Cecil County Sheriff 2014: Political Campaign Season Begins; Trolling for Candidates, Sutton Fatigue?
A CECIL TIMES SPECIAL REPORT
The 2014 campaign for Cecil County Sheriff, always a hot political contest, is beginning already, with familiar names, switched party affiliations and some potential wildcards. The most prominent candidate so far—Chris Sutton, running in his third bid for Sheriff—faces some significant political challenges in trying to seal the deal with Cecil County voters this time around.
The political jockeying to replace incumbent Sheriff Barry Janney, a Republican who said right after winning the 2010 election that this would be his last term in the job, is already beginning and for Sutton, who lost to Janney in the 2010 and 2006 elections, the campaign never really ended.
But this time, Sutton has switched from the Democratic party to the Republican side. (Way back when, he was a Republican before turning to the Democrats when he ran against Janney the first time.) Sutton is certainly not alone in switching political affiliations, and county voter registration narrowly shifted to a Republican majority for the first time in 2012. (All county posts decided in partisan elections are currently filled by Republicans, except for the Register of Wills.)
Sutton, a Corporal with the county Sheriff’s Department, faces potential backlash from some former supporters after his party switch as well as voter fatigue with his third try for the Sheriff’s job. And he faces the added difficulty of convincing GOP primary voters—who resoundingly supported Janney in the past—that they should shift allegiance now to a man they wanted to defeat four and eight years ago.
“A lot of Democrats feel betrayed by Sutton,” said a Democratic party official who asked not to be identified. “A lot of people worked hard for him and now he has walked away.”
Despite county Democrats losing two high profile candidates from the past, the potential for an intra-party slugfest in the GOP primary might give Democrats a shot at a strong or even winning showing in a general election—if, and only if—they can recruit a top tier Sheriff’s candidate of their own.
At this early stage of the campaign season, there are some quiet moves afoot by leading members of both parties to troll the political waters for other potential candidates to consider getting into the 2014 race. (And there are some forces hoping to try to get Janney to re-consider and make another run.) One of the new names being discussed in political circles is Chip Peterson, the Rising Sun police chief and a 23-year veteran of the State Police, but he has not yet formally considered a run.
[UPDATE: Janney told members of the Cecil Leadership class on Wednesday 3/13/13 that he was not running again for Sheriff, sources said. Janney has done no fundraising since the last election and his campaign fund is down to just $1,495, state records show. He also paid fees at the landfill to dump his campaign signs into the trash.]
[On Friday, Janney told Cecil Times, "My intent is not to run if there is a qualified candidate running" in 2014. But, he added, if there are no declared candidates he considers qualified for the office, "there would be no other option but to run to keep this agency running. We've worked too hard to build up this department."]
In the 2010 general election, Janney carried 52 percent of the vote to Sutton’s 47 percent, winning by more than 1,500 votes. That contest was much closer than their earlier 2006 match-up, when Janney won by more than 6,000 votes over Sutton. But in the last election, Sutton proved his strengths as a political fundraiser, out-spending Janney in a spirited contest.
In the GOP primary last time around, Janney beat challenger and first-time candidate Dan Slater by a solid 53-32 percent tally. (A third candidate pulled in 15 percent.) But with Janney seemingly out of the 2014 picture, Slater is already running. Slater has kept his campaign finance account open and continued to fundraise in the past year, with state election board records showing Slater had $4,865 in his political warchest as of 1/9/13.
Slater, a Deputy with the Cecil County Sheriff’s Department, ran a low key, community-based campaign the last time around and is expecting to do so again.
“I do my own thing; I have a different game plan,” Slater told Cecil Times. He said he is not a traditional politician and is not interested in attending a different political meeting every night– unlike Sutton, who Slater said is focused on “going to the big show.” He said he “learned a lot” by watching Janney’s political style and said he would prefer to “peak later” in the campaign. Slater said he has “always been a Republican” and that Sutton would have to “start over” with Republican voters after his party switch.
For Slater’s campaign platform, “My whole thing is drugs, drugs, drugs,” and drug law enforcement in the county would be his top priority. Slater said he would be an in-the-streets Sheriff if elected. “People need to see their sheriff in their community,” he said, not trapped “behind a desk and pushing papers.”
Sutton told Cecil Times that he did not think his party shift would be a problem in 2014. “The sheriff’s race shouldn’t be about the letter beside your name,” Sutton said, adding that his general election campaigns always had strong bipartisan support. “When I speak at Republican events now, people are excited” about his candidacy, Sutton said.
