Immigration enforcement by local authorities has come to dominate many county sheriff races across the United States. Yet it's had a relatively low profile so far in Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek's bid for a fourth term in office.
Stanek is running for re-election against Dave "Hutch" Hutchinson, a sergeant with Metro Transit, and Joseph Banks, a former police chief who is now a bail bondsman. Hutchinson has made an issue of Stanek's immigration policy on asking jail inmates their birthplace. Stanek brushed aside the criticism, explaining that his office is legally required to pose the question.
"My job is to enforce the law, not make the law," he said. "No person in our jail is there for a civil immigration violation, only if they have broken a criminal law."
In Mecklenburg and Durham counties in North Carolina, the incumbent sheriffs lost their primary elections this year over immigration issues. Both had been lambasted for cooperating with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and honoring ICE inmate detainers, something Stanek said in 2014 he would not do. The American Civil Liberties Union launched a six-figure nationwide advertising campaign on immigrant rights that also attacked one of the incumbent sheriffs in North Carolina.
Yet no such campaign against Stanek has aired so far. The former state legislator and captain with the Minneapolis Police Department beat five other candidates when he was first elected in 2006. In his last re-election, he easily defeated deputy Minneapolis police chief Eddie Frizell.
The race for sheriff will be narrowed to two candidates after the Aug. 14 primary. Although no political party affiliations are listed on the ballot, Hutchinson is endorsed by the DFL and Stanek received the GOP recommendation.
A 12-year officer with Metro Transit, Hutchinson, 39, is now in charge of a North Side Minneapolis community engagement team and works with the crisis intervention team. If elected, he said he would become the first openly gay sheriff in the Midwest.
Banks, a bail bondsman, had been chief of the Upper Sioux and Morton police departments in Minnesota and acting police chief for the Lower Sioux Department. According to his election website, his priorities include more transparency in use-of-force cases, better coordination with other law enforcement agencies and finding better ways to serve undocumented immigrants. He didn't return several requests for an interview.
Erika Zurawski, an organizer with Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee, is disappointed that immigration isn't a higher priority in the sheriff's election.
She said Stanek has never shown any support for immigrants and "willingly and aggressively" cooperates with ICE. Stanek has met with the group several times and has battled with ICE officials over policy.
"He can say whatever he wants, but people are telling us their own stories," Zurawski said. "We are 100 percent against his re-election."
Although Stanek received a legal opinion from Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman on the state requirement to ask inmates their country of birth, Hutchinson said his understanding is that the law can be interpreted differently.
If the sheriff's office isn't cooperating with ICE, why do its agents seem to "magically appear" after court hearings, he asked.
Stanek said his office doesn't forward birthplace information directly to ICE. The office sends all fingerprints to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which forwards them to the FBI. That agency shares them with other federal law enforcement agencies, including ICE.
Beyond the immigration issue, Hutchinson said he would stop the practice of using licensed peace officers in the jail. He plans to focus on human trafficking, reducing violent crime and improving office morale to slow down employee turnover.
Hutchinson knows he's never run a large law enforcement agency with a budget over $100 million but said he would surround himself with smart people. His open leadership style is one of his strengths, he said.
Some of his supporters say they have nothing against Stanek, but it's time to get some new blood in the office.
Bishop Richard Howell of Shiloh Temple International Ministries in north Minneapolis, a longtime confidant of Stanek, said the sheriff has "a heart for immigrants." Stanek is trying to enforce the law while advocating for immigrants, he said.
"You have to admit, it's an agonizing role," Howell said.
The Sheriff's Office has to work with federal agencies, and if ICE asks about a specific inmate, they tell if they are in jail, Stanek said. He checked with the six other metro sheriff offices, and each one asks for place of birth.
On a typical day, immigration is one of dozens of potential issues or events on which Stanek spends his time. Stanek said he's is concerned about the slight rise in violent crime last year, but such crime has dropped 25 percent since he took office in 2007. At the same time, he boasts about the effect of the office's community engagement team and the 50,000 hours served by volunteer deputies.
Stanek talks about the new 911 communication center that handles 700,000 calls year, and that nearly 17 percent of his staff members are diversity hires of color.
He has held national positions with Homeland Security and will serve as president of the National Sheriff's Association next year. He said he uses his state and federal connections to bring more resources to Hennepin County.
Stanek declined to take too many shots at Hutchinson, other than to say he doesn't have an understanding of what the job entails. He also said one of the Sheriff's Office unions quickly decided not to endorse Hutchinson after a question-and-answer session.
"I could retire, but I'm still having fun and I'm not done representing the county's interests," he said.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465