The race for Erie County sheriff

“There’s something happening here, but what it is ain’t exactly clear…”  Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth

Local politics in Western New York has long operated in an atmosphere with traditional contests – one Democrat, one Republican.  Every now and then a serious minor party candidate gets involved.  Independent candidates have been even rarer.  And that’s the way that party leadership likes it.

So how do you figure the sudden interest in the race for Erie County sheriff?

The office of sheriff is a constitutional office in New York State.  Outside of New York City all sheriffs are elected.  Their duties are determined by both state law and the practices and procedures in the various counties.

In Erie County the sheriff has responsibility for managing the county’s holding center in Buffalo for people who have been arrested and a correctional facility in Alden for those convicted of crimes.  Changes in state bail law requirements have recently reduced the numbers of men and women held in those facilities.  Plans are in the works for possibly consolidating the two facilities into more or less one location.

The sheriff also manages security arrangements for state and county courts and enforces all civil processes required by the courts.

Finally, the sheriff operates a division of police services which provides traditional police services mostly in the county’s rural towns, but also in more developed locations including Clarence, Elma and Grand Island.  The towns that are serviced by sheriff patrols have the nice advantage of having the entire county pay for their police services.  Taxpayers in the cities of Lackawanna, Buffalo, and Tonawanda as well as many of the towns in the county pay for their own police services while also contributing to the cost of road patrols in towns without police departments.

Timothy Howard has been Erie County Sheriff since 2005, winning election four times.  He is not running for re-election this year, choosing instead to run for supervisor of the Town of Wales.

Howard’s years as sheriff have been marred by many controversies.  Thirty inmates in his custody have died over the past fifteen years.  Some of Howard’s road patrol deputies have been involved in altercations with the public that have led to charges being filed against the deputies.

Howard has been a major opponent of the New York SAFE Act, a law designed to provide some restrictions on the ownership and use of guns.  He has been vocal in saying he would not enforce the law, even though the oath of office that he took requires him to follow the laws of the New York State and the United States.

The election to succeed Howard has rapidly been transformed into one of the strangest and most confusing contests in a long time.  While news reports might make it seem that there is a cast of thousands, there actually have been about ten potential candidates exploring a run.

What is unusual about that large a group is that even after the Democratic and Republican Parties settled on their endorsements, some of the other candidates are not quietly leaving the stage.  Things might change, but it possible that the 2021 race for sheriff in Erie County could have three, four, five, or even six candidates on the ballot in November.

The reasons for the candidacies of those running for sheriff most commonly revolve around continuing the candidates’ careers in law enforcement, but this year some candidates are focusing on such things as opposition to gun laws or to promote social justice.  The position of sheriff will pay $89,343 in 2022, but for a candidate who is retired from previous police work there is the opportunity to collect both that salary as well as their state pension.  Howard has been collecting his state pension of $53,282 per year while working as sheriff.

Usually in Erie County the minor parties, which at this time only include the Working Families and the Conservative Parties, will hold off in endorsing until the Dems and Reps make their candidate selections.  Not so this year for the Conservatives, who were the first out of the gate with their selection of Karen Healey-Case.

The move seems to have been orchestrated by the Republicans, figuring that if the Conservatives chose first then the other major Republican contender for sheriff, John Garcia, would drop out since the Conservative line is often critical to the success of countywide Republican candidates.  But it turns out that Garcia didn’t play along, perhaps sensing that if the election will include multiple candidates then the Conservative Party line would not be as important as it might otherwise be.

Garcia has so far raised substantially more money than Healey-Case.  What’s more, Garcia has reportedly gathered the support of Howard, former sheriff and current state senator Pat Gallivan, former state Attorney General Dennis Vacco, the Buffalo PBA and a gun rights organization.  Healey-Case’s support is rooted more in Republican headquarters folks.  A third potential candidate in the Republican primary is a guns rights advocate, Steve Felano, who has pledged to only enforce the laws he agrees with.

If Healey-Case loses the Republican primary she will remain on the Conservative line in November.  In other such situations the Conservatives have been able to nominate their candidate for an unwinnable judicial race in New York City and then substitute the candidate who won the Republican primary as their choice, but Healey-Case is not a lawyer so the usual switcharoo won’t work here.

Democrats may have a somewhat simpler situation.  Cheektowaga Deputy Police Chief Brian Gould has apparently dodged a major primary challenge when Canisius College Public Safety Director Kim Beaty declined to run in a primary.  The Working Families Party nomination however, which Democrats often carry, remains unsettled for a few more days, as community activist Myles Carter considers running for sheriff in the Democratic primary while also being in contention for the Working Families’ nod.

And then there is Ted DiNoto, an Amherst police detective lieutenant, and Rick Lauricella, a former police officer and current Chief of Police in Akron.  Both are exploring independent candidacies for sheriff.  The last date this year for filing candidate petitions for a party nomination is March 25, but petitioning for an independent candidate for public office doesn’t start until April, with filings due at the Board of Elections in May.  Due to the effect of the pandemic the number of valid signatures required for party nominating petitions has been reduced for 2021, but for independent candidate petitions the number required remains at 1,500 for a county office.

Until at least until 32 days before the primary election we will not see any state Board of Elections filings indicating what any of the current in contention sheriff candidates have raised.  Measuring their support, at least in terms of money raised, will be difficult.  Actually even when the financial reports are filed they will be hard to analyze because the state Board of Elections recently revised its reporting format in a way that makes it more difficult to locate and review the data.

Things change. Perhaps Healey-Case will decide that she cannot raise enough money to compete in a Republican primary and will decline the Republican and Conservative endorsements, allowing both parties to coalesce behind Garcia.  Maybe the same reality will hit the candidates who want to run independent campaigns as they assess their money raising ability and the difficulty of the petitioning process.  And maybe this will all turn out to be a winter fantasy as the Democrats and Republicans just settle into a traditional head-to-head race.  But for a while there is some excitement about a race that needs serious attention.

The role of the sheriff and the management of the office under that person’s control needs a lot of attention and a serious overhaul.  Hopefully the race for sheriff will create the climate for those necessary and serious discussions.

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