Rich Stanek is not letting go of his job easily.
Following a campaign rife with allegations of illegal campaign activity, the race for Hennepin County sheriff — pitting longtime incumbent Stanek against political newcomer Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson — had a blockbuster finish Tuesday. With all votes counted, the final tally showed Hutchinson as the winner by 2,337 votes: .44 percent. Afterward, Hutchinson claimed victory, though Stanek is holding on to the possibility that election officials made a mistake in the vote totals.
Even without a concession from Stanek, Hutchinson — currently a sergeant with the Metro Transit Police Department — is basking in what he considers a win. As potentially the first openly gay sheriff in the Midwest, he cites Tuesday’s results as part of a wide-sweeping push by the county’s progressive voters, particularly young voters and people of color, who want to shake up county leadership to better reflect what they see as the area’s values. Angela Conley’s election over incumbent Peter McLaughlin in a race for Hennepin County Board of Commissioners is another example of those shifting preferences among the county’s voters.
Support among diehard DFL activists aside, Hutchinson’s success Tuesday came as a surprise to many. Stanek’s time in the public eye goes back decades; he had ample campaign resources; and he commanded strong support in the suburbs in the primary election.
“With the current national politics at play, people in Minnesota just wanted something new and something more forward-thinking. You get people angry and upset, they’re going to come out and make change,” said Hutchinson in an interview Wednesday morning. “Sometimes money doesn’t buy a political seat anymore.”
Why Stanek hasn’t conceded
So why hasn’t Stanek given up his bid for the office yet? Every election night, officials organize ballots for all races by precincts, and then update the state’s Secretary of State in waves after polls close at 8 p.m. Even after those numbers are reported, though, state election officials spend days proofing their work before making them final — a period during which they say it is routine to “discover a number of small errors or typos, such as transposition of digits.”
It is within that window of work that the sheriff is hoping for an outcome in his favor. Under state law, candidates can ask election officials for a recount on the public’s dime if the difference between the winner and loser is .25 percent or less, according to Hennepin County Elections Manager Ginny Gelms. That would mean a difference of about 1,010 votes in the sheriff’s election, which is roughly half the number of votes Hutchinson won by.
A candidate can request a recount at his or her own expense if the margin falls outside that “publicly funded” recount margin, according to Gelms.
Stanek’s campaign said it will not comment further on Tuesday’s election until the group in charge of certifying county results, the Hennepin County Canvassing Board, reviews the vote totals at a meeting next Tuesday morning. Every Minnesota county has a canvassing board of five members that includes the county auditor, members of the county board and other regional leaders.
“Yesterday’s election results were extremely close,” read a statement released by the Stanek campaign. “The information we have shows that this race is too close to call, and that the results are not yet official.”
A former police officer and one-time state legislator, Stanek had never faced such a tight race for sheriff. In 2006, he was elected with more than 64 percent of the vote. After running unopposed in 2010, he easily won a third term in 2014, beating Minneapolis police inspector Eddie Frizell by more than 35 points.
From Metro Transit to sheriff
For Hutchinson, Tuesday was a roller coaster of emotions. He spent the early hours of Election Day campaigning, bouncing from coffee shops to restaurants. It was not until he was on his way to an election night party, about an hour before polls closed, that a wave of anxiety took hold. “It was nail biting,” he said. “At that point, I just knew that my team and I did everything we could do and then it was just kind of up to the people.”
“People just actually care about the issues we spoke on, with the separation between the sheriff’s department and ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], better treatment of people suffering from mental-health crises,” he said.“I’ll try to get a better handle on this opioid epidemic. I think that’s really the three major points we hit. Those resonated with people.”
Growing up in Burnsville, Hutchinson knew he wanted to go into a law enforcement career at an early age. He served as a police officer in Bayport, the small Washington County town south of Stillwater, before moving to Metro Transit as a patrol officer in 2006. He now lives in Bloomington with his husband and works as a supervisor within the transportation agency, a job in which he oversees officers on the northside of Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs.
It was while he was working as a Metro Transit officer, talking with residents, that Hutchinson crafted one of his main campaign platforms: ending the practice of deputies asking inmates their “country of origin” during jail bookings, information local authorities now relay to federal agencies. The idea was to deter ICE officials from detaining people in Hennepin County, and it gave Hutchinson a point of differentiation in his bid against Stanek. The sheriff has defended the office’s relationship with ICE, and said the booking questions are required under state and federal laws.
“I’m working with an immigration attorney who specializes in that,” Hutchinson said. “We’ll make sure we abide by law, but we’re also going to make sure that it’s sensitive to everybody.”
Hutchinson said he is also in talks with a “transition team” of people to help him take over the sheriff’s office, as well as others who will work with him throughout his term. “From now until we get sworn in, it’s going to be nonstop work,” he said. In addition to planning for the transition, Hutchinson will continue working full time at Metro Transit until his new job as sheriff starts.
The Hennepin County sheriff heads a staff of more than 840 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 going through the county’s detention facilities and oversees a $125 million budget.
Data reporter Greta Kaul contributed to this report.