Since he last received the endorsement of both major parties in 2014, Ulster County Sheriff Paul VanBlarcum has appeared in a photograph in the oval office with President Donald Trump, instituted a short-lived policy that checked all visitors to the Department of Social Services for warrants, called on permitted gun owners to carry in public after a mass shooting and urged a boycott of the NFL because he felt players kneeling during the national anthem was disrespectful.
In other words, the 62-year-old sheriff, first elected in 2007, seemed, to many in his party, to be acting more like a Republican than a Democrat.
A challenge from the progressive wing of the party soon followed. His opponent, Juan Figueora, a 53-year-old former state trooper and U.S. Marine from Plattekill, trounced him with 85 percent of the vote at the party’s May nominating convention. The sheriff, hoping the 40,000-plus registered Democrats in the county (or at least the 20 percent or so likely to vote in a primary) will have a different opinion than the 300 who voted at the convention. VanBlarcum and Figueroa will face off for the Democratic nomination in the primary on Thursday, Sept. 13. Polls are open from noon to 9 p.m.
Regardless of what happens next week, VanBlarcum will appear on the general election ballot, having previously secured nods from the Republican and Independence parties.
VanBlarcum said he knew he’d face a challenge when he met with the party’s executive committee prior to the May nominating convention.
“They didn’t have one complaint about the day-to-day operations of the sheriff’s office,” said VanBlarcum. “You know why they’re not supporting me this year? Their number-one reason? It’s because I met with President Trump.”
The occasion was Police Week in May of 2017, an event that pays tribute to law enforcement personnel who died in the line of duty. Kerry Winters, an Ulster County corrections officer, died during a dive team training exercise the previous September.
“I don’t care who the president is,” said VanBlarcum. “If they’re honoring one of our people, I’m going down there.”
He said we should ask his opponent if he would have declined to meet with the president under similar circumstances. “If he says no, he wouldn’t have gone there, then I’d be really, severely disappointed in him.”
“In today’s world, [with the] divisiveness of what’s going on in our country today, I would probably tell you that I would not go to the Oval Office,” said Figueroa. “If there was another president then obviously that would be different. But I would not have, no.”
Hector Rodriguez, minority leader of the Ulster County Legislature, says the party’s issues with the sheriff go well beyond a photo op.
“The picture is fairly meaningless,” the New Paltz Democrat said. “It’s all these other pieces that sort of fall into this. You can’t continue to do this stuff and then claim to be a Democrat.”
The Ulster County Sheriff’s Department is one of the oldest in that nation, established in 1661. The word “sheriff” dates back to Middle English, a combination of “shire” (a county) and “reeve” (a local official charged with enforcement of specific regulations). In newly settled areas, the sheriff was one of the first positions that needed to be filled — a signifier of civilization. Today, patrolling rural areas with limited or no local police is still a major part of the job.
The sheriff is one of a handful of county-wide elected positions, including county executive, county clerk, district attorney and comptroller. While town and city police chiefs are appointed by the town board or city council, and the state police have a chain of command than runs up to the superintendent, nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, the sheriff is chosen by the voters of a county every four years. Though candidates are usually drawn from the ranks of law enforcement, no credentials, experience or training are required. Candidates simply need to be county residents, 18 years of age.
The two biggest parts of the job are running the county jail and the road patrol. The 426-bed county jail, located off Route 32 in Kingston, has 180 corrections officers. The road patrol functions similarly to a local police department, though its jurisdiction is county-wide. It has 80 sworn officers.
Other responsibilities include: security for county buildings, serving papers in civil lawsuits, evictions and issuing pistol permits. The total budget for the department is $34 million.
VanBlarcum is a lifelong Ulster County resident. Born and raised in Saugerties, he now lives in Kingston. He’s been with the department since 1976, mostly working out of the substation in Shandaken. He took office in 2007. This would be his fourth term. He points to cooperation with other agencies as his main priority, singling out the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team (URGENT), a 14-member task force composed of officers from local police departments and sheriff’s deputies, as his “number-one accomplishment.” Going forward, he wants to strengthen the department’s student resource officer program and implement several “green” initiatives, including purchasing hybrid and electric vehicles, and, at the jail, using solar power to provide hot water and a food dehydrator to decrease the disposal cost of food waste.
Figueroa was born in the Bronx and moved to Plattekill as a teen. 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. He currently has a job in New York City doing corporate security for the Northeast for a Fortune 500 company (he wouldn’t say which one). He said he chose to run for sheriff after hearing complaints from local Democrats. “When we see elected officials take things into their own hands, put their own opinions out there when they’re not doing their job, when they forget who they work for, it’s up to us to get involved,” he said.
