen at the front of the bar crowding around it.
But as the county website screen populated with race results, the mood in the room dampened. Those who seemed fired up before grew dim. Animated chatter turned to hushed whispers.
On the projector and on many tiny, brightly lit screens across the room were the race results for the San Mateo County sheriff that showed Corpus leading by nearly 10 points.
Not 20 minutes later, Bolanos took the stage to thank his supporters and assuage any concerns they might've had.
"If the worst thing that happens is that I lose, I won't take it the wrong way," Bolanos told the crowd. "I will always pull my head up and I will always be proud of the work that I do.
"I'm going to be fine. We're all going to be fine. The world will go on," he added.
In an interview shortly after his speech, Bolanos said he was disappointed by the early returns but was optimistic to see how the rest of the night might play out.
"But, I think there is still a lot of votes to be counted," he said. "And let's see what happens."
Asked what he thought about Corpus possibly coming out ahead at the end of the night, Bolanos said, "Well, I mean, I think if the numbers don't go my way, Corpus will win and I'll finish out my term. But between now and then, I'll figure out what are my next steps.
"I think I'd have to see what alternatives are out there for me. I've had a great career. If retirement is my next step, I'm okay with that. So, yeah, I'm gonna be fine no matter what," Bolanos added.
District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe, who ran unopposed Tuesday night and had publicly endorsed Bolanos, was at Bolanos' watch party in San Carlos. He was optimistic about Bolanos' chances despite early returns showing Corpus' nine-point lead.
"It's early and I hope things turn around," Wagstaffe said. "If they don't, I will work with Capt. Corpus. I've known her ever since she was a rookie. I've known her since she's worked in my office… I will work with whoever the people of this county says is the sheriff… That will be my colleague and partner."
Pierre Buljan, a Bolanos supporter and Tuesday night watch party attendee, said he was in shock after seeing the early returns come in at 8 p.m.
"I've personally watched (Bolanos) turn this county around in a good way," Buljan said. "Not just for policing our county, the safety record, but also reforming people in jail, trying to take care of the homelessness and doing all the right things."
Buljan said he didn't see the appeal in Corpus and wondered whether those who voted for her were simply swayed by hearing her story about growing up in a poor Latino family.
"He did, too," Buljan said, referring to Bolanos. "He didn't speak English until he went to kindergarten. His parents immigrated here the same as her. So their records are the same."
By 9:30 p.m., the crowd at the Bolanos watch party had cleared out and the campaign staff was removing balloons from the tables. It was too early for the race to be called and too early for Bolanos to concede.
Bolanos was appointed sheriff in 2016 after then-sheriff Greg Munks announced his early retirement. He ran a successful campaign in 2018 and won with just over 60% of the vote. Pointing to more than 40 years in law enforcement, Bolanos said he's built a campaign on his experience and commitment to "public safety for all."
A sheriff's captain and chief of police for the City of Millbrae, Corpus ran on a platform of wanting to change the culture of law enforcement through community-based policing and transparency.
The race between candidates has been a particularly contentious one.
Early last month, Bolanos unexpectedly backed out of a scheduled Thrive Alliance debate citing biased comments made by one of the sponsors. He instead referred voters to watch a previous recorded debate. Corpus took the opportunity as a chance to boost her campaign while carefully showing public disapproval.
It wasn't the only time the two clashed.
At a forum hosted by the Redwood City Woman's Club, the two candidates answered tough questions in front of a packed crowd and often disagreed on issues related to immigration, law enforcement transparency, use of force and staffing.
Election results are still unofficial and will continue to trickle in throughout the week. So far voter turnout has been low during this primary election, with only 14.6% of eligible voters casting their ballots.
Despite a steady lead, Corpus refrained from calling the election in her favor and said she wasn't expecting Bolanos to concede anytime soon.
"Nor will my feelings be hurt if he doesn't call me," she said.
In the meantime, Corpus said she's eager to spend some time with her family and take a break for the first time since she launched her campaign in July 2021.
"I'm looking forward to maybe getting a good night's rest," she said, laughing.
Bay City News contributed to this story.