By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Everyone has an opinion about Bob Fletcher and Bill Finney. The Ramsey County sheriff and the former St. Paul police chief inspire both devout loyalty and intense loathing.
"Like a dictator," says Brad Urban, a retired Ramsey County deputy, in characterizing how Fletcher runs the sheriff's office. "Like a cult system; like a god. I've heard people say they would die for him."
St. Paul Police Federation president Dave Titus describes Finney's tenure at the St. Paul Police Department almost identically. "He ran our department as a dictator," Titus says. "Finney's ego leaves no room for anyone else's presence."
Their supporters are equally ardent in singing their praises. "His personal integrity is one of the key facets of why I wanted to work for Bob," says Nicholas O'Hara, a former head of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension who now oversees the narcotics division of the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office. "He anticipates, plans, analyzes, and makes things happen."
Ramsey County Deputy Cindi Bell is supporting Finney: "I think he has integrity beyond reproach. He is totally honest to a fault. I trust him with my job. I trust him with my future."
The contest between Finney and Fletcher for Ramsey County sheriff has become the most antagonistic, colorful local election of the year. It features two physically large St. Paul natives with super-sized egos who have profoundly affected Ramsey County law enforcement over the last two decades. On the rare occasion when they've been in the same room together, their contempt for one another is palpable. Among the shenanigans the contest has inspired: gunshots purportedly fired into Fletcher's campaign office, accusations of lawn-sign vandalism and tire slashing, and a ridiculous dispute over whether the candidates could be identified as "Chief" and "Sheriff" on the ballot. Ride through the streets of St. Paul, where Finney and Fletcher signs seem to sprout on every other lawn, and you'd think they were running for president—or at least mayor.
But what makes the race all the more remarkable is that the stakes are so slight. The Ramsey County sheriff's primary responsibility is administering the jail, securing the courthouse, and executing arrest warrants. In addition, the office is charged with enforcing the laws in seven contract cities—including Shoreview, Arden Hills, and Little Canada—that don't have their own municipal police forces.
Finney and Fletcher are both redoubtable characters. The former grew up in the Rondo neighborhood, joining the St. Paul Police Department in 1971, at a time when there were just four black officers on the force. He rose to become the first African American police chief in Minnesota's history, serving 12 years at the helm of the SPPD. Fletcher joined the force a decade after Finney, ascending through the ranks to head up the juvenile unit prior to being elected sheriff in 1994. In both posts, Fletcher has been widely praised for attacking the problem of youth gang violence, particularly in the Asian community.
Both men, however, have accumulated their detractors along the way. And both camps project a strong sense that you're either with them or against them—that those who remain loyal will be rewarded handsomely, while those who dare dissent will be punished mercilessly.
The root of the animosity between Finney and Fletcher is difficult to pinpoint. The sheriff, for his part, insists that there is no personal antipathy between the two men. "We didn't have any bad relations," he says. "Most of that is hype. It's primarily generated by the media. I think that's a natural outcome of politics. I think people would probably assume that any two individuals running in a hotly contested race don't like each other."
Finney's explanation for the tensions is only slightly more satisfying. "It stems from our views on race," Finney says. "That's where the friction started, the whole philosophies of how we serve the community. I believe the police department should be inclusive. I believe the police department should serve the community rather than police it. The philosophy in law enforcement when I came on is, you police anybody who didn't look like you. People who were poor, people of color, were policed rather than served."
Bill Snyder, a Ramsey County sheriff's deputy who has worked under both men, professes ignorance about the source of the ill will. "I don't know," he says. "I can't even give you a reason why those two don't like each other."
"I don't think they're friends," offers Ron Ryan, a veteran St. Paul cop and head of the state gang strike force. "It's an ego thing. They're both big-time egos. That isn't a negative thing. You have to have a large ego to be in the position they're in."
To reach tonight's fundraiser for Bill Finney in an empty warehouse on the eastern edge of downtown St. Paul, guests must traverse an alleyway and then enter through a door marked by a blue light. At the bottom of the stairs is Herbie's, a private club.
The stone walls of the basement space are adorned with Japanese hangings. Exposed pipes run overhead and the floors are decorated with oriental rugs. Dean Martin's singing "That's Amore" through the stereo system. There's a spread of cheese and fruit, along with a seemingly unlimited supply of wine. A high-powered air filter system sucks the cigar smoke from the air the instant it's exhaled. There are leather chairs to lounge in while watching the flat-screen TVs. Donors have paid $100 to attend the soiree in the 120-year-old former candy factory.