A month before the general election, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek and his opponent Dave “Hutch” Hutchinson have yet to meet face to face.

There have been opportunities, including two forums last week to which both candidates were invited. Stanek did not attend the one in Minneapolis; Hutchinson did not attend the one in Maple Grove.

The divide between the two men looking to lead the Sheriff’s Office in Minnesota’s most populous county is stark, leading to claims of partisan politics in a nominally nonpartisan race. The primary results revealed Hutchinson’s urban base of support and Stanek’s strong pull in the outer suburbs.

Stanek won the primary election in August with more than 49 percent of the vote. Hutchinson took in 35 percent, winning over Stanek in nearly all the Minneapolis precincts.

For Hutchinson and his supporters, the 12 years Stanek has served as sheriff is enough.

“This is a very progressive county,” Hutchinson, 39, said. “To have a very nonprogressive ... sheriff is just kind of odd to me.”

Stanek, 56, seeking his fourth term, said it was Hutchinson who has made the race more partisan by flaunting an endorsement from the DFL Party. Stanek received the GOP endorsement.

“His messaging is all about the core center city, maybe the first-ring suburbs, and is not being inclusive of countywide,” Stanek said.

Stanek had raised $138,914 this year before the primary, more than twice the amount he raised during the same period in his 2014 re-election, according to campaign finance reports. Hutchinson’s campaign did not file a pre-primary report, although he estimates that his campaign has raised $37,800 this year.

In separate interviews with the Star Tribune, the two candidates laid out their plans for how they would tackle the record number of opioid deaths, transparency within the office and the sheriff’s interaction with federal immigration agents.

ICE concerns

Hutchinson has served 13 years with Metro Transit police and the past five as a sergeant leading a community engagement team in north Minneapolis. He lives in Bloomington, and if elected would become the first openly gay sheriff in the Midwest.

He said Stanek’s “iron-fist ruling” is outdated, and that under him the department would be “a more progressive, a more friendly and a more open sheriff’s department.” His top campaign promise is to reduce communication between the county jail and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Immigration advocates and some county officials have accused Stanek’s office of doing too much to alert ICE about foreign-born inmates. Hutchinson said that he would not ask a person’s country of origin when they are booked into the county jail.

“I don’t care what you look like or where you’re from,” he said. “If there is some sort of immigration violation, that’s not our job.”

Stanek said the sheriff is in “a really tough spot” with its interactions with ICE.

He said the county jail hasn’t held inmates for ICE since 2014, and that the “place of birth” question is part of a general screening for everyone booked into the jail. The department is required to report those screenings to the FBI, and they then are shared with the Department of Homeland Security.

“I have a compassionate side, and I get where they’re coming from,” he said of immigration advocates. “But at the end of the day, I swore an oath to uphold the laws.”

Opioids, crime

Before Stanek announced his re-election bid, there was speculation that he would run for governor. He had previously served as a Republican state legislator and as the commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety under Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Stanek, of Maple Grove, said another four years as sheriff would allow “a continuation of what we’ve been doing,” including reduction of violent crime and tackling the opioid epidemic.

A record number of people died from opioid overdoses in Hennepin County last year. To better track the number of such deaths, Stanek announced recently that first responders would use a new tool to more accurately map where overdoses occur.

This summer, Stanek criticized the state for not offering more resources to reduce the growing number of mentally ill inmates in an overcrowded jail. County plans to build a mental health facility in Ply­mouth could reduce the pressure, he said.

“Singularly, we don’t own the problem,” he said. “This issue is not going away, and we’re going to continue to work on it with all the resources that the sheriff has to provide.”

Hutchinson praised Stanek for his #NOverdose awareness campaign and his officers for carrying naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses, but said more could be done. He said he would encourage abusers to turn themselves in without being charged for possession of narcotics, pairing them up with “coaches” that would help them curb their addiction.

He also said he would partner deputies with mental-health professionals on certain calls so people get treatment on the spot and fewer mentally ill people are booked into the jail. He plans to recruit more deputies through what he called “emotional, intelligence-based hiring,” removing a written test and focusing more on how applicants respond to crisis situations.

Violent crime has gone down by 26 percent under Stanek’s tenure, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Although the county saw an uptick in violent and property crimes last year, they were 15 percent lower in the first half of 2018 compared to the same period last year.

Stanek has received the endorsement of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Deputies Association. Tim Chmielewski union president, said Stanek “has the ear of the Legislature here and in Washington, D.C.”

Hutchinson was endorsed by the SEIU Minnesota State Council. Harry O’Mara, an SEIU Healthcare Minnesota member from Minneapolis, said Stanek has lost the “good faith” of the department.