IOWA CITY — Johnson County voters will see something on the ballot that doesn’t come up very often — a primary for county sheriff.
The last contested sheriff’s race in Johnson County was in 2004, when Sheriff Robert Carpenter retired and two Democrats — Lonny Pulkrabek and Keith Slaughter — faced each other in the Democratic primary, according to Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert.
Pulkrabek won the primary and went on to defeat Republican Steve Snyder in the general election. Since then, Pulkrabek ran unopposed in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 elections. He announced last year he would be retiring from the sheriff’s office, opening the door for the June 2 primary between Johnson County sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Brad Kunkel, 41, of rural Solon, and Cedar Rapids police Sgt. Al Fear, 47, of Swisher.
A sheriff’s job
Weipert said he believes contested races most often involve the elected positions that set public policy.
“Usually, the races you’re going to see in the primary or general are those Board of Supervisors’ seats,” he said. “This is just my thinking, but when you look at the sheriff, auditor, treasurer and recorder, we don’t set policy. We’re just running the ship day by day.”
In Linn County, the last primary for the sheriff’s office took place when current Sheriff Brian Gardner won the Democratic nomination in 2008. There have been no sheriff’s office primaries since then, and Gardner has been opposed only once — in the 2016 general election against Libertarian challenger Rick Stewart. Stewart is running against Gardner again this year.
Gardner said he believes that position doesn’t result in many races as long as the office is being well-managed and avoids any “drama.”
“I think that, by and large, that if the community is happy ... the expectation is there is no need for change,” he said.
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The sheriff’s office also differs from other law enforcement positions in that it is responsible for the county jail, as well as civil processes, such as delivery of court papers, tax sales and evictions. Those also happen to be the areas with the highest potential liability, Gardner said.
“It’s a little bit different game,” he said.
Despite it being an elected position, Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said the sheriff’s job is not a highly political position.
“By and large, I don’t make a decision every day because there’s a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ behind my name,” he said. “It’s not highly politically charged. ... It’s a lot less politically charged position than board of supervisors or legislative positions.”
Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek earned $152,998 in fiscal 2020. The sheriff oversees 71 deputies, 23 civilian employees, five part-time employees and 25 reserve deputies.
Fear — known for his work with the Eastern Iowa Heroin Initiative, which included hosting town hall meetings on the opioid epidemic, connecting addicts with treatment and helping to craft legislation related to the opioid epidemic — said he’s aware a departing sheriff is often replaced by someone from within the same office.
But he doesn’t subscribe to the notion that the office should continue to be run the same because that’s how it’s always been done.
“There’s something to be said about having somebody from the outside with new ideas and fresh eyes,” he said.
One of his goals is to bring his experience working in Iowa’s second largest city to the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and help reach more people. He said he wants to emphasize community police and get politics out of law enforcement.
“The status quo is not working, and it’s time for a change,” he said.
Kunkel said he believes the race will come down to career and community experience, as well as character.
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Kunkel touts his experience at the sheriff’s office as an important factor in the race. It’s important, he said, to know about running a jail and a civil division.
“It’s important to have a good grasp of that, I think, to effectively run a sheriff’s office,” Kunkel said. “On day one, the previous administration is gone. If you don’t have that experience, I think the learning curve is extremely difficult.”
Kunkel said he has experience handling a budget and finances, thanks to his time serving on the Solon City Council. He’s been involved in the community, serving on the board of directors for 100+ Men Who Care and the Domestic Violence Intervention Program.
“I think it’s important that any time anybody is voting in a local election that voters do their homework, they pay attention, they scrutinize the candidates ... and they make an informed decision,” Kunkel said. “Local elections are the elections that impact our lives on a daily basis.”
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