He’s the sheriff
Only a few weeks till early voting. Here's how the race for Washoe County Sheriff is shaping up.
If recent history is any indication, the margin of victory in the Washoe County Sheriff’s race will be lopsided. Winners have trampled over their opponents by an average of 40 percentage points on Election Day.
But after a 20-point primary victory for former Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Chuck Allen over establishment-backed Tim Kuzanek, the stage is set for what could be one of the most competitive sheriff’s races in recent memory.
Add in a renewed interest in police conduct and ethics after the recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the normally staid sheriff’s race has taken on a much more noticeable role than past years.
“Allen’s victory, and the margin of that victory, really surprised the status quo set of candidates,” University of Nevada, Reno political science professor Erik Herzik said.
Much of the attention comes from Allen’s unusual candidacy—the former Highway Patrol spokesman and Nevada Air National Guard veteran successfully challenged a history of establishment candidates steamrolling their way to victory with his primary night victory in July. (Sheriff Michael Haley, for example, won 80 percent of the vote in 2006 and ran unopposed four years later.)
Allen touts his experience with community-oriented groups like the Special Olympics and the Nevada Humane Society as evidence of how his administration would be run. He said the sheriff’s office needs to be filled by someone interested in being a community leader, not just a bureaucrat.
“The only way I can make a difference is to hear concerns from the public,” he said. “And I’m not going to do that by sitting at 911 Parr Boulevard [the sheriff’s office and regional jail] every day.”
His plans include forming a “green-ribbon” commission with deputies, community leaders and other interested parties to talk about important local issues, as well as assigning individual deputies to local advisory boards to better foster community relations. He’s also considering an annual “State of the County” address to improve the department’s visibility and transparency.
Allen’s plan to alleviate lost positions after numerous budget cuts is to recruit around 60 community members and former deputies to volunteer and reduce workload.
But Allen is without a doubt the race’s outsider, especially when compared to Kuzanek. A 21-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, Kuzanek has worked his way up from patrolman to undersheriff, and wields a much wider array of endorsements, including state lawmakers of both parties, local advocacy groups, Reno Mayor Bob Cashell and Sheriff Haley.
It’s understandable that Kuzanek has played up his establishment credentials throughout the race, often referring to his institutional knowledge and established relationships with key local political players. He’s noted his involvement in managing the department’s $83 million dollar budget, and his past as the department’s liaison to the state legislature.
Kuzanek’s campaign has made him seem like the “boring, safe choice,” according to Herzik.
By no means has Kuzanek shied away from his résumé, which includes helping the founding of a Reno counter-terrorism fusion center and overseeing the development and execution of the department’s current crime mapping and tracking system.
Unlike the dramatic changes promised by Allen, Kuzanek argues that by electing him, voters will have a steady hand in place to continue the work of the sheriff’s department.
“If there’s any desire to change for the sake of change, I don’t see that as being a benefit to the citizens of Washoe County,” he said. “I bring stability, and I bring the experience that provides the opportunity to be decisive in my role.”
In terms of issues facing the sheriff’s office, Allen and Kuzanek are similar—both have similar views toward the sheriff’s office accepting surplus military equipment through the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, both share similar cautious views about medical marijuana, and both repeated rhetoric about the importance of community-oriented policing.
Kuzanek and Allen additionally favor implementing a body-camera program for the sheriff’s office that would record police conduct and behavior. Though both signaled caution about the legal and budgetary issues that need to be worked out before such a program is implemented, both agreed body cameras are necessary for the future.
The difference is in how each sees the role of sheriff. Allen sees it as a more prominent and public role, while Kuzanek sees it as a more bureaucratic and administrative-heavy job balanced with community outreach.
“You have to know what the rules are,” Kuzanek said. “You have to lead the men and women of the agency in the appropriate direction, and you have to work with sister agencies in the region as well.”
Allen said that he’s heard from a number of people—not only in the sheriff’s office but also in the community—who are ready for change.
“There’s some value in bringing somebody with new perspectives and new ideas and a new way of doing business,” he said. “And that’s what I bring to the race.”
During a recent debate hosted by the Reno Gazette-Journal and KNPB Channel 5, the two traded barbs over what they perceived to be their opponent’s weakness: Allen with a lack of budgetary experience, and Kuzanek lacking community involvement.
Allen said he’s had plenty of experience in handling the $4.1 million budget as the vice-president of the Nevada Humane Society’s executive board, and that he would want to delegate primary budget duties to another deputy in his administration.
Kuzanek points toward his involvement in the “Guns and Hoses” charitable golf game between police and firefighters that has raised several thousand dollars for the Northern Nevada Children’s Cancer Foundation.
A victory for Allen would buck historical trends, as the majority of elected sheriffs have served as the undersheriff, like Kuzanek, before being elected. Only two—Richard Kirkland and Robert Galli—since 1952 have been elected without previously working in the sheriff’s office, and both served as local chiefs of police before being elected.
Herzik said after Kirkland’s election to sheriff in 1995, suspicion and trust issues came from deputies wary of working with the “outsider” Kirkland. Allen said he’s already selected an undersheriff, John Spencer, who retired from the department in 2013, to help manage internal affairs and play the role of “CEO” for the department.
National protests over alleged police misconduct and brutality could help Allen, who is viewed as a change from the status quo, but Herzik questioned if general attitude changes would be enough to drive Nevada voters to the polls in a presumed low-turnout, midterm election year.
Despite Allen’s name recognition and larger margin of victory in the primary, Herzik said the longer march to the general election gives Kuzanek a chance to make up the 18-point gap. Voter recognition only goes so far, even in down-ballot races, he said.