Unopposed races dominate state’s sheriff, county attorney contests

Don Ryan doesn’t campaign, yet he’s won every election for Crow Wing county attorney for the last 28 years. He was 34 when he was first elected in 1994, when Bill Clinton was president, before there was Google or an iPhone.

Ryan has not faced a challenger a single time over the seven terms he has served, a fact that he says allows him to focus on his job.

“I’m very blessed,” he said.

It turns out that it’s not all that unusual. This fall, when Minnesota voters head to the polls, they’ll see few actual contests for sheriff or county attorney despite the rise of public safety as a polarizing political issue.

There are races between two candidates for sheriff in just 36 of the state’s 87 counties — every other county has just one unopposed candidate. A two-person race for county attorney is even more rare: only 13 counties will offer voters a choice between candidates, while 72 counties will offer one name.

Even worse, voters in Martin and Red Lake counties will see no name at all for county attorney. No one is running.

“Honestly, it’s not for the faint of heart,” said Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall. “Not everybody wants to sign up for the scrutiny that the role receives.”

It was nearly the same story four years ago, with nearly the exact same number of unopposed races statewide for sheriff and county attorney.

And it’s not just in the sparsely populated areas of the state that candidates go unopposed: Ramsey County and many of the metro-area counties have no challengers this fall for incumbents.

The top law enforcement gigs could be the loneliest elected jobs in Minnesota.

“It’s not an easy job,” said Bill Hutton, president of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association and former Washington County sheriff. “You have to worry about courts; you have to worry about jails.” At least every county in Minnesota has someone willing to run for sheriff, he said, even if, as in seven counties this year, the unopposed candidate has no experience as a sheriff.

Every four years his association holds a new sheriff’s school that typically draws 28 to 32 new sheriffs. Usually four to seven of those people beat an incumbent, said Hutton. He’s expecting the same numbers this year.

The head of the state’s county attorneys group said he doesn’t know why so many races draw just one candidate, but it could be that people are happy with what they have. “I would image that people are satisfied with the current county attorney where there are no contests,” said Robert Small, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorney’s Association.

As for public scrutiny preventing people from filing, Small said it doesn’t appear to be the case in Hennepin County. The scrutiny leveled at outgoing Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman didn’t stop people from filing papers to replace him: Voters will have seven candidates to choose from on election day.

Still, it doesn’t go unnoticed by other county attorneys when protestors show up at the home of one they disagree with.

“We get questioned about our decisions now more than ever,” said Otter Tail County Attorney Michelle Eldien. “You have people coming after us in the press,” she said. “I still love what I do, but certainly it’s not for everybody.”

Martin County Attorney Terry Viesselman said it’s no longer for him, and has plans to retire June 30. He thought his longtime assistant would run for the job this year, but the assistant went into private practice last year.

“He later told me that he slept better his first week in private practice than he had for years,” Viesselman wrote in an e-mail. “He said that he didn’t want to have to deal with running for office every four years, that the job keeps getting worse and worse with more and more rules and restrictions falling upon the county attorney office, and the increasing viciousness of social media.

“He was right on all three of those factors.”

The Martin County Board will appoint someone to carry out the remainder of his term, said Viesselman. Then they’ll have to appoint someone in January for a full four-year term since no candidate filed to run.

As for Viesselman, he said he’s retiring from the 9 to 5 altogether. He plans to sit in a rocking chair on his porch, and read the paper.

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