The two candidates for Hennepin County Sheriff want you to know something: that their opponent faces allegations of illegal campaign activity.
The nature of the accusations aren’t going to shock anyone — they hit on disclosure laws and rules about yard signs — but the finger-pointing epitomizes the intensity of the race between incumbent Rich Stanek and challenger Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson, a contest that is grappling with some of the region’s biggest and most controversial issues: How should law enforcement interact with federal immigration authorities? What is the sheriff department’s role in preventing drug overdoses? What’s the best way to help people in mental crisis?
The back-and-forth between campaigns has exposed broader questions, too, like how does a sheriff balance the interests of a predominantly urban, progressive county in the age of Trump?
‘He cares for the people of this county’
Stanek, a former police officer and one-time Republican legislator who has a “recommendation” from the GOP (the sheriff’s position is technically non-partisan), says he’s the only qualified person to take on those questions, while Hutchinson, a Metro Transit sergeant who is endorsed by the DFL and new to politics, says the department could benefit from a fresh perspective that aligns more closely with the political values of the county’s voters.
Stanek came in first in August’s primary, with more than 49 percent of the vote, while Hutchinson’s garnered 35 percent (a third candidate, Joseph Banks, got 16 percent; only the top two candidates move on to the general election). The early showdown also showed the metro’s split based on geography: Voters for Stanek turned out heavily in the suburbs, while Hutchinson won most precincts in Minneapolis.
The Hennepin county sheriff heads a staff of more than 840 people and must coordinate with politicians and law-enforcement agencies from across the county, a group that includes more than three dozen state legislators, two members of Congress and 45 city mayors. The sheriff is also responsible for the treatment of upwards of 36,000 people rotating through the county’s detention facilities and the overseer of a roughly $125 million budget.
Before taking on those duties, Stanek spent more than 20 years moving through the ranks of the Minneapolis Police Department. In 1994, he made the jump into politics, serving several terms in the state House representing the Maple Grove area before leaving the seat to run the state’s Public Safety Department under former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
That gig did not last long. Stanek resigned from the position in 2004 after a deposition surfaced from a civil suit resulting from a 1989 vehicle collision, back when Stanek was with the MPD. He said he initially thought the other driver, a Liberian-native named Anthony Freeman, was intoxicated and saw smoke coming from the vehicle. But Freeman said Stanek approached his car screaming racial slurs. In his deposition, Stanek admitted that he told racist jokes with other officers, but that he never did so in public.
The ordeal spurred new efforts by Stanek to win over support from various community groups as he prepared to launch his first campaign for Hennepin County Sheriff. In 2006, Stanek beat his DFL opponent, Juan Lopez, for the position with more than 64 percent of the vote — replacing former sheriff Pat McGowan, who like Stanek had previously represented the Maple Grove area as a state legislator.
Among his accomplishments in office, Stanek touts his work to help people with mental illnesses; his efforts to let officers carry Narcan to offset opioid symptoms and map drug overdoses; and his work across party lines. Over the years, he’s embraced efforts by both former President Barack Obama (to reduce gun violence by expanding background checks) and President Trump (on strategies to crack down on illegal drugs).
“When you see him on TV, you see him in front of a group, he’s a speaker; he’s a politician. But what you don’t see is, he’s got a huge heart. He cares for the people of this county,” said sheriff’s Lieutenant Chris Mathison, who’s president of the union representing supervisors in the department. “We built a good relationship over the years — he was an outsider — it took a few years.”
Stanek’s tenure has not been without controversy, though. In 2007, Minneapolis leaders criticized him for falsifying information in a training video on the collapse of the I-35 bridge and taking credit for actions that weren’t his responsibility. He’s also clashed with the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners over budgeting. (At least one current member has come out against Stanek this election cycle.) And he faced backlash over his decision to send Hennepin County deputies to North Dakota during the massive protests over the Dakota Access pipeline.
‘This has been a dream of his’
Growing up in Burnsville, Hutchinson chose law enforcement as a career at an early age. He served as a cop in Bayport, the small Washington County town south of Stillwater, before moving to Metro Transit as a patrol officer in 2006.
Colleagues of Hutchinson said his ability to connect with anyone, regardless of race or background, has helped him him succeed in his current job supervising Metro Transit officers on the northside of Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs.
In that job, Hutchinson said, he hears a lot about the public’s lack of trust in law enforcement. “At some point, you’ve got to point out the problem. The problem is bad leadership. It’s a 1990’s mentality of policing,” Hutchinson said. “[Stanek’s] not right for Hennepin County for multiple reasons.”
But until last winter, Hutchinson thought his level of involvement with the race for sheriff would be as a campaign volunteer, trying to persuade county residents to vote for someone — anyone — with more progressive values than Stanek, Hutchinson said. But every possible candidate, including a handful of suburban police chiefs, told Hutchinson they weren’t willing to spend money and run against the current sheriff, Hutchinson recalled. “One of them said … ‘No, that would be me committing career suicide.’”
