The Ulster County Sheriff’s race pits incumbent Paul VanBlarcum, who spent his entire career with the department before being elected sheriff in 2007 and is running on that experience, against challenger Juan Figueroa, a former state trooper and Marine Corps reservist who promises to bring a new approach to the office.
Both registered Democrats, the two have been doing battle since the spring, first for the party endorsement in May and then in the party primary in September. Figueroa trounced VanBlarcum with over 80 percent of the Democratic vote in both.
Some Democrats have expressed concern about VanBlarcum’s statements and actions in his most recent term, including checking visitors to the Department of Social Services for warrants, using the sheriff’s official Facebook page to call for a boycott of the NFL following the decision of several players to kneel in protest of police violence against African-Americans, and an oval-office meeting with Donald Trump during police week in 2017, which VanBlarcum attended following the death of a corrections officer during a training exercise.
In the general election, Figueroa will have the Democratic, Working Families and Women’s Equality lines. VanBlarcum wll run on the Republican, Conservative, Independence and Reform lines.
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 the top job in 2007. This would be his fourth term.
Figueroa, born in the Bronx, 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. He served as an operations officer for a Marine Air Wing squadron stationed at the Stewart Air National Guard base in New Windsor.
Trump meeting ‘an asset’
VanBlarcum says Figueroa’s experience with the State Police is “no qualification at all to work at the sheriff’s office, let alone to be the sheriff.” He said his opponent lacks the general administrative experience to run an organization with an annual budget of over $30 million and more than 250 employees, and contends his opponent is unfamiliar with many of the department’s specific activities and partnerships. “Some of the things he says he wants to do we already do, and he doesn’t know that because he doesn’t know what goes on at the sheriff’s office.”
VanBlarcum said Figueroa is counting on the Democratic enrollment advantage. Since he began speaking with voters who aren’t enrolled in any party, his meeting with the president — and Figueroa’s statement that he wouldn’t have done so — has been an asset, rather than the liability it was when he was seeking the Democratic nod. “A lot of people are adamantly disappointed with him saying he wouldn’t go down to Washington,” said VanBlarcum. “That just shows what kind of leadership skill that he actually would have. You go no matter who the president is. It’s as simple as that.”
In office too long
Figueroa disputes the idea that he wouldn’t bring a new vision to the department. He returned several times to VanBlarcum’s use of the department’s official social media to share his personal opinion. “When you see things like that, it’s because he’s been in office too long and he’s forgotten who he works for,” he said. Figueroa promised he’d only use the department’s official communications channels for public-safety announcements and to convey relevant information to the public.
Figueroa said he understands the current sheriff is working with outside groups and agencies to deal with the opioid crisis, but more must be done. “We need to work better with the community and our medical professionals. And for individuals who want help, we should be able to help them.”
He said he’d tackle recidivism by reaching out to chambers of commerce in Ulster and surrounding counties and urging them to hire those convicted of minor offenses. He calls it the “First Chance” program because underprivileged people often don’t get a chance to succeed, and says it would apply only to those who have made “a mistake,” not to seasoned criminals. He also mentioned an ongoing lawsuit brought by five corrections officers alleging racial bias in hiring and a hostile work environment. He said he would have acted sooner to address the issue. “The reason it gets to a lawsuit is because nothing was done to tackle the problem,” said Figueroa.
Figueroa said rumors that he plans to “take your guns away” aren’t true. “That’s not the job of the sheriff, the job of the sheriff is to uphold the law, he doesn’t make the law.” He said the process for obtaining a pistol permit will remain unchanged.
VanBlarcum has said interagency cooperation has been and will continue to be his priority. He calls the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team, a 14-member task force composed of officers from local police departments and sheriff’s deputies, his “number-one accomplishment.” He mentioned the designation of Ulster County as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking area under a federal program that directs money and resources to areas hard-hit by the opioid epidemic. He cited his endorsements by several local PBAs, the CSEA and the Ulster County Fireman’s Association, among others, and said his department has come in under budget for the last twelve years. “That’s something that should resonate with voters.”
Addressing criticisms, VanBlarcum has said background checks at the county social-services building were intended both as a safety measure and to catch those with outstanding warrants, and that they weren’t targeted toward low-income citizens because he wanted to institute similar checks at the DMV. He also acknowledged that giving his opinion on the NFL boycott on the department’s Facebook page was a mistake.
Leadership is key
Figueroa said the department’s efficacy comes down to leadership. “For the men and women of the sheriff’s office, I’m going to give them the tools that they need to do their job, so they can go home safely to their families at night or at the end of their shift. And if I can do that for them, then I know that I can give the people of this community a better service.”
The office carries a four-year term. 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 countywide. It has 80 sworn officers. Other responsibilities include security for county buildings, serving papers in civil lawsuits, evictions, and the issuance of pistol permits. The total budget for the department is $34 million.
Election day is Tuesday, November 6. All registered voters in Ulster County are eligible to vote. Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Look up your polling place here.
Read more about the candidates’ positions on other issues, including immigration enforcement, in an earlier article we did before the Democratic Primary.