Badge Happy

Four years ago, the race for Jefferson County sheriff attracted about as much attention as a quilting bee in Punkin Center. The campaign, which pitted a powerful Republican county commissioner against a little-known Arvada police commander running as an independent, produced few fireworks and had a predictable outcome.

This time around, the candidates' forums are packed to the rafters -- with candidates, if not potential voters.

By last week, the number of officially declared applicants vying for the sheriff's badge in the November election had swelled to ten. And there may be more to come: The incumbent, John P. Stone, has yet to announce whether he will seek a second term.

One reason for the surging interest in the job is Stone's perceived vulnerability in the wake of the 1999 shootings by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School, in which fifteen people died and two dozen more were injured. Although Stone handily survived a recall effort two years ago, his office has been the target of relentless criticism and lawsuits from victims' families over its handling of the investigation, which has been marred by police misstatements, missing evidence and embarrassing leaks of sensitive photos, videotapes and files ("There Ought to Be a Law," March 7).

The nine Republicans and one Democrat currently running for the top law-enforcement job in the GOP-heavy county include a gun-shop owner, an ex-legislator, several former Jeffco deputies, a former New York welfare-fraud investigator, a former Routt County sheriff, a lieutenant in the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office and an investigator for the Jeffco District Attorney's Office. So far, the candidates haven't hammered much on the Columbine debacle specifically, preferring to speak in general terms about the need for a sheriff who will inspire "trust" and "confidence" among voters.

"I'm not running against John; I'm running for the office," says Russ Cook, Golden's police chief, who was among the first to declare his candidacy. "Eventually, there will have to be some resolution to the Columbine issue, but there are many other issues."

Yet Columbine could become a more visible campaign topic with the arrival of the latest candidate, Littleton businessman Steve Schweitzberger. A maverick contender in the 1983 and 1991 Denver mayoral elections, Schweitzberger is also a Columbine parent who's been a steady presence at public forums regarding the shootings, stumping for various governmental reforms. But even Schweitzberger, who has no law-enforcement background, says he isn't running simply because of the tragedy.

"To me, it's not so much about Sheriff Stone and Columbine as that the aftermath of Columbine brought a lot of problems to our attention," he says. "I think Stone is ineffective at this point. He can't do his job because of Columbine."

A Vietnam veteran, Schweitzberger says he decided to run because he felt as if he were "dodging the draft." When he attended a candidates' forum not long ago, he explains, "I heard a bunch of nothing."

Cook suggests that the forums have drawn only a narrow sampling of the public thus far. "There've been lots of questions about the Constitution," he says. "Lots of interest in firearms issues, like conceal-carry permits. But when it comes to asking about your command experience, dealing with inmates, how to handle traffic and budget and manpower and services to the public, those questions have been nonexistent to date." With the field so crowded, he adds, "I have to figure out how to get my message out."

Schweitzberger's evolving platform includes pushing technology, such as increased use of non-lethal weaponry and cameras in patrol cars. His lack of previous police experience shouldn't be a deciding factor, he insists. "I don't even know how to put on a handcuff," he admits. "But the undersheriff is going to have a lot of responsibility for day-to-day operations."

Stone, a former Lakewood police officer, had been out of law enforcement for twelve years when he ran for sheriff. But his three terms as county commissioner had made him a force to be reckoned with in county politics, even though his predecessor as sheriff, Ron Beckham, endorsed the rival candidate, Arvada commander Ted Mink. After he was elected, Stone had to take peace-officer recertification courses; he had been in office less than four months when Harris and Klebold launched their attack on Columbine.

Republican insiders don't rule out the possibility that Stone may yet make a bid for a second term before the county assembly in May. Recent revelations that Columbine crime-scene photos have been leaked to the media may make his campaign more difficult (see "Colorado Legislators Play It Safe,"). But he also has the advantages of incumbency and name recognition -- including the sobriquet adopted by sniping pundits, Sheriff Stonewall.

Whether Stone re-ups or not, Schweitzberger plans to keep running. And if he's knocked out of the Republican primary, he intends to pursue the office as a write-in candidate. "If they want me," he says, "I'm available."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast