The same issues that have riled political contests across the country — immigration, environmentalism and, of course, President Trump, are prominent in the sheriff’s race in Hennepin County, which went heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek has served for 12 years, won two previous races with about two-thirds of the vote, and ran unopposed once. Stanek is facing opposition from Metro Transit Police Department Sgt. Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson, who earned an endorsement from the former Democratic candidate for president.
“These local races now, with our current national administration, and the craziness that’s happening,” Hutchinson said. “This is how we can fight back.”
• Full coverage: Election 2018
• Ramsey County: Sheriff candidates agree on diversity, disagree on body cams
In addition to Hillary Clinton, Hutchinson is endorsed by the state DFL party and some unions, as well as other high-profile state Democrats like congressional candidate Ilhan Omar and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who’s running for governor.
“This is just as important as any other race, if not more important, if you care about immigration, if you care about mentally ill, and if you care about doing something more about doing something for people who are addicted to opioids,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson isn’t alone in his partisan connections. Stanek is a former Republican lawmaker and former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety under GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. He’s a former Minneapolis cop, with endorsements from law enforcement unions, in addition to a recommendation from the state GOP.
But Stanek said a sheriff works for the residents, not for political parties.
“When you call 911, you don’t press one for Republican and two for Democrat, because it is nonpartisan, and that’s how these races should be run,” Stanek said.
Hutchinson has criticized Stanek for comments he made about immigration to Trump. For his part, Stanek said he met with former President Barack Obama seven times over eight years and Trump just twice.
“When I meet with the president, I talk with him about our diverse communities. I talk to him about the opioid crisis. I talk with him about what happens with mental illness and the reduction in violent crime,” Stanek said. “Those are good things for the residents of Hennepin County and that’s how it should be.”
Hutchinson said the race is really about issues important to people’s lives like immigration. He said current policy about how the department engages with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents now makes immigrants hesitant to ask for help from local law enforcement.
“In Hennepin County, we’re going to be tough on crime, but we’re not going to go after people for ICE violations because that’s the federal government’s job. Our job is to protect people in Hennepin County,” Hutchinson said. “ICE and the federal government have a ton of money, have a ton of resources, and they can do their own thing, we can do our own thing.”
Hutchinson criticizes Stanek for sending sheriff’s deputies to a protest over an oil pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota.
Stanek said sheriff’s offices typically support one another, which is why he and other departments sent deputies to the protests. And he said his job is to enforce the law. If he doesn’t like a law, he’ll talk to policymakers, but he can’t pick and choose what to enforce.
“As an elected sheriff, sworn to upload the laws of this state and the Constitution of the state of Minnesota, and the U.S. Constitution, we follow the law,” Stanek said. “If my opponent says he’s not going to follow the law, you should beware, because that is not what you’re electing your sheriff to do, to choose which laws he or she is going to enforce.”
In his campaign, Stanek points to a drop in violent crime and his stewardship of the department’s budget, as well as his work aimed at reducing opioid overdoses in the county. Stanek also points to support for mentally-ill inmates, diversity recruitment and crisis training that deputies have received.
“We’re reaching out to the community every single day, our community engagement team, they work across the board in communities that are some of the most need-based in terms of public safety services,” Stanek said.
In his campaign, Hutchinson promises to require sheriff’s deputies to be trained in de-escalation techniques, look for other ways beyond arrest for drug offenses, and give members of the public more opportunities to offer input. He promises more transparency in the department.
“You talk about the DFL and GOP and independents, I don’t care about that, I care about keeping people safe,” Hutchinson said. “I want to make sure that everybody is happy, healthy and comfortable coming to talk to us.”
The race hasn’t been without conflict. A member of Stanek’s campaign team has alleged that Hutchinson violated campaign finance law, referring complaints to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, Minnesota Attorney General’s office and the Office of Administrative Hearings, where Hutchinson was fined $200, although he’s appealing the decision.
“If you can’t manage your campaign finances, you sure as heck are going to have a hard time managing $140 million annual budget and supervising 1,100 personnel who work for the sheriff’s office,” Stanek said. “Transparency cuts both ways.”
Hutchinson admits that his former treasurer didn’t file necessary forms, but says the campaign filings are now current.
“I’m not rich, I’m not powerful, and I would be the first person to tell you that I made mistakes,” Hutchinson said. “If I make mistakes as the sheriff, I’m going to be transparent, and I’m going to make sure everybody knows about the mistake, and we’re going to fix the mistake.”
The trend of nonpartisan races attracting more attention isn’t unique to Minnesota, said Steven Schier, a professor emeritus in political science at Carleton College.
Groups like Black Lives Matter have brought attention to the power and importance of elected criminal justice positions like sheriffs and county attorneys, Schier said. And Democrats who are locked out of federal power may be doubling down on local offices.
“People are looking to find objections to candidates whether they’re partisan or nonpartisan,” Schier said. “There’s a new intensity and bitterness in our politics, and it’s starting to affect races all up and down our ballots.”