WOODSTOCK, NEW YORK — Democratic primary voters in rural Ulster County in New York will soon decide whether they want to re-nominate an incumbent sheriff who made national news by encouraging citizens to carry guns, urging an NFL boycott over players’ protests, getting sued for racial discrimination, and posing with Donald Trump in the Oval Office.
The big twist: Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum is nominally a Democrat, and he’s asking Democratic voters to choose him in Thursday’s primary. However, he is facing a tough political fight after the Ulster County Democratic Committee overwhelmingly decided to nominate Juan Figueroa, a retired New York state trooper, at its May convention. Van Blarcum had received the party’s endorsement the three previous times he was elected sheriff — as well as the county Republican party. But things are different this year.
This is the story of the unexpected fight Ulster County residents are waging to change the way their sheriff’s office works.
While Figueroa has lived most of his life in Ulster County, he is not the typical challenger rural county sheriffs usually face. He is Latino in a mostly rural county in the Hudson Valley that is over 86 percent white.
But as he told a crowd in Woodstock, NY, on a warm afternoon last August, he was inspired to get involved because of the direction the country seemed to be headed.
I know that because as a retired Marine, as a trooper, as a person of color, as a Puerto Rican, I’ve lived all of those lives. I’ve seen how great our country is, and who we are, and when I see things trickle down from the top, and bring out the worst in our fellow citizens, we need to get involved, and we need to make a change and do it now. That’s why I decided to jump into this race. I saw what was going on in our sheriff’s office and I decided it’s time for a change there.
Figueroa’s call for a return “back to civility,” is central to his campaign to defeat his own sheriff, from his own party.
“I’ve known him for 30 years,” he told ThinkProgress. “He’s a good person, it’s not personal. His policies and what he’s done is not what I believe in and not what my America is.”
Van Blarcum’s campaign representatives agreed to an interview with ThinkProgress but the sheriff never followed through with a call.
Before getting to the controversial headlines, Figueroa talks policy. A more direct approach to community policing — that is ensuring that officers who work in different communities are diverse enough to be able to implicitly understand the culture and language of the people they’re trying to protect. Reducing recidivism by offering free advertising to local businesses who work with the county jail to find first-time minor offenders, “train them, and give them a living wage job.” Tackling the opioid crisis “by getting people help rather than making them part of the criminal justice system,” and allowing people to turn over their drugs and ask for help without fear of negative legal consequence. This is a “no-brainer,” he said, to pay a fifth of the cost to “get people help” rather than incarcerate them.
“Juan is coming up as kind of a giant slayer,” said Matt Miller, a Woodstock resident who attended a Figueroa campaign event in late August. “What’s really interesting about Ulster County is that in many ways it’s emblematic of America, because you have these pockets of, like Woodstock, very liberal, Kingston, very urban, and then you have these rural areas which are very white and very conservative.”
“Juan is coming up as kind of a giant slayer”
Ulster County has 46,384 registered Democrats, 29,631 registered Republicans, and 35,726 independents. More Democrats than ever before appear to be dissatisfied with their current sheriff.
“I love Juan Figueroa,” said Pat Strong, a Democrat running for the area’s state senate seat. “Even if there weren’t questions about the sheriff, Juan represents the best of Ulster County. He’s stepping up right at the time where a lot of us are having buyer’s regret about the sheriff.”
Figueroa has lived in Ulster County for over 40 years, spent 22 years in the Marine Corps (18 in the reserves), and retired after 25 years in the New York State police in 2013.
“I was a state trooper right here in Ulster County for the first six years of my career, and I patrolled every road and every town in this county,” he told ThinkProgress.
He got promoted in 1994 to do undercover work, and joined special investigations looking into organized crime, money laundering, and narcotics. He described investigations where people connected to drug cartels would walk around New York City with large amounts of drugs or briefcases of cash — “pretty intense cases” he said — where he had to work as a team with local and federal agencies. He cites his unique perspective from this time as an asset he would bring to the sheriff’s office.
