As Hennepin County Sheriff candidate Eddie Frizell turned his large, bald head around his small town-hall forum at the North Regional Library in Minneapolis, it was obvious that he was seeing a true cross-section of the voters he was looking for. Sweatshirts, not suits. Different languages and ethnicities. And unique concerns, like a fear of entering the force due to harassment or a reticence to even call the police in an emergency for fear of them clamping down on undocumented immigrants.
"It's just the ability to recognize where we're coming from," one attendee told Frizell. "And I don't think many can realize that."
For a sheriff, north Minneapolis is certainly a different beast, but Frizell, an African-American himself, bought right into it. Rising from his chair at the front of the room and punching his fist into his hand, Frizell was emphatic: Those voices needed to be heard.
While he was light on providing details of any sort of real policy changes for a more diverse force, he was confident.
"People forget about us," one supporter told him.
Said Frizell: "I won't."
The county sheriff's race may not seem too important on its face -- after all, the leading challenger to incumbent sheriff Rich Stanek four years ago was a kitten (yes, really). This year, though, the race is surprisingly contentious and polarized.
Most of that contention comes from inside the force. In July, Hennepin County's own deputies overwhelmingly endorsed Frizell, the DFL challenger, over GOP incumbent Stanek. Yet Stanek has his own supporters: the Minneapolis Police Federation, city council members, and other sheriffs.
But Stanek has come under fire in his eight years on the job. Lately, it's been for what he's said about legalizing cannabis. Last year, Stanek wrote in a Strib editorial that he's opposed to legalizing the drug, most notably because "there is a direct connection between marijuana and violent crime" (this despite the fact that there's no actual concrete evidence showing a connection).
It's that sort of advocacy that Frizzell pushed against in the forum. When a sheriff is spending his time heading to D.C. or pushing for certain policies, Frizzell said, it can be a dangerous slope. There are checks and balances, and when an official sets and enforces the same laws, he says, "that's called a dictatorship."
Bold words, but Frizell says they're important. With fewer trips to the nation's capital, he says, the department might be able to put a bit more money toward actual policing.
With that kind of criticism, it's a bit frustrating that we won't get to see Frizell and Stanek go head-to-head on the issues. We've learned that the North Hennepin Area Chamber of Commerce tried to organize a debate between the two candidates but was denied by Stanek, who told the organization in an email:
"I have reviewed and considered your request, but at this late date in the election it seems to me what you have proposed is not the most ideal way to reach voters with our message -- given the very limited time remaining, and all of the outreach efforts now underway."
We'll see if the decision pays off in November.