In Frederick County, one of the Washington region’s fastest-growing areas, a bitter race for sheriff is exposing an increasing political and cultural divide, pitting the county’s newcomer foodie crowd against its old-time buck hunters.
The incumbent sheriff is Republican Chuck Jenkins, a conservative, tough-talking, immigrant-chasing law enforcer who grew up in the county, never went to college and is a popular fixture at town carnivals. Jenkins, who oversees a department of 300 with a budget of $42.1 million, calls himself the “people’s sheriff.”
His challenger — the face of the county’s rapid urbanization, which includes a hopping restaurant and art gallery scene — is Democrat Karl Bickel, a former Justice Department official who brags about his education, his federal connections and his desire to soften the county’s image.
Last year’s high-profile death of a 26-year-old with Down syndrome that involved three off-duty sheriff’s deputies has given Bickel’s campaign some urgency and momentum. So has growth that has pushed the county’s population to nearly 240,000.
In an interview, Jenkins said his opponent “plays into the new culture, from the big city, big government thinking-type people, where I’m the blue-collar guy, the farm community guy, hometown born and raised. [Bickel] hangs his hat on education. I hang my hat on experience and hard work and my relationship to the people of this county.”
But the county, about 60 miles north of Washington, is in the third or fourth inning of a vast economic and cultural shift. Frederick was once overwhelmingly Republican, but the gap has been narrowed by Democrats moving in from Montgomery County and elsewhere, attracted by lower housing costs and a vibrant downtown. Once overwhelmingly white, the county is increasingly a destination for immigrants, with booming Asian and Hispanic populations.
After running unopposed four years ago, Jenkins, 58, is feeling the demographic pressure. “I hope there’s enough old Frederick that will stay in there,” he said.
The old Frederick vs. new Frederick was the topic du jour earlier this week at the Frederick Coffee Co. and Cafe, a homey coffee shop with live music and art for sale on the walls. Bickel, 64, attends a regular coffee club gathering there with Frederick long-timers and new arrivals.
One of the relative newcomers, a retired Baltimore doctor who moved to the county eight years ago in part for it charming downtown, walked in and immediately brought up to Bickel an article on the sheriff’s race from that morning’s Frederick News-Post.
“I want to congratulate you,” Joe Berman said, “for being part of an article that has the stupidest quote I have ever seen about a campaign.”
In the article, the sheriff shows off a picture of a seven-point buck he recently bagged with his son. The quote from Jenkins: “You see that? Tell me [Bickel] could do that. There’s no way he could do that,” adding, “He would still be sitting behind a desk writing a grant proposal to requisition the funds for the bullet.”
There was much laughter.
“Is that an old boy or is that not an old boy?” Berman said.
The quote, while ostensibly about a deer, gets to a major philosophical divide between the candidates.
Bickel, who once worked as a high-ranking official in the Frederick sheriff’s department, spent most of his career in the U.S. Justice Department, most recently as a senior policy analyst. He thinks Frederick should be relying more on federal resources, particularly for funds to increase the number of deputies and deal with Frederick’s raging heroin epidemic.
But Jenkins deplores federal funding, even though he has embraced the federal government’s controversial 287(g) immigration program, which deputizes local police to identify illegal immigrants involved in crime.
“Listen, folks,” he said at a recent debate, “why should a dairy farmer in Iowa pay for a sheriff’s deputy in Frederick County? It doesn’t quite make sense to me. These federal grants have become the heroin of big government bureaucrats. They’re crippling the country.”
Bickel countered in an interview that it is Frederick farmers whose federal tax dollars are wasted by flowing out of the county but not back in. He called his opponent’s stance on the issue “shameful,” especially in light of a 23 percent crime increase in the county. Jenkins had a curious retort for a sitting sheriff: Crime is definitely up, but only by 14 percent.
The notion of shame has gotten a lot of exercise in the campaign. Jenkins has used it to describe Bickel’s efforts to bring up the 2013 death of Robert Ethan Saylor, the man with Down syndrome who collapsed while being removed from a movie theater by off-duty deputies working security. Saylor’s mother, Patti, has endorsed Bickel. The Justice Department’s civil rights section is investigating the incident, and a federal judge ruled earlier this month that a lawsuit against the deputies could go forward.
“I think it’s sad he’s playing on the misfortunes of the Saylor family,” said Jenkins, who was quick to defend himself against charges that the incident reflected poorly on his leadership. “I don’t care who was sheriff, who would have been sheriff — it would not have changed the outcome.”
The question for Jenkins in the closing weeks of the campaign is how much the Saylor incident, which received national attention, coupled with the demographic changes will affect his seemingly unchecked electoral popularity during the past eight years. The raw numbers, which show registered Republicans outnumbering Democrats by about 6,000, are still on his side.
“The bottom line is that the Republicans still have a natural advantage,” said Kai Hagen, a former Democrat on the county board of commissioners who now directs Envision Frederick County, a nonprofit government accountability group. “To beat somebody with eight years of name recognition, with more money to spend, with lots of media attention, who is a Republican — it would have to be an outright rejection.”
But there are some signs of Jenkins fatigue in his typical strongholds. In Thurmont, just off U.S. Route 15 in the more rural northern part of the county, there is quiet frustration over the sheriff’s handling of the Saylor case and fear that he has grown too powerful, according to Jay Angell, the owner of a secondhand store on Main Street.
“People come in here and tell me their opinions whether I want to hear them or not,” said Angell, whose sister once worked for Jenkins as a constable. He said people who voted for Jenkins in the past have told him they might not do so again. And what about Angell, who supported Jenkins twice?
“I haven’t decided yet,” he said. “I’m just not sure about the other guy.”
In an increasingly hostile campaign, a lawyer connected to the Bickel campaign distributed Jenkins e-mails this week collected under a Freedom of Information Act request. The e-mails, the lawyer contends, violate laws against using public resources for political gain — a charge Jenkins strongly denies.
But some of the e-mails to supporters show a once-invincible sheriff concerned about his political future.
“Looks like I am going to have my hands full with my bid for re-election,” one e-mail read, “what is the pulse on the ground in your circles?”
Another warned, “This is going to be a tough and brutal election.”