After Figueroa left the state police he took a security consulting job in New York City, and began to engage more with his community. He ran for office in his hometown of Plattekill, losing narrowly to the Republican in 2014 and 2017. Running for county sheriff will be different.
“I got interested in the race after the last presidential election,” he told ThinkProgress. “The sheriff made several comments on things that were not the values of the people of the county.”
Van Blarcum, to Figueroa, is not providing the leadership Ulster County needs as sheriff.
“Everything from checking warrants at the Department of Social Services when somebody comes in to get help, the divisive rhetoric on his official Facebook page against the NFL and the African American players that are kneeling — they’re not disrespecting the flag, they want a change in how law enforcement deals with the underprivileged,” Figueroa told the crowd in Woodstock.
“So divisive rhetoric is something you’re not going to get from me. Zero tolerance for sexual harassment, zero tolerance for discrimination. When your own people sue you because of these issues, it’s a lack of leadership, and it trickles down from the top.”
“I would submit that our sheriff isn’t a Democrat, I don’t care what the label is,” state senate candidate Pat Strong told ThinkProgress. “I remember when he first started expressing his views on Facebook. It was very clear to me then that we needed a challenger.”
A mailer sent to ThinkProgress composed by the Van Blarcum campaign omits the fact he did not receive the endorsement of the party this year. “I am proud to have had the Ulster County Democratic committee endorsement to serve as your County Sheriff,” he says in the mailer.
The wording does not say he has the endorsement this time around. The party committee described this as an attempt “to mislead voters into believing that he is the currently endorsed candidate of the Democratic Party” in a statement. “He is not.”
“He’s a Republican candidate who is trying to steal the voter’s right to choose a candidate in November by attempting to co-opt all party lines on the ballot,” Chair of the City of Kingston Democratic Committee Joseph Donaldson said in a statement. “He is misleading Democratic voters on his record.”
Van Blarcum wrote in a “message to my fellow Democrats” on Facebook that “for 23 years, I have served the residents of Ulster County as a registered Democrat.” He acknowledges “other major political parties” have endorsed him, “and yet I remain a registered Democrat!”
And Van Blarcum has not taken getting primaried by a fellow Democrat lying down. In a video titled “Responding To LIES With The TRUTH Part 2,” released Wednesday, the incumbent attacked Figueroa for having been “out of law enforcement for five years” and for lacking managerial experience in law enforcement. “If you don’t have a working knowledge of actual day-to-day operations, you can’t walk in the door and try and take over the 280 employees we have and our $32 million budget,” he said.
Van Blarcum was nominated by the Ulster County GOP earlier this year, as he has been in previous years. He has overwhelmingly won previous general elections — by 90 percent in 2014 (he was unopposed).
Prominent Republicans have fallen in line behind Van Blarcum.
“The other side wants to see an America where we are divided into segments based upon what’s your color, your ethnicity, your nationality, your sexual preference — this is what the modern Democratic has become,” said Rep. John Faso (R-NY) during the convention in which the Ulster County GOP nominated Van Blarcum to the party line in November. “That’s why a guy like Paul VanBlarcum isn’t nominated.”
As Figueroa was talking to local elected officials before he decided to run for sheriff, he told one who had known the incumbent for years that he wanted to run, but he didn’t want to split the Democratic party.
“He looked at me and he said, ‘Juan, Paul has already done that,'” Figueroa told ThinkProgress. “And here’s someone who lives in this county, a well-respected individual, a friend of the incumbent, and when I heard that, I knew what that meant. Democracy is about having a choice.”
Figueroa’s strategy is to rely on the progressive Democratic base in the county, as well as other Democrats who are dissatisfied with Van Blarcum, to win the primary on Thursday, get the party line on the ballot in November, and rely on party loyalty to win the general.