DSS warrant checks
In October 2014, the sheriff’s office began checking all visitors to the county’s Department of Social Services for outstanding warrants. The policy was criticized by the ACLU, state attorney general and local Democratic county legislators as discriminatory because it was seen as targeting the poor. It was discontinued after county legislators threatened to privatize security at the building.
The sheriff stands by the policy, which he says was instituted both to catch those with outstanding warrants and protect DSS workers. He said checks are also done at the jail and probation department. He added that eight months after the policy was discontinued, he finally had a meeting with then-Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. After he explained exactly how the warrant checks were being done, the sheriff said the attorney general raised no objections.
Figueroa says the policy was a violation of the fourth amendment’s protection against illegal search and seizure because the warrant checks lacked probable cause.
“What he did there was to take on the underprivileged that we have in our community,” said Figueroa. “The poor people who aren’t going to say anything because they’re there to get help. He wouldn’t do that at the Department of Motor Vehicles I’m sure. He wouldn’t stop people on State Route 28 [to check for warrants].”
We asked VanBlarcum if he would.
“I wanted to do it at the county building [where the DMV is located],” he said. “Unfortunately, the people in charge, meaning the executive, do not want that done.” If the sheriff got his way, he said, those presenting their ID for any of the various transactions at the DMV would be screened for warrants, and the clerk could walk out into the hallway and alert one of the deputies.
As for setting up a roadblock on Route 28, VanBlarcum said police often set up DWI checkpoints on major roads.
VanBlarcum has said the policy at the jail is the same as other across the state. “Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] every day will get the names of every inmate that’s in here, because we do immigration-naturalization checks on everybody that comes in, it’s just part of the process.” He said the sheriff’s office cooperates with ICE, as it does with the DEA and FBI, sharing information and allowing interviews, though it won’t detain inmates without a warrant. “We cooperate with every law enforcement agency,” said VanBlarcum.
Figueroa said he doesn’t favor notifying ICE concerning low-level offenders. “I am not an extension of ICE and I will not be contacting ICE for minor offenses,” he said.
The difference between the two candidates on this issue is more about emphasis than policy. Figueroa isn’t saying he won’t cooperate with federal law enforcement. That would be difficult, given that the identity of who’s in a jail on a given day is public information.
Figueroa stresses the importance of not “putting people in a box.” He talks about recent detainments of local undocumented immigrants who have families here with sympathy. Figueroa said if law enforcement is perceived as targeting immigrant groups, members of those groups are less likely to come forward with complaints or as witnesses because they fear being deported. “The bottom line is my job is public safety, and if it interferes with public safety, then I have to do my job which is to uphold state and local laws,” he said.
VanBlarcum strikes a different tone. He called Kingston’s plan to become a sanctuary city “a poor idea” and he spoke out against a plan to make Ulster a sanctuary county. “I think for anyone here legally, you should be entitled to everything the United States has to offer,” he said, as quoted in the Times Herald-Record. “But if you are here illegally, you should not be entitled to everything the United States has to offer.” He said his policies are no different from other sheriffs’ across the state and haven’t led to members of immigrant groups feeling reluctant about reporting crime or cooperating with police.
Football boycott urged on social media
Last November, VanBlarcum shared a Facebook post on the Ulster County Sheriff’s Facebook page urging fans to boycott the NFL over the Veterans’ Day weekend to protest some players kneeling during pre-game performances of the national anthem.
“It’s the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page, and as the sheriff I have control of the content,” he said at the time. “I think it’s a good thing because it gives the taxpayers a way to know where I stand on things.”
Today, he regrets using the official Facebook page of the sheriff’s office, but hasn’t changed his mind on football. He doesn’t plan on watching it at all this year.
“We all agree, we’ll defend your right to protest,” he said. “But I can have the opinion that I don’t like the way you’re protesting. With all the money these players make, I’m sure they can find a better way to get their message across than to kneel and, in my opinion anyway, disgrace the flag and the national anthem.”
Figueroa said the post shouldn’t have been broadcast on a county social media page and reflected a lack of understanding of the motivations of the protest. “As a sheriff, your personal opinion should not be published on the county website of the sheriff’s department because that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing in that role. Your job is to uphold the law.”
He said the motivation was to protest police brutality, not disrespect the flag. And even if it intended as disrespect, nothing could be more disrespectful than flag-burning, an act that’s protected as free speech by the Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson (1989). It’s one thing to object to protected free speech like flag-burning as a private citizen, said Figueroa, but quite another to do so on an official communication as a law enforcement officer.
