One of the more spirited contests on the Nov. 7 ballot is a special election for the unexpired term of ex-Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane.
Whichever candidate prevails — appointed Sheriff Jerry Hatcher or Kennewick police Sgt. Ken Lattin — the winner will have to stand for election again in just 12 months to retain the $123,000-a-year job.
Hatcher and Lattin are entering the final stretch of a heated campaign with get-out-the-vote efforts and a push to keep their names in front of the county’s 107,000 registered voters.
Ballots were delivered last week and must be returned or postmarked by election day. About 5 percent had been returned as of Wednesday but the bulk are expected to arrive closer to Nov. 7.
Don’t look for much of a let up on the day after election day. A rematch appears likely in 2018, when the full, four-year term is at stake.
Lattin said his campaign hasn’t spent much time talking about 2018. He’s focused on door-knocking, sign waving and other campaign activities. He expressed confidence he will win in two weeks.
That said, he won’t close the door on the possibility of running next year.
Hatcher also is focused on keeping his campaign strong until ballots are turned in. But he left no doubt about 2018.
“I definitely plan on running,” he said.
The winner in November will enter the 2018 campaign with the advantage of being the incumbent. Not surprisingly, the race is one of the most expensive ballot contests on the ballot in either Benton or Franklin county.
According to the most recent filings with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, which oversees campaign finance laws, Hatcher has raised nearly $67,720, including more than $25,000 in personal funds.
Lattin has raised $20,410, including more than $1,400 in personal funds.
Unlike most races this year, the position of sheriff is partisan. Benton County Republicans endorsed Hatcher, though both candidates are running under the GOP banner.
The special election was necessitated in February, when Keane, a Republican, announced he was retiring April 1 following a battle with cancer.
The Benton County Commission, following Washington law, interviewed three potential replacements nominated by the Benton County Republican Party: Hatcher, Lattin and sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Bob Brockman.
Following public interviews in April, the commission voted 2-1 to appoint Hatcher to to serve until the November election.
The appointment set the stage for a full-scale campaign. That materialized in May when Hatcher and Lattin both filed.
The campaign has been a bumpy road for both candidates as supporters aimed to discredit opponents with unsavory, sometimes inaccurate or incomplete information.
In a meeting with the Tri-City Herald Editorial Board, neither Hatcher nor Lattin blamed his opponent for the contentious atmosphere.
“We both have ambitious detractors,” Lattin said.
“We should be above that as law enforcement,” Hatcher said.
Lattin is a Richland native with 29 years of law enforcement experience. He started his career in Ellensburg and has been with the Kennewick Police Department since 1990. He served as its public information officer before he filed.
He wants to bring fresh ideas to the sheriff’s office and to concentrate on reducing the re-incarceration rate in the county jail, which is currently managed by the sheriff’s office. He and his wife have twice filed for protection from creditors under U.S. Bankruptcy code, saying it was the result of medical care associated with their son’s kidney failure.
Hatcher, too, is from Richland. He joined the sheriff’s department as a reserve deputy and was hired full-time in 1994. He was promoted to undersheriff, but was demoted over a disagreement with the-Sheriff Larry Taylor in 2004.
He left the department and later returned under Keane. Both Taylor and Keane have endorsed him.
Steering the 740-bed jail, and its 500 or so inmates is the biggest challenge facing the sheriff’s office. The Benton County Commission is considering hiring an administrator to oversee the jail independent of the sheriff, a model used in just six of 39 Washington counties.
Both candidates said the jail should remain with the sheriff’s office.
Hatcher has defended the jail he manages, saying communications issues under a predecessor have improved and the administration has been innovative about addressing mental health challenges and recidivism. Hatcher called it a complex organization that took years to understand. Any newcomer will face a steep learning curve.
“There’s a reason why this is done only in six counties,” Hatcher said..
Lattin said the jail is a big part of his vision of building crime-reducing partnerships. He would like to keep the jail in the sheriff’s department, but said he will work with a new administrator if that’s the route the commission chooses.
“We’ve got to do better to break the cycle,” he said.
The sheriff is the county’s top law enforcement official, manages 210 employees focused on two primary functions, law enforcement and the jail.
The sheriff’s department is the primary law enforcement agency for unincorporated Benton County, as well as Benton City.