Kootenai County voters will choose from a crowded field of sheriff candidates in Tuesday’s primary after months of spirited and often divisive campaigning.
Four candidates – Kim Edmondson, Bob Norris, Rick Whitehead and John Grimm – are running as Republicans to replace Sheriff Ben Wolfinger, who is retiring after four two-year terms in office.
The winner of the GOP primary contest will face two candidates in the November general election: Mike Bauer, who is running as an independent, and Justin Nagel, who is running as a Libertarian. There are no Democrats in the race.
Fully staffed, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office has nearly 320 employees, including about 85 detectives and patrol deputies and nearly 100 deputies at the recently expanded jail. Nine people recently were hired as seasonal marine patrol deputies.
Several candidates used the terms “ugly” and “mudslinging” to describe the campaign season. Candidates and their supporters have flooded the pages of the Coeur d’Alene Press with letters and opinion pieces. Detractors have set up websites to blast some candidates and at least one that mimics an official campaign site.
Critics have scrutinized Whitehead’s 2005 bankruptcy and a lawsuit that Grimm filed against the sheriff’s office about a decade ago, after he applied to be a reserve deputy and was denied a follow-up interview. (Grimm eventually dropped the suit.) Some have called attention to paperwork discrepancies that temporarily allowed Norris to receive tax credits known as homeowner exemptions in both Idaho and California. (Norris has said it was an oversight on his part and paid back $210 to the state of California.)
“Maybe it’s because they believe that I’m the front-runner. I don’t know why, but I’ve been accused of everything from … domestic violence to tax fraud. And all of those allegations were proved false,” Norris said. “I either underestimated the politics or I overestimated the maturity level, because I know now why good people don’t run for public office.”
Some candidates said the campaign season has created a rift among Kootenai County deputies who favor different candidates.
“Whoever gets elected, he’s inheriting a hell of a mess that’s been created with this election,” Grimm said. “I’ve been told by my supporters that they just keep quiet because it’s like the Hatfields and McCoys down at the KCSO nowadays.”
Norris, 56, spent 30 years working for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, where he worked in patrol, drug enforcement, gang investigations, jail custody, counterterrorism and emergency preparedness. He retired in 2014 as a lieutenant responsible for coordinating law enforcement service with the cities of Commerce, Maywood and Cudahy.
Norris settled in Post Falls after a period splitting his time between homes in Idaho and California. He volunteers on the Kootenai County Search and Rescue Team and has secured an endorsement from the Kootenai County Deputy Sheriff’s Association.
Asked why he’s running for sheriff, Norris said he worries about rapid population increases that could come with the development of multifamily housing units, and the potential for increases in crime and tax burdens.
“I see some of the same mistakes being made here in Kootenai County that are made in other communities that have regretted them,” Norris said. “For every 250 homes, we’re going to need three new jail beds, and three new jail beds cost $75,000 each, and they cost $36,000 each to maintain. And these are a conversation on taxes that needs to occur before the development is built, not afterwards.”
Norris said his experience in Los Angeles has prepared him to lead the sheriff’s office. His first order of business, he said, would be to host a series of community meetings to gather feedback and guide decision making.
“We’re going to have town hall meetings constantly,” he said, “so the sheriff’s office can stay connected to the residents here in Kootenai County.”
Edmondson, 52, has worked in the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office since 1992 and holds the rank of captain in charge of the agency’s investigations and professional standards division. She previously led the detective division, served as a public information officer and worked for stints at the jail and on patrol, among other roles.
Edmondson also is an adjunct professor at North Idaho College, teaching an introductory course in criminal justice. She holds a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University and is a graduate of the FBI’s National Academy.
Edmondson said she agrees with other candidates that the sheriff’s office needs to work on retaining deputies and expand to meet the needs of a growing community. She said the agency also needs to modernize its infrastructure and upgrade technology, such as electronic ticketing and an evidence management system.
