Running for re-election has never been tougher for Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson.
For the second consecutive election he is challenged by a member of his agency, and Republican challenger Brad Thurman has amassed a wave of support among law enforcement officials and unions in his bid to unseat Nelson, a Democrat who has been in office since 2009.
As the campaign winds into its final two weeks, Nelson says he remains the right man for the job and touts his managerial experience and relationships with state and federal lawmakers. He says he’s been lobbying for years for much of what Thurman’s campaigned for, but he says budget limits have thwarted him.
Thurman, supported by four local police chiefs and several police and emergency guilds, has campaigned on fixing relationships with those organizations. He’s argued that Nelson has failed to communicate with other agencies or implement new ideas, and some agency heads have criticized Nelson’s handling of high-speed chases, the 911 radio system, and vision for the future.
“It is sad that the current working relationships between many of the police departments, emergency services, and Sheriff Nelson are broken,” Castle Rock police chief Scott Neves said in an email.
Nelson’s own Chief Criminal Deputy, Charlie Rosenzweig, endorsed Thurman last week. Nelson asked and received from him a letter of resignation, causing an outburst of complaints on social media, although Rosenzweig will likely stay on as a sergeant.
“If I’m being honest and vulnerable ... it’s been difficult,” Nelson said, referring to the last few months.
Nelson, who is endorsed by several retired county law enforcement figures and a majority of Washington state sheriffs, said that much of the criticism hadn’t cropped up until the last few months as election season got underway. But he said he’s meeting with the chiefs and other officials to ask them what they need for their agencies to move forward.
As far as his 2014 letter to the 911 council, in which he threatened legal action if the board tried to patch a new digital system through, Nelson acknowledged a miscommunication and said he didn’t intend to sue anyone.
“I would have used a few different words in the letter,” Nelson said, “because I don’t think I expressed my intent properly. When you go back and try to explain those kinds of things, it never comes out quite right.”
Thurman said he’d stay humble if elected. As the new boss on the block, he’d focus on listening to other agencies’ suggestions.
“It’s a matter of action versus talking about things,” Thurman said. “Getting involved, cooperating, and collaborating with your fellow chiefs and agencies.”
A tight budget
While they disagree over where personnel’s time is being spent, both agree the sheriff’s office need more hands on deck.
Nelson has pleaded with the three county commissioners for more positions since he was appointed sheriff in 2009, the same year the county lost five deputies and moved another eight from patrol work to court security.
“The fact is, they control the purse strings, and they decide what is more important,” Nelson said.
Thurman, who has received endorsements from commissioners Dennis Weber and Arne Mortensen, said it might be time for “a new message and a new messenger.” And he’s concerned that the department only received a new clerk, court security deputy, and administrative sergeant in the last three years. He wants more deputies on the road, and he wants them hired more quickly.
“None of those three positions really helped serving the public in terms of criminal enforcement or investigations,” Thurman said.
Commissioner Joe Gardner said Monday that he’d like to assign more resources to the sheriff’s office, regardless of who’s in charge. “Unfortunately,” he said, “there hasn’t been a whole lot to divide up.”
And commissioner Weber said he couldn’t approve more deputies in the last budget cycle because the sheriff’s office didn’t provide documentation in its request or complete its part of the 2014-2016 strategic planning process. Nelson said he made his needs and justifications clear in the budget process, and was never informed that the strategic plan was the reason his request was denied.
“We do have a strategic plan from when I first took office,” Nelson said. “When we tried to submit it, it did not meet the format criteria, and frankly, my staff and I determined that we simply didn’t have sufficient people to work on the update. ... Other offices and departments experienced the same issues, so it’s not like my office was the only one.”
A poetic request
Thurman said the sheriff ought to lead with “professional information” and statistics on the department’s needs, contrasting himself with Nelson, who presented personnel requests, in part, as a poem to the board one year.
Nelson said he’s not embarrassed about that poem at all.
“I’d stand on my head,” he said. “I’d dance a jig in a kilt if I thought it would actually get me what we need. I’ll do whatever it takes to get these guys’ attention. ... This isn’t a matter of how the message gets said. These guys understand completely what we need and why we need it.”
And he doubts Thurman has the managerial experience to know where deputies and resources are best assigned. For one, Nelson requested two clerks and six deputies during last year’s budget cycle, he said. The commissioners approved only one clerk’s position, so that’s all he had to work with.
Hiring takes time, Nelson said, and he said he’s willing to be patient if it means getting the best person for the department. And Nelson lost a staff member working on policy in 2013, so the new administrative sergeant is only replacing that position.
“I understand my opponent’s confusion, or not understanding some of this stuff, because he hasn’t been there,” Nelson said. “He hasn’t had any experience with any of this process. Honestly, when you’re looking at it from a line level’s position, from a supervisor’s position, I get it. I understand that’s what you’re going to see. ... But there’s a little bit different perspective, even as a manager, first, and then as a supervisor.”