Figueora has stressed the need for a new approach to the opiate problem. In an op-ed earlier this year, he favored suing pharmaceutical companies. He said if he becomes sheriff he’ll do more to educate potential users on the dangers of opiates and families on the signs of addiction so they can recognize it in their loved ones. He also said he’d try to get help for anyone who wants it.
“I know this stuff is going to cost money, but I think if we all tackle it together as a team, that we’ll get some sort of solution,” he said.
VanBlarcum’s response is, more or less, we’re already doing what can be done. Inmates in the jail who are addicted can request Vivitrol, a drug that suppresses opiate cravings, and the sheriff’s office works with many outside groups, including Breaking the Cycle, Catholic Charities and the Ulster Coalition Against Narcotics, among many others. All deputies are trained in how to administer Narcan, which halts the effects of an overdose, and that training has been extended to the public.
Those inmates who want help, and let the sheriff’s office know, are getting help, said VanBlarcum, but you can’t make someone want to get clean. He said he recently lost a niece to an overdose. “My brother was [a school superintendent] in Georgia, he had the connections, he had the money to get her anywhere she wanted to go, she went to some places, came out and still overdosed.”
What would cause local Democrats to abandon a proven winner and member of their own party? Is the party moving to the left, shrinking the window of acceptable views one can espouse and expect party support? Or has VanBlarcum moved to the right, embracing his inner conservative? A little of both?
The sheriff says it’s the party that’s changed. “Oof, in the last four years, for sure.”
Leader Rodriguez disagrees. Whether VanBlarcum has changed his mind isn’t clear, says Rodriguez, but “we now somehow have a sheriff who just seems to embrace a very conservative ideology. And that’s where he’s at. And I get that, that’s fine. But then go be a Republican.”
Usually unsaid directly, but often implied, in the criticism is that the sheriff treats some groups different from others. The insinuation drives VanBlarcum and his supporters crazy. He has a general response — that his policies are applied equally — and specific rebuttals for each case.
For example, the sheriff is criticized for not publicizing the results of an investigation into an employee’s alleged racist social media posting. VanBlarcum’s response is: (1) disclosing how the employee was disciplined would be a violation of his civil rights; and (2) an African-American employee, who also posted something racist on social media, was given the same punishment.
Another example: The department is now being sued by five black corrections officers who claim that they were denied promotions and choice assignments, disciplined more harshly than white colleagues and subjected to racist abuse and harassment while working at the Ulster County Jail. VanBlarcum said in each case, the officers either neglected to take the required exams to be considered for promotion, or were disciplined for another infraction before they could be promoted. Regarding abuse and harassment, the sheriff said complaints were looked into and employees were disciplined.
These explanations don’t satisfy his critics because they seem to be part of a pattern. Being sued by some disgruntled employees? OK, that happens when you lead an organization of over 250 for more than a decade. Against sanctuary cities? Most police chiefs took a skeptical view of these resolutions. But if you view criticism of the kneeling protest as an old white guy’s reaction to black political assertiveness, willingness to work with ICE and support for deportation of undocumented immigrants as nativism, and warrant checks at social services as an attack on people of color whose roots date back to coded Republican rhetoric about “welfare queens,” then it’s not hard to conclude that the sheriff, at the very least, doesn’t share the “values” of the current Democratic Party.
“His policies have consistently shown that he’s OK with discriminating against people in our community,” said New Paltz councilman Dan Torres.
“Does that sound like any Democrat you know?” asks Rodriguez.
For Figueroa’s supporters, the candidate’s combination of police and military experience is enhanced by his identity as a person of color.
“Because of Juan’s background, who he is, the life experiences he has, I think that he brings a different approach to policing that better reflects the community that we have, and that also addresses the concerns that communities have about policing,” said Torres.
On the other hand, if you think kneeling during the national anthem or sitting during the pledge is a violation of the basic patriotism that used to transcend party and is necessary for the country’s unity, that immigrants should follow federal laws and it’s not the place of a county sheriff to obstruct federal administration of those laws, and that arresting those with outstanding warrants — whether it be at the Department of Social Services, a roadblock or the DMV — is a good thing, because someone with a warrant should, by definition, be arrested, then it’s quite hard to see how the sheriff’s actions could be viewed as antithetical to the views of a major political party.
“Forty years on the job, outstanding record of cooperation, and they call him a racist?” said John Parete, former chairman of the legislature, a friend of VanBlarcum’s and a Democrat. “He’s not a racist, he’s done a good job, and there’s nobody out there that has any suggestions on how to do a better job.”
The primary is Thursday, September 13 from noon to 9 p.m. Also on the ballot in Ulster County are Democratic races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and the 42nd State Senate and 104th assembly seats. There are no local Republican primaries.