“We still, right now, feel like we’re a small agency, and we don’t recognize that we need to be a bigger, stronger agency for the size of our community now,” Edmondson said. “Our sheriff’s office was built in 1988 for a third of the number of employees that work in it right now. We’ve got people working out of closets that we’ve revamped into pseudo-office spaces. And we’ve split our organization up over our campus so that we’re really kind of disjointed in how we work.”
Edmondson said she would have liked to have the endorsement of the deputies union but believes she has support from many in her ranks.
“I feel like my relationship with others in the agency is strong,” she said. “I’ve had the leadership from the association express to me that this isn’t about not liking me. It’s that they’re trying to move forward with what they see as change.”
Edmondson said she would bring change, too, noting her education in organizational management and that she would be the first woman to lead the sheriff’s office.
Whitehead, 61, started his law enforcement career as a U.S. Army police officer in 1977 before joining the department in Baytown, Texas, in 1980. In 1986, he began a 25-year career with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, which covers the city of Austin. Since retiring, he’s made a career as a private law enforcement trainer.
Whitehead holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and public administration from Midwestern State University and is a graduate of the FBI’s National Academy. He has also embraced far-right organizations, including the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which peddles the erroneous claim that all state and federal authorities are legally subordinate to county sheriffs.
In Kootenai County, where he’s lived since 2011, Whitehead expressed concerns about deputies’ pay and poor retention, saying the sheriff’s office has become a training ground for new law enforcement officers who quickly transfer to other agencies in the Northwest.
Whitehead also said he would have refused to enforce Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s stay-home orders and other coronavirus restrictions. Whitehead asserted those measures denied Idahoans “due process.”
“I’m the only candidate in our race that has said it’s unconstitutional and illegal, and the others are either enforcing it, or agree, or are complicit in it being illegal,” he said.
Grimm, 55, runs a machining and fabrication business in Hayden. His law enforcement experience is limited to a few months as a reserve deputy in Bonner County about a decade ago. But he said the sheriff is essentially an administrative position, and so his business acumen makes him a good candidate.
“I’ve managed a large budget. When I make a mistake here in my business, it costs me at the end of the year,” Grimm said. “And for lifelong bureaucrats to pretend they’re going to be fiscally conservative is kind of a laugh.”
Grimm said he would like to rein in spending at the sheriff’s office, especially overtime pay for jail deputies. The agency, he believes, likely will need to slash its budget in light of the recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The idea of spending more money and modernization would be nice, but it’s just not in the cards this year,” Grimm said. “I would like to, and the growth of the county would probably support it, but it’s just not in the cards. Nobody in Kootenai County is saying that they’re going to sign up for increased property taxes. They’ve had enough.”
Wolfinger, the current sheriff, sharply criticized Grimm in March after Grimm suggested in a Facebook post that authorities planned to halt travel between Washington and Idaho due to the pandemic. Wolfinger said his office had fielded calls from concerned citizens and held a news conference to debunk Grimm’s claim, which the sheriff called “fake news.”
Like Norris, Bauer is a veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, where he worked for 33 years before retiring as a captain in 2002. Their careers with the agency overlapped by 18 years, but Bauer said they never crossed paths there.
Bauer, 70, managed many aspects of the massive Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He noted, in particular, his experience with homicide, vice and organized crime cases. He was a founding member of the agency’s risk management bureau, which reviewed tort claims and lawsuits to limit the agency’s financial exposure.
After retiring, Bauer moved to Montana and more recently to Harrison, Idaho. He said he’s stayed up to date on current law enforcement practices and continued working as a private investigator, devoting countless hours to the case of a missing Los Angeles deputy who disappeared while on a run in 1998.
Bauer said he wants the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office to remain a small agency, tailored to serve the more rural parts of the county. He said he’s a lifelong Republican but decided to run for Kootenai County sheriff as an independent after watching the other candidates clamor for GOP votes in the primary.
“I saw a food fight shaping up, and I really didn’t want to get involved in that level of politics because I don’t think it’s dignified for law enforcement – for people to treat each other that way,” Bauer said.
Attempts to reach Nagel, who listed only a Rathdrum P.O. box on his candidate filings, were unsuccessful. He has no law enforcement experience and has not raised money in his bid for sheriff.
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