In February of 2017, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek met with President Donald Trump at the White House. The president was busy promoting his newly enacted Muslim ban, and the two quickly found common cause. “You have a big problem with the refugees pouring in, don’t you?” Trump said, according to a transcript. Stanek replied, “Yes we do, sir … and the proper vetting of individuals is really important to us.” Later, Stanek, a Republican, would praise Trump in comparison to former President Barack Obama. Over the next year, Stanek would come under fire for helping Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in identifying, detaining, and deporting undocumented Minnesotans.
Now, angered by Stanek’s mistreatment of immigrant communities and alleged mismanagement of the sheriff’s department, veteran police officer Dave Hutchinson has decided to try to defeat the three-term incumbent. To win, he’s going to have convince hundreds of thousands people who have grown used to supporting Stanek over three elections to channel some of their anger at the Trump administration—and especially at ICE—into a local race they are used to ignoring.
Minnesota is a swing state, but Hennepin County, which encompasses Minneapolis and some surrounding suburbs, is one of the most liberal counties in the United States. Hillary Clinton won Hennepin County by 34 percent. Minneapolis has not had a Republican mayor since 1973. Stanek won in 2014 by over 100,000 votes as a staunch Republican, about the same margin of victory in the county as the Democrats who swept statewide offices. Sheriffs don’t get identified by party on the ballot, though, which means that name recognition can overcome party affiliation.
Hutchinson is a progressive cop, but not, he readily admits, a “polished politician.” He’s a big guy in a campaign jacket and a black-and-orange “Hutch for Sheriff” hat. We meet at a coffee shop in Bloomington, one of the southern suburbs of Hennepin County, not far from where he grew up. He’s never run for office before, saying that he decided to take the plunge for “human” reasons—and because he thinks Stanek has been a bad administrator.
“Two years ago I was on Lake Street, driving, when I get flagged down by one of our regulars, a young man addicted to crack cocaine,” Hutchinson says. “He’s not a bad guy, very friendly to us, and we always shoot the breeze. He points to a Latina-looking woman who just got robbed.” The woman, Hutchinson tells me, had lost a few thousand dollars and been punched in the face, so he was eager to get her cooperation in trying to catch the bad guys. Unfortunately, he tells me, she wouldn’t make an official complaint, and instead just “refuses service, walks home.”
“It angered me,” Hutchinson says. “This woman’s fled from Guatemala to America for a better life. She’s at her third job. I’m the police and supposed to help people. I can’t be a cop if this population is too scared to talk to me.”
Haunted by the experience, he started to research immigration enforcement issues, getting increasingly upset as he saw the ways that county law enforcement under Stanek’s leadership was intensifying the same culture of fear that had led the Guatemalan robbery victim not to report.
What’s more, Hutchinson says, Stanek doesn’t seem to understand the boon that immigrant communities have been to Hennepin County.
While Stanek has told Trump that the area struggles with an immigration problem, Hutchinson says that’s simply not true. “We don’t have a problem. Look at all our refugees that we’ve had in this state. Hmong people are all successful. They own businesses, they’re great people. Latinos too. Lake Street, 15 to 20 years ago, was terrible with no businesses. Lake Street now has Mexican, Ecuadorian, South American businesses and restaurants, plus you got Somali coffee shops,” Hutchinson says. “These people have made our state, city, and county better and no question about that.”
When Hutchinson campaigns, he talks about mental-health reform, protecting immigrant communities, and other things that he sees as values-based issues. As we talk, though, it’s clear that he’s equally focused on improving the practicalities of police work in the county. According to Hutchinson, Stanek has made a number of administrative decisions that cost too much money and lead to bad policing. Hutchinson is hoping that, as sheriff, he can drastically reduce the jail population by teaming up with other organizations and government departments to divert people with addiction and mental-health needs into treatment rather than incarceration.
Still, he’s going to need to run the county jail. Right now, he tells me, Stanek only hires would-be cops to run the jail, leading to constant turnover as these young officers leave to take actual police jobs. Hutchinson says he would hire civilian corrections officers, people who actually want to work in that environment, and thereby stabilize the office.
Stanek’s campaign did not respond to emails and phone calls requesting comment for this article. Hutchinson tells me that it’s often hard to reach Stanek and promises, if elected, to make it easy for every community in Hennepin County to talk to their sheriff. Building those connections may prove difficult. The county includes, for example, African-American communities that have experienced serious tensions with Minneapolis police over the last few years. Trust will have to be rebuilt from scratch.
Hutchinson wants to show respect toward groups that feel excluded and bring them into the conversation. “I agree that black lives matter,” he says. “They [community groups including BLM] deserve a voice and deserve to be heard.”
If elected, Hutchinson may have one advantage when it comes to drawing in the diverse groups that make up Hennepin County: his own identity as a gay man. He doesn’t fold his sexuality into his pitch, which remains focused on policing and basic issues of justice—but he also doesn’t hide it. He mentions his husband, Justin, within the first few minutes of our conversation, and when I ask him later about the impact of his sexuality on his politics, he grows reflective. “I understand what it’s like to be not in the majority,” but he adds he has also learned that people turn out to be pretty accepting of differences, once they get to know you. “I was outed a few years ago when [someone] sent pictures of Justin and I getting married to all these old cops. Everyone was completely cool. Most cops are great people who don’t give a crap as long as you do your job.”
“As sheriff it shouldn’t matter. It will matter to some,” he admits, but the core issue for him is that he has learned to treat everyone the same. As Hutchinson says, “If you’re a person in Hennepin County, you shouldn’t be treated any differently because of who you love, what you look like, where you’re born, who you pray to, whether you have disabilities or not. Hennepin County, we’re a community. We’re better together”