Hutchinson filed for office last December, and touts an underdog, “grassroots” campaign that runs on small donations. Meanwhile, the “Hutch” fan base has grown, from just a couple volunteers to a group that now includes some of the region’s top Democratic officials, such as Congressional candidate Ilhan Omar and members of the Minneapolis City Council.
Hutchinson said he would do better than Stanek fighting the region’s drug problem by connecting addicts with treatment fast and helping people in crisis by pairing deputies with mental-health professionals on response calls. He also is promising policies to ensure every sexual assault allegation receives a thorough investigation and to save the county money on staffing at the jail.
“He’s a very open-minded person; he’s a fair individual,” said Metro Transit officer Sidney Jones, who worked closely with Hutchinson when he was a patrol officer. “A lot of people think it’s a shot in the dark. I’m an optimist. But I think he can win. Even when he was my partner, this has been a dream of his.”
Hutchinson’s campaign has made the involvement of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement the biggest issue in the race. Alongside immigration-rights activists and some elected leaders, Hutchinson argues Stanek goes too far in helping the federal immigration authorities target people coming in and out of jail.
“My goal is to make sure that people, even who are undocumented, are still comfortable coming to the police,” Hutchinson said. “We’re not worried about federal immigration, or undocumented (people). That’s not our job as public safety.”
To help build that trust, he wants deputies to stop asking inmates their “country of origin” during bookings — information the sheriff’s office relays with fingerprints and photos to state and federal investigators — in attempt to stop ICE officials from detaining people in Hennepin County.
Yet Stanek says state law requires officers to ask about birthplaces, while other laws mandate officers identify people from other countries to give them the option of speaking to their foreign consulate.
But while everyone has the right to decline answering officers’ questions, language barriers mean people do not always understand or know they have that option. In Minneapolis, officials and lawyers are taking steps to fix that by installing placards in police cars that remind people (in Spanish and English) they can remain silent. “We know that even if an undocumented person is not charged with a crime, the mere fact that they’re brought to Hennepin County jail may bring them to ICE’s attention,” said Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal at a recent press conference.
Stanek’s campaign says the sheriff’s office does arrange calls to ICE and “offers the arrestee the option of speaking with an immigration agent,” when someone says they were born outside the U.S. or that they are not a citizen. Most of the time, inmates voluntarily speak with ICE agents, the campaign says, and that the federal agency helps them resolve questions about legal citizenship. Also, the campaign says the sheriff’s office does not hold people for an extended time to give immigration officers time to question them without a judge’s order — a move that came out of a 2014 rule change that both Stanek and Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman (who’s also up for re-election this year) are taking credit for this campaign season.
“Only the tiniest fraction of inmates are of interest to ICE,” according to an email from former Republican legislator Julianne Ortman, who is helping with Stanek’s campaign. “We do not transfer custody of inmates to ICE upon release from the jail.”
While the sheriff’s interaction with ICE has raised the ire of progressive activists, the office has also faced scrutiny from critics on the other end of the spectrum. Last year, the Trump administration included Hennepin County on a list of “non-cooperative jurisdictions” for not going far enough to help ICE, a designation the sheriff’s office rebuked.
“If it’s the law that says we have to do something, we do it,” Stanek said.
Real problem or playing games?
On Monday, a complaint against Stanek over campaign procedures was filed with the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings. According to documents, the complaint accuses the sheriff of distributing a handful of campaign signs without including an address in the signs’ disclaimer. Stanek’s campaign says the claim has no merit. A judge has not yet ruled on the matter.
Hutchinson has had his own issues with campaign rules. Documents show his campaign violated campaign finance laws by failing to report any of his expenses by mandated deadlines. (Hutchinson said his treasurer had a family emergency in the early days of campaigning and that caused the violation of Minnesota disclosure laws.) The campaign could face up to $500 fines for the violation, according to Hennepin County Elections Manager Ginny Gelms.
“We’ve owned up to the mistake,” he said. “As sheriff, I will admit to any mistakes that I make. … Nobody’s perfect.”
The fees for that violation would add to other potential legal costs, including a complaint over some of Hutchinson’s old signs that did not have disclaimers. Hutchinson was fined $200 for the violation, court records show.
Stanek argues that such violations should be seen as telling. “If [he] can’t manage his own campaign finances, how is he going to manage $125 million dollars of the taxpayer’s [money]?” Stanek said. “His obligation to follow the law is crystal clear, whether it’s campaign finance law or fraud.”
But Hutchinson says the complaints are merely an attempt to distract voters. “He’s doing all of this, politics, to take away from issues,” Hutchinson said. “I want to worry about making sure Hennepin County gets to vote on the issues — not minor mistakes from a new campaign from mostly volunteers. We’re here to protect our communities; We’re not here to play games.”