As he gears up to run for a fourth four-year term Ulster County sheriff, Paul VanBlarcum is facing something new — a challenge from within the Democratic Party.
While the incumbent lawman is counting on support from police unions around the county, his opponent, retired state trooper and U.S. Marine veteran Juan Figueroa has the backing of progressive Democrats who believe VanBlarcum’s statements on hot-button issues like guns and NFL protests — and his decision a few years ago to do warrant checks on people entering the county’s Department of Social Services office — are out of step with the party’s values. The two men will vie for an official party endorsement at the Ulster County Democratic Committee’s May 21 convention. “I think it’s time that we have a sheriff who represents the values of the people of Ulster County,” said New Paltz councilman and Democratic committee member Dan Torres who will nominate Figueroa at the convention. “And I think we can certainly do better than we are doing in that regard.”
VanBlarcum, 62, took office in January 2007 after spending his entire professional life working his way up the ranks within the agency. Since then, he has made fostering closer connections between the county’s myriad law enforcement agencies a priority. Early in his tenure, VanBlarcum founded the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team (URGENT). The team is made up of officers from a dozen local, county and federal police agencies who work together under the umbrella of the Ulster County District Attorney’s Office. Since its inception, URGENT has played a major role in efforts to go after drug traffickers and provided support in major crime investigations across the county.
“I think that is the number-one accomplishment I’ve had here at the sheriff’s office,” said VanBlarcum of the URGENT initiative.
VanBlarcum said that his emphasis on inter-agency cooperation has continued. He helped lead efforts to get Ulster County named a “High Intensity Drug Trafficking” area under a federal program that directs money and resources to areas hard-hit by the opioid epidemic. He’s said he’s also worked with state officials to create a regional crime analysis center which combines resources from Ulster, Dutchess and Orange counties to provide real-time intelligence capability. The sheriff’s office also serves as headquarters for county-wide emergency response and crisis negotiation teams.
“There is nowhere around the state that has the same kind of cooperation between law enforcement agencies that we have here in Ulster County,” said VanBlarcum. “That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of.”
VanBlarcum said he hopes to use his fourth term to move ahead with some environmental initiatives, including green vehicles for the agency’s road patrol and corrections division, and to continue efforts to address the opiate crisis. VanBlarcum said his office had been one of the first police agencies in the county to begin issuing the overdose-reversing drug Narcan to officers. VanBlarcum said he planned to introduce a new initiative to provide Narcan kits to at-risk inmates upon their release from jail.
VanBlarcum’s tenure as sheriff has also been marked by controversy over his political views and uncompromising style. In 2014 he ignited a furor when he directed deputies manning a security checkpoint at the Ulster County Department of Social Services to check all visitors to the facility for outstanding warrants. VanBlarcum presented the move as a simple and effective way to trim local police agencies warrant list. Opponents, including Democrats in the county legislature, blasted the move as unfair and stigmatizing for low-income citizens. The ACLU and the state attorney general’s office weighed in claiming that the policy was discriminatory and possibly illegal. VanBlarcum defended the policy and only backed down after county lawmakers threatened to hand off security at all county buildings to a private firm.
VanBlarcum also drew the ire of fellow Democrats for social media postings on the sheriff’s office’s official Facebook page. Following a 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., VanBlarcum used the page to call on Ulster County’s pistol permit holders to carry their weapons whenever possible. Last year he reposted a Facebook message calling for a Veteran’s Day boycott of the NFL in response to player’s national anthem protests. VanBlarcum downplayed the social media controversies saying that while his personal opinions may not align with some fellow Democrats he had worked for policies firmly in line with both the national and local party platforms.
“There’s a national party platform that’s 67 pages that says what they want you to do and I’m right in line with that,” said VanBlarcum. “I consider myself a Democrat, I’ve always been a Democrat.”
Figueroa, 53, comes into the race after a lengthy career in law enforcement. He was born in the Bronx and moved to Plattekill as a teen where his family settled into the town’s thriving Puerto Rican community.
He retired from the state police in 2013 after a 25-year career that included stints on road patrol and as an academy instructor, as well as 18 years with the agency’s Special Investigations Unit. After a four-year stint on active duty after high school, Figueroa spent another 18 years as a Marine Corps reservist. During his time in the reserves, Figueroa served in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm and rose to the rank of chief warrant officer while serving as an operations officer for a Marine Air Wing squadron stationed at Stewart Air National Guard Base in New Windsor. Figueroa previously ran unsuccessfully for Plattekill town justice and town supervisor.
Figueroa said he decided to enter the sheriff’s race after hearing local Democrats express dissatisfaction with VanBlarcum’s comments and policies. “The one thing about democracy, sometimes incumbents get entrenched and they think they can say or do whatever they want,” said Figueroa. “People need to have a choice.”
Figueroa said he hopes to offer a progressive alternative on issues like the opioid crisis. In a recent op-ed piece for the Kingston Times and Hudson Valley One, he called for expanding law enforcement’s role in combating addiction by pursing civil and criminal action against pharmaceutical firms that profit from opioids and doctors who recklessly prescribe them. Figueroa said his ideas were rooted in experience going after drug cartels by targeting the profits at the heart of the enterprise.
“I’ve seen it firsthand, all these people want to do is make money,” said Figueroa of drug traffickers he’d encountered in his law enforcement career. “[Pharmaceutical companies] are no different — they just wear suits and ties and sit behind a desk.”
Figueroa said he also wants to expand the sheriff’s role in combating addiction by forming a team of medical professionals and other experts to work to develop programs to help the agency connect addicts with treatment, rather than simply locking them up. Figueroa said the approach would save both lives and money and added that he would be open to bringing the same kind of evidence-based best practices — including potentially medically supervised methadone or other opiate replacement therapy — into the jail. While the jail currently provides inmates with Vivitrol, a medication that blocks the effects of opiates, VanBlarcum has flatly rejected the prospect of introducing methadone, suboxone or other opiate replacement therapies commonly used in non-correctional settings.
“I would look into it, the issue is going to be the cost,” said Figueroa. “But I think if you have evidence, if you have proof it’s going to work everybody will jump on board with it.”
The party endorsement does not guarantee a line on the ballot; candidates must file their nominating petitions as usual. VanBlarcum said if he does not get the party’s nod next week, he will challenge Figueroa in the Sept. 13 primary.