After a number of reform-minded prosecutors were elected across the country in recent years, progressive organizers are looking to translate that energy into a new electoral movement: reshaping the influential law enforcement position of county sheriff.
In two of the nation’s wealthiest counties, both located in Virginia, and in a Louisiana parish, a coalition of progressive groups is rallying behind candidates for sheriff whose campaigns are focused specifically on reforming the way sheriffs’ offices cooperate with immigration officials and how they relate to immigrant communities.
Josh King and Justin Hannah are running in the November elections in Virginia’s Prince William and Loudoun counties, respectively. Their campaigns are being backed by Sheriffs for Trusting Communities, a North Carolina-based political group that wants to boost the work started by community organizations like Casa in Action in Virginia, Action NC and Comunidad Colectiva in North Carolina, and Poder in Action in Arizona. In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the group is backing Democrat Charles “Carlos” Jean Jr., who is running for sheriff in November. The organization is seeking to bring full circle the movement that’s ushered reformers to prosecutorial offices from Philadelphia to St. Louis, by harnessing the energy of grassroots organizers who have been fundamentally altering the traditional role of the law enforcement officers, and by extension, the system itself.
In recent years, district attorneys races have become a key part of the criminal justice reform movement and drawn in high-profile candidates, donors, and endorsements, as well as a lot of public attention. Organizers from groups like Real Justice PAC, Color of Change PAC, the Working Families Party, and local chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America have helped to solidify a movement around district attorneys’ races, and they’ve had a promising selection of progressive candidates to choose from.
In sheriffs’ races, meanwhile, such groups have focused more on ousting conservative incumbents than cultivating and recruiting their ideal progressive candidate, and have yet to build the same kind of traction that exists around prosecutorial campaigns. There are signs that is beginning to change, though.
“There’s been a growing appreciation that state and federal populations and policies actually have a pretty limited role in the drive of criminal justice operations and reforms, that much more of this work is local.”
“There hasn’t been a lot of organizing around criminal justice issues of the really hyperlocal level until much more recently,” said Rebecca Neusteter, who directs the policing program at the Vera Institute of Justice, which focuses on criminal justice issues. “For a long time, much of this work was very much focused on the national and the federal spotlight, really trying to understand prison and populations at state and federal levels. And I think for the past number of years, there’s been a growing appreciation that state and federal populations and policies actually have a pretty limited role in the drive of criminal justice operations and reforms, that much more of this work is local.”
The movement around police accountability has been much more visible, Neusteter said, but has tended to result in measures like retraining police officers and monitoring their activity, rather than reforming policies that lead them to unnecessary interactions with civilians. “There has obviously been a lot of attention paid locally around policing issues, but it tends to focus on the really tragic and slain use of force cases, or in isolated incidents around trying to organize the community or public oversight of police, as opposed to recognizing the real thread between policing and mass incarceration.”
As more attention is focused on the role sheriffs play in the broader criminal justice system, more money is being poured into such races. Billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros has spent millions on both prosecutorial and sheriffs races over the past five years, including $2 million to defeat former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2016 and $1.7 million to elect Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017. Soros’s Democracy PAC also recently gave $50,000 to King. Sheriffs for Trusting Communities — which is backed in part by Data for Progress, a left-wing think tank — has introduced small-dollar online fundraising to sheriffs’ elections in the hopes of building out infrastructure and enthusiasm around such races.
The candidates emphasize that what happens on the local level is just as essential as the decisions being made in the General Assembly. “As the sheriff, you can propose legislation. If you say, we need better gun legislation, and you’re the sheriff of Loudoun County or whatever county, people will listen to you,” Hannah said. “So these local races are very important as well.”
Those rallying for more progressive sheriffs had success last year in North Carolina, where Comunidad Colectiva led the charge to mobilize communities around ending sheriffs’ cooperation with 287(g). Organizers focused on overlaps between how law enforcement interacts with communities of immigrants and people of color. They also helped elect Garry McFadden as Mecklenburg County sheriff, with a campaign focused on ending the office’s cooperation with the program. Four other Democratic sheriffs elected last year announced that they would be making similar changes to how their offices work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Organizers who worked against Arpaio, who was considering seeking reelection in Arizona last year, set the vision for what the sheriff’s initiative is all about.
“Bad sheriffs govern in great places,” reads one message on the Sheriffs for Trusting Communities site. The organization refers frequently to Arpaio, who is notorious for using the office of the sheriff to advance an anti-immigrant agenda. Organizers who worked against Arpaio, who was considering seeking reelection in Arizona last year, set the vision for what the sheriff’s initiative is all about, Max Rose, the group’s founder and executive director, told The Intercept. Arpaio announced in August that he plans to run for another term in 2020.
“Arizona was, I guess, kind of a petri dish for cities and for states across the country,” said Poder in Action Executive Director Viri Hernandez. “So we became ground zero.” Hernandez, who has led the group for six years, explained that conservative immigration policies were tried first in Arizona, where Arpaio played a key role in their implementation. Arpaio, who had been in office since being elected in 1992, openly advocated for policies that aggressively targeted immigrants in the early 2000s, requesting permission to cooperate with ICE, holding his own raids, and creating volunteer “posses” to carrying them out.
The people Arpaio was targeting were the ones who began the movement that eventually ousted him in 2016, Hernandez said. She and her parents, who came to the United States undocumented, were among the volunteers knocking on doors for the 2016 election. “Arpaio raided my dad’s job in 2014,” she said. He wasn’t at work at the time, “but they took his file, and that completely shifted our life.” Her family left the house within a matter of weeks and moved to another city. A lawsuit later found the raid unconstitutional.
