Top police brass running for higher office in 2021

Both Democrat and Republican top brass running in midterm elections after ‘defund police’ push

About a half dozen police chiefs and high-ranking officers of different racial backgrounds are running for higher office as both Democrats and Republicans across the U.S., as the national conversation on police reform continues over a year after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

Those candidates include Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who leads some 5,000 officers on the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. He announced in June that he would be running in the Republican gubernatorial primary, telling supporters at an event at his alma mater, Rancho High School, that he hopes to rid Nevada of "one-party rule" by unseating Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak.

The two-term sheriff’s first gubernatorial campaign ad begins with him picking up a badge, a gun and a tactical vest that says "police" while a 911 call plays. A voiceover says the Las Vegas–area sheriff kept his city safe "while other communities rioted and burned."

The Republican primary will not occur until June 2022 and has also attracted North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, who recently left the Democratic Party to become a Republican, and Joey Gilbert, a northern Nevada attorney who has questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election. Former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller also is considering a run and has been making recent appearances before rural GOP groups. 

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In Michigan, another Republican, Detroit Police Chief James Craig, formed an exploratory committee last month to run for governor, falling short of officially announcing his candidacy while he first embarks on a statewide tour. He said he would be meeting with law enforcement, hosting small-business roundtables, and meeting with voters in their homes "to hear about the negative impact" current Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has had on their communities, Detroit Free Press reported. 

In his first campaign ad, Craig is seen driving through the streets Detroit, declaring that his city "never burned," last summer after Floyd’s killing, unlike the violent civil unrest that persisted in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and even some Michigan cities. 

"Following the tragic death of Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis, Detroit never burned and always our police officers mattered. Our rules mattered," Craig said. "Following policy mattered. And that starts with me leading from the front. Many politicians don’t get that. None of this, 'rule for thee, none for me.’" 

Whitmer is expected to seek a second four-year term in 2022.

As violence rises in cities nationwide, the outcome of these elections could send a strong signal about evolving attitudes on policing and crime in America. The first test came in the New York City mayoral race, in which former police captain and current Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams won the Democratic primary in June. He is to face off against Republican Curtis Sliwa in November. 

Both are running on law-and-order platforms.  

Other Democrats with police backgrounds running include U.S. Rep. Val Demings, from Florida, who is challenging Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in next year’s Senate race. The former Orlando police chief has taken pro-police stances but also sponsored criminal justice reform legislation. Demings, who is Black, has said she does not support defunding the police but has said there may be better ways to respond to mental health problems and drug misuse than with police.

In this July 29, 2020, photo, Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., speaks during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

In this July 29, 2020, photo, Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., speaks during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.  ((Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP))

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales is a Democrat who has been declaring crime in the city to be out of control as he runs in this year’s nonpartisan mayoral contest, challenging incumbent Tim Keller, also a Democrat.

Perhaps leading the pack after participating in a White House roundtable on gun violence last month, Adams has spoken out against police misconduct and founded a group that fought racial profiling in law enforcement and pushed police departments to diversify their ranks. But he has also defended the controversial stop-and-frisk police strategy as a useful tool that has been abused.

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales is running for Albuquerque mayor. 

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales is running for Albuquerque mayor.  (Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office)

Adams and Craig, who are both Black but from different political parties, have made a point to reject the calls from progressive activists to defund the police. Decrying liberal politicians, Lombardo meanwhile has declared he "will stop all efforts to defund the police" and said, "The GOP is NOT the party of defund the police." Though past remarks about the "defund" movement have led some to suggest he supports reallocating areas of the police department’s budget to support public safety initiatives. 

In this June 28, 2021 file photo, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo speaks with journalists at a news conference announcing his candidacy for governor of Nevada, in Las Vegas. 

In this June 28, 2021 file photo, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo speaks with journalists at a news conference announcing his candidacy for governor of Nevada, in Las Vegas.  ((AP Photo/John Locher))

Both Lombardo and Craig have been dogged by lingering criticism of their departments’ responses last summer. When Lombardo appeared at a recent panel on policing put on by the Las Vegas-area NAACP, he was repeatedly interrupted by audience members wearing t-shirts that read "Justice for Jorge Gomez," a 25-year-old man who was fatally shot by police at a demonstration after Floyd’s killing.

Police said Gomez carried guns and wore body armor, and the Democratic district attorney declared the officers who shot Gomez would not face charges. But the man’s family has called for police to be held accountable for his death, and a federal wrongful death lawsuit is pending.

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Just this week, another Republican candidate, Ohio state Rep. Jeff LaRe, the former Fairfield County deputy sheriff who made a pro-law enforcement stand a centerpiece of his campaign, was defeated in the GOP primary by a candidate backed by former President Donald Trump. Mike Carey, a coal lobbyist, won the Republican nomination to run for the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio's 15th district, Reuters reported. The seat was vacated when Republican U.S. Rep. Steven Stivers resigned. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.