Sheriffs have incumbency power. A lot of elected officials do, but with the acquittal of Sheriff Ed Troyer in Pierce County last week, it is worth looking into how sheriffs stick around and how some of them lose.
Troyer survived the court case (which would not have kicked him out of office), and will also not likely be subject to a recall effort. Recall elections are expensive and have a hard time getting off the ground. The Pierce County Council, which has officially shown its displeasure with Troyer, cannot fire the Sheriff. So, the next opportunity would be in a couple of years when Troyer heads back to the ballot.
For at least one answer about incumbent sheriffs, I want to go back to two Thurston County Sheriff campaigns, one from the mid-1980s and one from just a few weeks ago.
The call is coming from inside the house
|Gary Edwards, 1986|
Gary Edwards (who is now a county commissioner) had worked for the Thurston County Sheriffs Department for less than a decade, working his way up to detective by the mid-1980s. The then 39-year-old represented a new generation of law enforcement when he decided to challenge the sitting Sheriff, Dan Montgomery.
Montgomery apparently entered the race a weak leader, as one of the early articles on the race included five declared candidates, all from law enforcement backgrounds and two from other local agencies.
Interestingly, as a fairly high profile sheriff employee, Edwards would normally make the paper a handful of times from the late 70s to the early 80s. But, there were no mentions for a full calendar year until he filed to run in February 1986. Was Montgomery working to silence a potential opponent? Later in the campaign, Montgomery would deny Edwards leave to allow him to campaign, which ended up causing the sitting sheriff more PR headaches than it was worth.
When the sheriff’s deputy association took a confidence vote on Montgomery that year, he received a majority by just a whisper, 51 to 49.
From the Olympian:
Some deputies were upset at Montgomery, saying he maintains an aloof posture in the department and isolates himself from the rank and file members. Morale was described as being low.
Edwards would end up beating Montgomery in the Republican side of the then not-Top Two primary and then dispatching a Democrat in the November general. He would serve until 2006 when he was replaced by Dan Kimball (who he endorsed) and then John Snaza (who Kimball had endorsed).
Now come Deputy (and now Sheriff-Elect) Derek Sanders in 2022, who was more than ten years younger than Edwards when he entered the race for sheriff. He represents a similar kind of inside the house phenomena. He was endorsed by two former top administrators that served under incumbent John Snaza.
Look at this Edwards ’86 endorsement from then Deputy Paul Ingram:
“(Montgomery) has been one of the best sheriffs we’ve had. But the last two years, he hasn’t taken advice from anyone. He has lost two key administrators because of that. He’s taken by the power of the office.”
And this endorsement for Sanders in 2022 from former Thurston Sheriff Chief Dave Pearsall:
“In the beginning (Snaza) had good ideas, intent, and vision. Unfortunately, it no longer appears this is the case. The Sheriff has lost any forward-thinking and vision as of late, which is likely why his Deputies considered a ‘vote of no confidence’ against him.”
This hand-off endorsement framing is interesting for people inside the institution to do, apparently. The sheriff’s office in any given county in Washington is huge, institutionally speaking. Criminal justice spending makes up a big part of the county budget. And the sheriff’s office is a big part of that piece of the pie, and is arguably the most public. So, people “inside the house” can protect the institution itself by saying “he used to be good, but now he’s bad, and I want this next person who is also one of us.”
The call is coming from outside (but also inside) the house
That being said, it is also important for the rebels inside the house to connect with the mainstream of politics in the community. And, for a non-incumbent campaigner, this is not a small accomplishment. Because the sheriff sits at the top of such a huge public institution, it isn’t that easy for other elected officials to stand up and endorse a challenger.
In 1986, Edwards was able to round up institutional support across the county, including two mayors of Olympia. Sanders was able to match that this year, rounding up dozens of mayors, city council members and former and current state legislators from around the county.
When Edwards faced an inside the house challenge in 2002 from Deputy Glen Quantz, he diffused the institutional support from lining up with the support that the deputy had gotten from the rank and file. The key was Quantz’s personal life (a bankruptcy and juvenile larceny conviction). Then Attorney General Chris Gregoire pulled her endorsement after Quantz’ past came out.
Edwards would end up not running again in 2006, heading off any potential inside challenge that was able to unify the rank and file with the political mainstream of the county.
Why this is an important discussion
For Troyer, his opponents in 2020 seemed to have reached the level of “inside the house” challenges. Even though he wasn’t an incumbent in 2020, his profile as the department’s communications director gave him a profile that was much higher than any other non-incumbent. The deputy union endorsed an unsuccessful primary candidate and Troyer’s official general challenger (who was also a sheriff’s office lieutenant). But, where they felt short, it seems, was uniting an inside challenge with the mainstream of Pierce County politics.
Lt. Cynthia Fajardo raised more than twice what Troyer raised, but the vast majority of her funds were donations from herself. Running a self-financed campaign doesn’t signal trying to reach out and gain endorsements from a broad vein of the mainstream institutional politics in Pierce County. It was Troyer that received the endorsements from the 30th District Democrats and the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.
Michael Zoorob explored the sticking power of incumbent sheriffs, pointing out that they are able to hold off challenges the vast majority of the time. They even have longer tenure than appointed police chiefs, and self admittedly, are more secure in their jobs from political fall-out.
Specifically zooming into Pierce County, there seem to be some institutional advantages for Troyer coming into 2024 according to Zoorob:
1. Incumbent sheriffs tend to do well in the crowded attention years of Presidential elections. In fact, sheriff elections on Presidential cycles are the most likely to be uncontested (compared to most contested in odd-year elections). When incumbent sheriffs are challenged during Presidential years though, according to Zoorob, the incumbent advantage disappears. It is basically the same as during any other kind of cycle.
2. The sheriff position in Pierce County is non-partisan, which also favors a sheriff with good name identification. The theory is the partisan marker is valuable information for the voter, and without that, they will lean on what they do know which may end up being the candidate they’ve even heard of.