Linn County Sheriff's race pits experienced incumbent vs. relative newcomer

Sheriff Brian Gardner faces challenge from Rick Stewart

A Linn County Sheriff’s Office squad car. (file photo)
A Linn County Sheriff’s Office squad car. (file photo)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Linn County Sheriff’s Office race pits an incumbent with more than three decades at the sheriff’s office against a challenger with relatively little law enforcement experience.

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner, 54, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, was hired by the sheriff’s office as a communications operator in 1980. He became a reserve deputy in 1981 and was hired on full time in 1982. Since then, Gardner has held various positions within the department and climbed to the rank of major in 2008. He was elected sheriff that same year.

Challenger Rick Stewart, 65, a Libertarian from Cedar Rapids, said he was briefly a Maquoketa police officer in the 1970s, but was fired for refusing to shave his beard. He later founded Frontier Natural Products Co-op. When he left the company, it had 300 employees and $40 million in sales, he said. He has since traveled, studied abroad and ran for the U.S. Senate in an unsuccessful 2014 bid.

The winner of the race will oversee an office of more than 180 full-time employees — most of them sworn officers — with an annual budget of more than $20 million.

In a meeting with The Gazette’s Editorial Board, Stewart said he has respect for Gardner, but described him as a “20th century” sheriff.

“This is no longer the 20th century, this is the 21st century,” he said. “If your entire career is in law enforcement, you’re not going to reform law enforcement.”

Stewart said as sheriff he would return military gear issued to the sheriff’s office and end civil asset forfeiture. Stewart also said he will prioritize crimes against people over drug crimes — such as smoking marijuana — which he said have no victims.


“I will prioritize the work the sheriff’s department does and it will start with people who are hurting other people,” Stewart said. “And then we will move on to people who are stealing your stuff. And then, when we’re done with all of that ... then we’ll work on crimes which do not have victims.”

In an interview with The Gazette, Gardner agreed that the government is not winning the war on drugs. However, he said ignoring drug offenses is not the solution. Gardner said he supports the expansion of drug courts and providing more treatment options.

“I will not stop enforcing our drug laws,” Gardner said. “I certainly would encourage a better solution to the drug problem.”

Gardner said he disagrees with the notion that, as a career lawman, he is incapable of evolving with the profession. Gardner noted during his 8-year tenure as sheriff has increased the training and technology within the department.

When the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing was released last year, Gardner said he was pleasantly surprised to see his office was already practicing many of those recommendations. Gardner is also sending deputies to Crisis Intervention Training next month, which was also a task force recommendation.

“Yes, I’ve been here a long time,” Gardner said. “I certainly don’t know everything. We’re learning every day; keeping up with the newest technology and training programs. This is a continually evolving process. We can’t sit back on our laurels and say, ‘This has worked for 36 years, it will work in the future.’ ”


Name: Brian Gardner

Age: 54

Professional background: Hired by the Linn County Sheriff’s Office as a communications operator in 1980, became a reserve deputy in 1981 and a full-time deputy in 1982. Promoted to sergeant in 1994, lieutenant in 1997, captain in 2002 and major in 2008. Elected sheriff in 2008.

Education: Associate’s degree in law enforcement, Kirkwood College, 1991; bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration, Mount Mercy College, 1995; master’s degree in criminal justice, City University, 2004.

Family: Wife, one daughter, one son-in-law

Name: Rick Stewart

Age: 65


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Professional background: Former Maquoketa Police officer, founder and CEO of Frontier Natural Products Co-op, volunteer with non-profit trekking company.

Education: Associate’s degree in agricultural mechanics, Kirkwood College; bachelor’s degree in accounting, Coe College; master’s degree in business administration, University of Chicago.

Family: Six children, 10 grandchildren

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