Facing his first serious electoral challenge in years, longtime Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins (R) cruised to a big victory Tuesday night over Democratic challenger Karl Bickel. With nearly all the ballots counted, Jenkins had rolled up 63 percent of the vote.
The sheriff’s race was one of two pivotal races decided. The other was for Frederick’s first county executive. In that race, Democrat Jan Gardner, a former county commissioner, beat Republican Blaine Young, the president of the county commission, by 6,000 votes.
Jenkins, who had come under attack after the death of a young man with Down syndrome at the hands of three of his deputies, watched the returns with 600 supporters at the fire hall in Lewistown, where he is a volunteer firefighter.
“People in the county know me, they trust me,” the two-term sheriff said in an interview between hugs and kisses of congratulations. “They know my lifelong commitment to this county.”
Bickel could not be reached for comment and had not called Jenkins to concede.
Bickel, who recently retired from the U.S. Justice Department and once served in a senior role in the sheriff’s department, questioned Jenkins’s leadership after a movie theater confrontation by three off-duty sheriff’s deputies led to the death of Robert Ethan Saylor, 26. A grand jury did not indict the deputies, but the case is under investigation by the Justice Department’s civil rights section.
Jenkins said he thought Bickel’s attempts to blame him for Saylor’s death and a heroin-fueled crime spike had “totally backfired.”
The bitterly fought election offered a glimpse into the demographic changes sweeping the county.
Booming growth, fueled by immigrants and urbanites moving into the county for its lower housing costs and charming downtown, has closed a once sizable gap between registered Republican and Democratic voters to around 6,000.
Jenkins, who ran unopposed four years ago and calls himself the people’s sheriff, was counting on what he called old Frederick to reelect him again. His conservative rhetoric and tough policies, particularly against illegal immigrants, have been embraced by county voters in the past. Bickel was counting on newer, liberal residents and old-timers who had grown weary of Jenkins.
But in Thurmont, a rural area in the northern part of the county, voters said they backed the incumbent’s leadership and didn’t hold him responsible for Saylor’s death.
“He’s a down-to-earth guy, and he’s got a tough job,” said Patrick Beckett, a 46-year-old independent. “I think he’s done a good job.”
In downtown Frederick, which has undergone a cosmopolitan renaissance, Greg Dolan, 50, called the controversy over Jenkins’s leadership “overblown” and said he “didn’t have anything to do” with Saylor’s death.
Doug Wantling, 48-year-old firefighter with a disabled sister, agreed.
“I don’t hold him specifically accountable,” Wantling said.
Bickel generated support in Urbana, a booming area just north of Montgomery County, where many Democrats have moved. Some of his support came from Republicans fed up with Jenkins and the old Frederick.
“I love Frederick County,” said a 50-year-old teacher who voted for Bickel, “but I’m tired of the good old boys who run this place.”