Sutton sees his past runs for Sheriff as giving him an invaluable advantage: he doesn’t have to spend a lot of campaign money to get his name known to the public. “Name recognition is a big thing” in local politics, he said. Not to mention that he has lots of campaign signs left over that can be recycled—as long as they don’t mention his old party affiliation.
“Everyone else is chasing me,” Sutton said of a potentially crowded field of candidates, but “the third time is going to be the charm” for him.
State election board records show that Sutton’s campaign account had $11,046 on hand as of 1/9/13. He has continued fundraising in the past year and said he expected to raise as much as $70,000 for the 2014 campaign.
Sutton has always made drug law enforcement a key part of his campaign platform and advocates more efficient use of existing staff and re-deployment of deputies from administrative to street duties to step up the war on drugs without imposing costly burdens on taxpayers. And he cites his supervisory experience and rank as preparing him for the Sheriff post.
Sutton drew both support and skepticism from a recent foray into state politics when he played a prominent role in a rally against legislation endorsed by Governor Martin O’Malley to tighten gun laws in the aftermath of the Connecticut school shooting. The rally was held outside the Rising Sun office of state Del. David Rudolph, the only Democrat in the county’s legislative delegation.
But Rudolph had told supporters previously of his concerns with the legislation and a letter declaring his opposition to the bill was circulated the same day as the rally, prompting some Democrats to complain that Sutton was grandstanding against the most prominent local member of his former party.
“It wasn’t directed at Dave himself,” Sutton said of the rally, but to focus attention on the issue of protecting Second Amendment rights. “I got the most positive feedback I’ve gotten” so far in his campaign, Sutton said, and there was “a line of people there waiting to shake my hand.”
Meanwhile, some political and law enforcement sources are suggesting a new name to add to the mix of the 2014 Sheriff’s race: Peterson, the Rising Sun police chief for the past five years. He spent 23 years with the State Police, mostly serving out of the North East barrack, as an investigator handling everything from homicides to drug and theft cases.
In an interview with Cecil Times, Peterson said he had been approached by people urging him to run for Sheriff but “I haven’t fully considered it yet.” Peterson is known in Rising Sun for holding quarterly town meetings so citizens can bring concerns directly to the chief and also hear his strategies for dealing with community problems.
Peterson, 47, said he is “absolutely” an advocate of community policing policies, adding that “the community is the best law enforcement tool the police have.” An alert community, kept informed about issues or problems in the area, are the “eyes and ears” for law enforcement to help fight crime, he said.
While he clearly enjoys his job as police chief in Rising Sun, where Peterson says he feels “there is still a lot of work left to be done,” he has not ruled out a run for Sheriff and said he would have to “get my family’s input before taking such a major step.” Peterson said he is a Republican.
On the Democratic side, in the 2010 primary, Sutton beat two rivals to win the party’s nomination with 56 percent of the vote over Skip DeWitt, who tallied 33 percent, and a third candidate—William Gerczak— who received 10 percent.
DeWitt threw his support to Janney in the general election, and in 2011 switched his party affiliation to Republican with the stated intention of running for Sheriff in 2014 on the GOP line. Sutton criticized DeWitt’s party shift at the time. [SEE Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/01/dewitt-to-run-for-sheriff-as-republican-sutton-undecided/ ] But DeWitt has been invisible on the political front since then and is widely considered out of the fray this time around for personal reasons.
Meanwhile, Gerczak has been quietly making the rounds of Democratic events in recent months, sources said, and is looking at a possible run for Sheriff again.
Gerczak raised a total of $4,210 in his bid for the Democratic nomination in 2010 and after losing the primary, he transferred the remaining $222 in his campaign account to the campaign fund of Republican Diana Broomell, according to state campaign finance records. Broomell was elected County Commissioner in 2010 and currently serves on the County Council from Distinct 4.
That little-known campaign finance fact might not score Gerczak political points among Democrats and other county voters who have been critical of Broomell’s actions on the former county Board of Commissioners, where she was the linchpin of the “Three Amigos” majority voting bloc for the past two years.
State election records list Gerczak’s campaign committee account as closed, so he would have to register a new one before beginning fundraising for a possible re-run in 2014. Gerczak,49, served as a Baltimore City police officer for 26 years, before retiring with the rank of Detective Sergeant. He worked as a homicide investigator and supervised domestic violence units and a violent crime impact squad.