One of the more enlightening conversations I have had on the podcast was about sheriffs when I spoke with Max Rose a few months ago. Max Rose is the founder of Sheriffs for Trusting Communities, a group that works with local organizers to help educate people on what sheriffs do and how to hold them accountable.
In that conversation, which you can listen to here, we discussed the surprisingly under-the-radar and unconstrained powers of sheriffs in America today. Because they operate our jails, sheriffs play a key role in the mass incarceration crisis, and in our immigration crisis by cooperating with US Immigration Customs and Enforcement, or ICE.
After I recorded that episode but just days before the election, the intimidation power of sheriffs was on clear display in North Carolina in an event that served as a timely warning of what can happen when a sheriff misuses his office.
One of the country’s more notorious sheriffs, Terry Johnson of Alamance County, stopped a peaceful “March to the Polls” voter participation event, when his deputies pepper sprayed and arrested marchers, including children and elderly people. Now when I think about how close the races were in North Carolina for both the White House and the Senate, I can’t help but wonder about the chilling effect that one sheriff had on voter turnout in the county and on the election outcomes in the state overall.
So given all that I had learned, and my newfound awareness of the power of sheriffs, I was wondering what happened in the recent elections. Were there successes? Disappointments? I asked Max, and according to him, there was some of both. Here are some highlights.
In the good news category, Georgia saw two important wins. A new sheriff was elected in the Atlanta suburbs, beating the retiring Republican’s hand-picked successor. The first Black sheriff elected in the county, Kebo Taylor ran on a platform of cutting ties with ICE and restoring the community’s trust in law enforcement.
In a nearby county, another Black candidate, Craig Owens, defeated a 17-year Republican incumbent, with promises of prison reform and ending cooperation with ICE.
In Charleston, South Carolina, Democrat Kristin Graziano defeated the Republican sheriff who had been in office since 1988. (Sheriffs often have ridiculously long tenures with no meaningful term limits). There’s more -- she used to work for him in the sheriff’s office, but he fired her when he found out she was going to run against him. Now she is not only the first woman to hold the office, but the first openly gay sheriff to represent the county. Given that the vast majority of sheriffs in the US are white men, this is huge progress.
Another openly gay Democrat, Charmaine McGuffey, won in Hamilton County, Ohio, a significant accomplishment in a state that’s trending more and more red and was disappointing to many Democrats this election. Both of these Democrats ran on platforms of criminal justice reform, ending ICE support, community outreach and inclusivity.
And who among us isn’t familiar with Maricopa County, Arizona at this point? It’s not just famous because of Steve Kornacki’s maps on MSNBC, but it was also the homebase of one of the most notorious sheriffs in recent history, Joe Arpaio. His former deputy, also an anti-immigrant hardliner ran for sheriff there this year, but the incumbent, Democrat Paul Penzone fended off the challenge and won by a large margin.
But the job is far from done.
One notable disappointment was the win in Pinellas County, FL by a pro-ICE sheriff who once advocated the arming of teachers after Parkland and denied bail to Black Lives Matter protesters last June.
And in Texas, another Republican known for his pro-ICE stance and maintaining deplorable conditions in the jails, defeated a Democratic challenger. But then again, as compared with Georgia where the sheriffs rode a blue wave around the state, Florida and Texas held many disappointments for Democrats this year.
In all these races, the stark contrasts between the candidates will play out in the lives of their constituents -- whether it be jail conditions, the treatment of mentally ill prisoners or addicts, evictions, voter intimidation, or the difference between getting deported or not for a person pulled over for something as simple as a broken tail light, One sheriff’s election might bring fear and dread into the community, while another’s could rebuild faith and trust in law enforcement.
The outcomes of this year’s sheriff elections were both a cause for hope and a reminder that we must remain ever vigilant and keep up the fight to elect more compassionate sheriffs that will fairly represent their communities.