Although beating Arpaio in 2016 was a huge success for the movement, the current Democratic sheriff isn’t all that different, Hernandez said. And she’s not sure they’ll have the kind of progressive candidate they’d like to see in time for the 87-year-old’s 2020 run.
Organizers are seeking to replicate the movement against Arpaio in other states by drawing connections between law enforcements’ interactions with both immigrants and communities of color.
King, who is running against Republican incumbent Glendell Hill, is the first Democrat to run for Prince William County sheriff in nearly 16 years. It will be his third election since 2015. Virginia’s Democratic Party recruited King to run for the House of Delegates in 2015, and he ran twice unsuccessfully in the past three years, losing by less than a point to his Democratic primary opponent in both 2015 and again in 2017. The local party recruited him last year to challenge Hill.
He wants to end the sheriff’s office’s cooperation with the controversial 287(g) program, which deputizes local police to work with federal immigration enforcement agents. (Prince Williams County is one of two Virginia counties that participate in the program.) King is a former deputy sheriff, an Iraq War veteran, and a leader of his union, the local SEIU Virginia 512.
He also wants to improve diversity among officers and make sure that they’re given proper competency training for how to engage with people with disabilities or mental illness. King’s teenage daughter is autistic and nonverbal; he said he worries about what would happen if she came into contact with law enforcement who didn’t know she had a disability.
King recognizes that the race is something of an uphill battle. “He has lots of name ID because they know who he is,” he said of his opponent, who has been in law enforcement since 1969 and is seeking a fifth term as sheriff. “But a lot of people are telling me that he’s a nice guy, but they’re ready for change. That he’s been in too long. That’s the honest answer. But they’re ready for change, they want to see some progress, and they want to see something new.”
The Democrat points out that in addition to Hill’s support for 287(g), his attitude toward incarceration and sentencing is out of place in a state that’s relatively blue and where Democrats are becoming more and more progressive. In recent years, Hill has distanced himself from Virginia Republican Corey Stewart, who chairs the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and has advocated for the 287(g) program, saying that he wanted to “hunt down” undocumented immigrants. Hill said there was no need to be “mean spirited” toward immigrants but that it was important to enforce the law
Hill has raised close to $68,000 so far this cycle, while King’s campaign has raised more than $90,000. Prior to the $50,000 contribution from Democracy PAC, King’s campaign had raised around $42,000 as of September, his campaign said. The majority of that came from Casa in Action, an immigrant rights group that is spending $22,000 on canvassing efforts for King’s campaign and has volunteers knocking doors for him every week. Both the SEIU and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 donated to King, $2,000 and $1,000 respectively, which helped them pay for mailers, the campaign said.
“You’re building a bench for people who are going to run for state legislature and potentially Congress later, so you’ve got to be thinking about the long game.”
It’s important for Democratic donors to pay attention to local races, said King’s campaign manager Katie Baker. “You’re building a bench for people who are going to run for state legislature and potentially Congress later, so you’ve got to be thinking about the long game,” she said. People might think holding local office is just about taking care of barking dogs and zoning violations, but “something like 287(g) — that policy absolutely is impacting people.”
One challenge will be turning out voters in off-year elections, said Hannah, who could become Loudoun County’s first black sheriff if he defeats incumbent Michael Chapman, who is backed by Correct Care Solutions, a for-profit company that provides health care in state prisons and has been in office since January 2012.
Loudoun County has voted Democratic in presidential elections since Barack Obama’s first run in 2008, but it’s more difficult to turn out voters in off-year elections, in which the county skews more conservative in local elections. “Loudoun is actually a very blue county, it’s just a matter of getting out the votes. And we haven’t been able to do that in these off-year elections,” said Hannah, who ran briefly for a state Senate seat earlier this year before launching his campaign for sheriff.
Hannah has zeroed in on his opponent’s anti-immigrant posturing, pointing to Chapman’s 2016 appearance in a video from the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform, touting how important law enforcement officers are in enforcing immigration law. “He’s been on TV with President Trump talking about immigration and how he has very close ties with ICE, and he’s willing to work with them,” Hannah said.
In East Baton Rouge, Republican Sid Gautreaux, who has been in office since 2007, is up for reelection this November. He oversees the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison and has been criticized for a number of undisclosed deaths at the facility since a Promise of Justice Initiative report last year on preventable deaths at the prison. Gautreaux was also the first sheriff in the state to enter into the 287(g) program.
While Trusting Sheriffs has added Carlos Jean Jr. to its slate of candidates, it is also encouraging people to contribute to the campaign of Mark Milligan. Both of them are former police officers who are campaigning on a promise to end participation in 287(g), incarcerate fewer people, end jail deaths, and stop the use of solitary confinement.
Jean, who currently helps test for a variety of sexually transmitted diseases at Baton Rouge’s Open Health Care Clinic, is running his own campaign and said he’s only raised a few hundred dollars so far. If elected, he plans to end the 287(g) program on his first day and wants to decriminalize marijuana and improve transparency in the sheriff’s office. Jean is a second-generation law enforcement officer but said he left the job after a Baton Rouge police officer shot and killed 37-year-old Alton Sterling in 2016. “As an officer of color, I knew that that was handled poorly,” he said. “That was just horrifying to me. And it got to a point where I was like, you know what, maybe, I was always taught, if you can’t give 100 percent, then maybe it’s time to transition to something else.”