Sheriffs in New York state often coast to victory over token or no opposition. Not this year.
In Chautauqua County, voters decided it was time for a change and chose a retired lieutenant over his former boss who had been in the department since 1979 and sheriff since 1995.
In Tompkins County, a retired undersheriff beat his former boss in the primary and general elections. One issue was the lack of gender diversity. Derek Osborne said during the campaign that the office “hasn't had a woman in the sheriff or undersheriff position since it was founded in 1817” and he named the woman he was going to appoint if he won.
And in Ulster County, a former state trooper beat the incumbent in the primary and general elections in a race that reflected many of the issues that have divided our nation for the past two years.
Official returns show that Juan Figueroa defeated incumbent Paul Van Blarcum, a 42-year veteran of the department and sheriff for the past 12 years, by 4,000 votes out of 71,000 cast. This was the third time he prevailed, first earning the support of Democratic leaders, then winning a primary challenge by an overwhelming margin and finally on Tuesday.
Figueroa’s victory is a story with two parts, starting with the divisive rhetoric and actions of the incumbent.
Van Blarcum first gained notoriety when he stationed deputies outside the office of the county Department of Social Services to check identification in a blatant attempt at intimidation. He ran afoul of many in law enforcement when he used the department’s official Facebook page to encourage all gun owners to carry their weapons whenever they leave the house, advice that many who might agree with his politics saw as dangerous. And he used that same official forum to urge people to boycott watching National Football League games to protest the demonstrations by players who were kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to police brutality.
As Democratic leaders said when they decided to endorse Figueroa, Van Blarcum had become too extreme for them. Voters in the Democratic primary agreed, as did voters throughout the county on Tuesday.
But it would be a mistake to see this result as only a condemnation of one candidate. Figueroa made it clear that he, too, is a patriot and has the credentials as a Marine and in law enforcement to back that up. He, too is a defender of Second Amendment rights. But he also is a modern example of what Ulster County needed as a sheriff, one who understood that the department and all others in law enforcement need to serve all in the community, need to reject attempts by the federal government to outsource its crusades against immigrants.
Figueroa put it best himself when he told a group what had inspired him to enter the race:
“I’ve seen how great our country is, and who we are, and when I see things trickle down from the top, and bring out the worst in our fellow citizens, we need to get involved, and we need to make a change and do it now.”