Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher appears to be cruising toward reelection.
There’s still time — less than a month — for candidates to file for the race. But no one of note has filed so far and it doesn’t look like anyone with serious resources or name recognition is going to show up.
It would be an uphill battle; challenging incumbents often is. But Fletcher is also a controversial figure who is finishing up a term in which he regularly grabbed headlines for pointed disagreements with other government officials, and for making waves for his Facebook Live show, “Live on Patrol,” in which he livestreams himself driving around and offering commentary while on duty.
Many of Fletcher’s bouts with other county officials have been over his belief that the sheriff’s department should have more funding. “Especially this year, with the crime wave St. Paul is facing, he’s probably got pretty good support at this point,” said Hamline University political science professor David Schultz. “I think that’s been chasing away” potential candidates.
Fletcher, who was Ramsey County sheriff from 1994 until 2011, took over again after winning the 2018 election by 6 percentage points. In less than a year back as sheriff, he was tussling with other county officials over funding.
Though Fletcher argued that he inherited budget issues from the previous sheriff, Jack Serier, in 2019, Ramsey County Manager Ryan O’Connor forecast that Fletcher’s spending on staff salaries would put the county around $2.5 million over budget. O’Connor put limits on some of Fletcher’s spending during the year, adding regulations around spending for costs like travel and reimbursements for business expenses, and warned Fletcher to lower his general spending. By the end of the year, the county manager’s office said the sheriff’s department was $950,000 over budget.
In the winter of 2020, Fletcher sued the Ramsey County Board, claiming the board cut too much from the sheriff’s budget while attempting to lower spending in the first year of the pandemic. In August 2021, a judge sided with the county.
County commissioners did later vote to send north of $860,000 to the sheriff’s department to help cover costs related to unrest that followed the Jan. 6 insurrection, the trial of Derek Chauvin and the death of Daunte Wright. But that came with criticism from Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, who expressed concerns that Fletcher was using county funds for things outside of the requirements for the money, like a charter school for law enforcement that Fletcher announced he is establishing called the School of Leadership for Public Service.
Representatives for the new school claim there is no connection between the county and the school. Still, county commissioners, including Board Chair Toni Carter, said they lost trust in Fletcher’s spending discretion.
Fletcher has repeatedly taken aim at Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. When Choi announced he would no longer prosecute many of the cases that arise from nonpublic-safety traffic stops, Fletcher joined other law enforcement officials in arguing that Choi’s decision to stop prosecuting the cases was making police work more difficult. That same month, Fletcher called out Choi for assembling a team of three Ramsey County attorneys to decide juvenile cases — a method Fletcher said lacked transparency.
‘The best thing Bob could do’
And then there’s “Live on Patrol.” As Fletcher has said in various episodes of the show, the point of the broadcasts is to show people police work and why it’s necessary. He believes the show is a mode of government transparency, and that transparency builds trust in law enforcement.
Not everyone sees it that way.
After Fletcher livestreamed a high-speed chase through St. Paul and a video that showed Fletcher driving by the body of a person who was struck by a vehicle (Fletcher said he didn’t see the body), a group of St. Paul City Council members drafted a resolution to have the show evaluated for potential legal issues.
Still, Fletcher has no shortage of supporters who eat up each recording. The show receives a steady stream of people thanking Fletcher for the livestream as a source of information, including Fletcher’s thoughts on recent crime issues of note like carjacking and catalytic converter theft. One recent commenter implores Fletcher to provide Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department merchandise.
One avid viewer and longtime supporter of Fletcher is Roger Curtis, who said “Live on Patrol” is “the best thing Bob could do.” “He brought community policing to Ramsey County, and he’s showing everyone how it’s done,” Curtis said on the phone from his home in Hinckley, where he recently moved but still watches “Live on Patrol.” He was born and raised in St. Paul and said he voted for Fletcher many times, partly because he remembers him as a St. Paul police officer who would “go the extra mile to find a solution.”
It’s also key to remember that Ramsey County is not just St. Paul, said Schultz. The city makes up a little more than half of the county’s population, and much of Fletcher’s 12,000-vote winning margin in 2018 came from him running well ahead of Serier in places outside the city, in suburban parts of the county like White Bear Lake, Little Canada, Mounds View, North St. Paul and New Brighton.
“Yea, the Democrats that dominate the county government and the people in St. Paul, who are Democrats, don’t like (Fletcher),” said Schultz. “But he’s very popular outside of St. Paul. The Democrats are very vocal in not liking him. But at the end of the day, his law-and-order approach to crime issues has been popular outside of St. Paul for three decades. Even within St. Paul.”