Matt Bostrom, a St. Paul police officer with strong ties in city politics, won the race for Ramsey County sheriff Tuesday, toppling incumbent Bob Fletcher, a fixture in east metro law enforcement for more than two decades despite a career that often swung toward controversy.

Bostrom, 49, took an early lead and never let go, eventually beating Fletcher by a double-digit margin.

"It's tremendously exciting," said Bostrom as he accepted the win. "It's an uphill challenge to defeat an incumbent sheriff."

Bostrom, who demoted himself from assistant police chief to commander so he could run for sheriff, said his message of professionalism was key in winning; the endorsements of Mayor Chris Coleman and former Police Chief John Harrington also seemed to signal that the political tide had turned against Fletcher.

Fletcher conceded to Bostrom in a phone call about 9:45 p.m. Soon after, bagpipe music exploded at Bostrom's celebration party at Joe Senser's Sports Theater in Roseville as hundreds of supporters gathered.

"Losing is disappointing, but I'm proud of the 16 years of accomplishments and reduction in crime that's taken place," said Fletcher. "More importantly, I've made dozens of friends along the way. As hard as it is losing, it's even harder to leave those ... work-related friendships."

Although it's unclear where each candidate scored geographically, Fletcher said he expected to lose St. Paul because of Bostrom's heavy endorsement by city DFLers.

Their campaigns could not have differed more: Fletcher's headquarters was vacant, while Bostrom's buzzed with activity.

Bostrom, a 28-year-veteran of the force, surrounded himself with a small but dedicated staff of volunteers, while Fletcher took media calls directly on his cell phone and named only his wife as a campaign aide.

Bostrom's exuberance was perhaps a tacit admission that regardless of the controversies that have dogged Fletcher, the incumbent would not be an easy opponent to defeat. In 2007, the four-term sheriff beat Bill Finney, the highly popular former St. Paul police chief, by 1,133 votes out of more than 184,000 cast.

Bostrom campaigned on collaboration with other agencies, fiscal responsibility, increasing department diversity and community policing. He also collected a bevy of endorsements.

Fletcher said he didn't seek endorsements from current or former elected officials so as to keep the office bipartisan.

Fletcher, 55, highlighted juvenile crime, gang activity, violent crime and outreach to the Somali community as the top issues facing the next sheriff, a post that oversees about 400 employees and a budget of about $44 million. In the end, it may have been personality and leadership style that decided the race.

It's no secret that Fletcher has his critics, although few had publicly stood up to him. The campaign changed that when Harrington criticized Fletcher for overstepping his bounds and undermining his authority with police officers.

Fletcher faced criticism over the 2009 dissolution of the Metro Gang Strike Force after allegations of misconduct (his department was its fiscal agent), his role in preemptive home raids leading up to the 2008 Republican National Convention, and the conviction of two of his confidantes and former employees, who pocketed $6,000 in planted money in an FBI integrity test.

He said it's too early to tell if those issues cost him the race.

On the flip side, Fletcher is credited with courage for charting his own political path, for pioneering outreach to the Hmong community, for playing a key role in developing the Ramsey County Law Enforcement Center, which opened in 2003, for cracking down on violent crime and guiding technological advances at the department, including real-time crime notifications to the public and real-time security cameras supervised by volunteers.

His roots in east metro public life included a stint on the St. Paul City Council in the early 1980s and failed legislative and mayoral campaigns that same decade. He won the sheriff's post in 1995 after 17 years with the St. Paul police department.

Fletcher will report to work for the rest of this week, then take a few days off to spend time with his family before working with Bostrom in handing over the office. Bostrom said his first step will be to take an inventory of the department's equipment and resources and compare it to the department's goals. He has said he wants to freeze the department's budget for the next two years.

Fletcher has been on a leave of absence from St. Paul police, and said he plans to return to the force in January as a commander. It's unclear what his responsibilities might include.

"I look forward to continuing to be a crime fighter," Fletcher said.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708