For more than a decade, Rich Stanek had never faced any serious threat to keep his job as Hennepin County sheriff. A former Republican legislator and Minneapolis cop, he had sailed through three re-election campaigns.
Then came Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson.
Last summer, the Metro Transit sergeant from Bloomington launched a campaign for sheriff that, even to Hutchinson, seemed like a longshot. But progressive activists in Minneapolis got behind the first-time candidate, arguing the sheriff’s office could benefit from a fresh perspective that aligned more closely with those of the county’s left-leaning urban voters.
Initially, the support for Hutchinson didn’t seem to be a serious threat, since Stanek still commanded heavy support in the suburbs and secured the most votes in August’s primary election.
But the race heated up in September and October, when Stanek took aim at Hutchinson for allegedly breaking campaign finance law and Hutchinson made Stanek’s relationship with federal immigration authorities a focus of the campaign. Come November, Hutchinson won the sheriff’s position by just 2,340 votes, or less than one half percent. For days, Stanek held on to the possibility that election officials made a mistake and that the election would eventually be decided in his favor. He declined media interviews and released only brief public statements at the time.
Now, the retired sheriff is talking candidly about his time away from elected office, which has allowed him time to focus on projects beyond Hennepin County. “I really haven’t missed a beat since the day that I retired,” Stanek said in a recent interview. “I’m very engaged in public safety issues, on both the local and national basis, which is what I said I would do and what folks would expect after 35 years of public service.”
But he’s also made it clear he is keeping an eye on the Hennepin County sheriff’s office under the new administration — and keeping his options open to possibly run again in 2022.
ICE becomes an issue
Stanek won his first election to lead the Minneapolis-area sheriff’s office by a wide margin in 2006, ran unopposed in 2010 and easily won a third term in 2014. Going into another re-election campaign in 2018, he had strong name recognition and ample resources. At the same time, the two candidates who had filed paperwork to challenge him didn’t seem like serious challenges. One was former police chief Joseph Banks; the other was Hutchinson, who had never worked in the sheriff’s department — at any level.
In the weeks that followed, after Hennepin County voters narrowed the field to Hutchinson and Stanek, attention on the political newcomer ramped up. As the county’s first openly gay candidate for sheriff and a vocal critic of President Trump, Hutchinson’s campaign gathered support among those who saw the 2018 election as an opportunity to promote leaders who promised to shake up the status quo, even in down-ballot races. That’s when Hutchinson narrowed in on his charge that Stanek had been going too far in helping U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials target people coming in and out of the county jail, even while Stanek maintained he was simply following the law on jail bookings.
Though the race is technically nonpartisan, the GOP gave Stanek a “recommendation” (he had run for sheriff as a Republican in the past), while the DFL endorsed Hutchinson — in a year when many Democratic voters were highly motivated. Even so, Hutchinson’s narrow win came as a surprise to many in Hennepin County.
A national profile
Supporters of Stanek have long praised him for expanding the sheriff department’s focus from strictly law enforcement to also helping some of the county’s most vulnerable residents. They point to his efforts to improve how the jail treats inmates with mental illnesses, as well as allow deputies to carry Narcan to offset opioid overdoses.
Others have applauded Stanek for working across political party lines, embracing 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. Stanek also cultivated a national profile, establishing close ties with law-enforcement officials and politicians outside of Minnesota by helping lead the National Sheriffs Association, as well as serving on advisory boards for the U.S. Attorney General and Department of Homeland Security.
“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,” sheriff’s Lieutenant Chris Mathison said last fall.
Before becoming sheriff, Stanek spent more than 20 years moving through the ranks of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). 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.
Stanek’s time in the public spotlight has not been without controversy. He resigned from the state public safety agency 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.
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, and he faced a backlash over his decision to send Hennepin County deputies to North Dakota during the protests over the Dakota Access pipeline.
The 12 years Stanek spent leading the sheriff’s department laid a foundation for a lot of the work he’s doing now. Working out of an office in Plymouth, he has launched what is called the “Public Safety Strategy Group,” which he serves as president. The firm contracts with public safety officials across Minnesota and the country to help develop training, communication strategies, election fundraising plans and other administrative aspects of law enforcement.
In the recent interview, Stanek said he is still doing work with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, as well as maintaining his position as vice chairman on a board within the U.S. Department of Commerce that is overseeing the creation of a nationwide public-safety broadband network for first responders, called FirstNet. “I, you know, travel both here locally and across the country, going to the very same law-enforcement conferences, meetings,” Stanek said.
As a volunteer, Stanek is continuing his longtime role as vice president of the Minnesota 100 Club, which leads fundraising events to help families of law-enforcement officers and emergency responders who suffer serious or fatal injuries while on the job. The club will host an annual “Shooting Straight with Sheriff Stanek Annual Golf Tournament” in the northwestern suburbs on Thursday.
His latest efforts have also caused some to wonder about his future aspirations. Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director Bill Hutton said he’s heard rumors regarding the former sheriff’s role in the organization, which helps train sheriff’s offices statewide and employs a lobbyist to advocate for it at the Capitol. But Hutton said Stanek no longer serves on the association’s board and doesn’t attend board meetings.
But Hutton also said Stanek has long-running relationships with many members. “He has a lot of knowledge of being a sheriff, so he’s still a good resource,” Hutton said. “There’s lots of speculation about what Sheriff Stanek is, or is not, doing.”
Will he run?
Stanek himself has said he has kept a handle on what’s going on within the sheriff’s department by meeting with former and current employees on a regular basis. Three former leaders of Stanek’s administration remain on Hutchinson’s team, a factor that both Hutchinson and Stanek say helped the transition between them.
Yet Stanek said he believes the current administration is repackaging successes of his era as wins for itself, mentioning the decrease in the number of jail bookings for misdemeanor offenses; the department’s partnership with MPD to increase patrols downtown; and the reduction of violent crime across the county. Stanek also highlighted how his administration hired the majority of staff members who work within the department now.
And when asked if he’s preparing for another campaign for sheriff, he was noncommittal: “I make no promises one way or another. I love public service. I’ve always been a public servant; That’s been my entire adult life. … I have 35 years of law-enforcement experience — I plan on using every bit of it.”
It’s not the first time Stanek has left the door open to politics. In 2016, Stanek suggested in a speech at the Republican Party of Minnesota’s state convention that he was keeping his political options open for a potential run at the governor’s office.
Paul Anderson, who is chair of the Republican Party in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, which encompasses much of Hennepin County, said he thinks Stanek would make for a strong candidate, especially considering his approach to leadership.
“You don’t dial ‘911 Republican’ or ‘911 Democrat,’ so I just thought he was doing a very good job and I was shocked and surprised that he was defeated,” said Anderson. “I think it’s important that he understands what led to that.”
John Derus, president of the Minnesota 100 Club and former Hennepin County commissioner, also thinks Stanek would make for a strong candidate. Derus said he’s known Stanek for decades — first when he served in the state House of Representatives and then when he took on the sheriff’s role. But Derus also knows that a good career in elected office only lasts so long. The current vice chair of the county’s board of commissioners, Mike Opat, defeated Derus for the seat representing the Brooklyn Park area in 1992; Opat has served on the board ever since.
Stanek would be a viable candidate if he wanted to run again, Derus said, since he has an excellent support network. But, he noted, “You stay at any of these jobs too long, you know, you wear out your welcome.”