“The incumbent has really angered a lot of folks in the Democratic base,” he said.
He described the scene of the party convention, where “97 percent of the people there were white, and many over the age of 60” overwhelmingly chose him over the incumbent, “it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life.”
In a video titled “Responding to LIES With The TRUTH Part 1,” Van Blarcum accused Figueroa of telling lies and lacking the experience necessary to do the job.
The Facebook post in which the campaign shared the video contains two comments from people who identify themselves politically as a “Republican” and a “lifelong conservative” who register their support for Van Blarcum.
Meeting with Trump
Last year, Van Blarcum caught flak back home when he met with President Trump in the Oval Office during Police Week.
Van Blarcum explains the visit as something any sheriff would do during Police Week where officers who lost their lives in the line of duty were commemorated, as Ulster County sheriff dive team member Sgt. Kerry Winters, who died in a training exercise in the fall of 2016, was.
Van Blarcum is second from the left.
Figueroa says that while he would have paid his respects to his fallen colleagues, he would have passed on the meeting with Trump.
“If I was elected sheriff, I would have to decline his invitation to the White House, and the reason why is because I represent a lot of people in this county who know how important diversity is, who know the people who built this nation and the hardworking backbone of this democracy that we live in,” Figueroa told ThinkProgress.
Van Blarcum maintains that the meeting had no political subtext and was not a statement of approval or disapproval of Trump. Nevertheless, his public connection to the president has become a liability with some voters in Ulster County. Trump lost Ulster County, unlike most other counties in New York, 52-41 to Hillary Clinton.
If you got ’em, pack ’em
After the San Bernadino mass shooting in December 2015, Van Blarcum wrote a official-looking letter to “licensed gun owners” on his official sheriff’s office Facebook page in which he said, “I want to encourage citizens of Ulster County who are licensed to carry a firearm to PLEASE DO SO.”
He also asked all police officers, retired or not, to carry their weapon with them “whenever you leave your house.”
This “good guy with a gun” theory historically has not worked well for bystanders or police officers responding to shootings. Adding more guns to tense situations is rarely effective or safe, turning benign situations into deadly ones.
Figueroa says he is a gun owner and believes in the Second Amendment and common-sense gun laws. But he says a sheriff calling for more guns is a public safety issue.
“When you make a comment like that, you’re putting your own people in harm’s way,” Figueroa told ThinkProgress. “Twenty-five years in the state police, have I taken my gun out? Absolutely, when I thought I had to use it, but I never did. How can I put that responsibility on someone who doesn’t have even one inch of the training that I have? How can I put my own people in uniform in harm’s way when they go to a shootout and they don’t know in the chaos who the good guy is and who the bad guy is.”
Two very different approaches to immigration
Every person arrested and taken to the Ulster County jail gets an immigration-naturalization check, with the names and results going to ICE. Van Blarcum has defended the way he implements the law and cooperates with other law enforcement agencies.
To Figueroa, it’s a waste of taxpayer money. “He doesn’t care if there’s a minor arrest of a major felony arrest,” he told ThinkProgress. “I am not contacting ICE for minor offenses if the individuals have not committed any major crimes. ICE, if they want somebody, they have to give a warrant from a judge, stating that this individual is wanted.”
Spoke live this morning with the fine people at La Voz on @RadioKingstonNY We talked about many issues, from community policing to immigration, and stressed the importance of The Vote in making positive change. pic.twitter.com/NyTFkwxOWW
— Juan Figueroa (@JuanforUlster) September 4, 2018
Van Blarcum has called the concept of sanctuary cities, “a poor idea,” whereas Figueroa said that his main job would be to preserve the peace, and if that meant recognizing a city as a sanctuary city, “then I will uphold the peace.” That also means, he said, holding documented and undocumented people accountable if a crime is committed.
He argued that sending people to ICE for minor charges is a “tremendous public safety issue” because it breaks any remaining trust between marginalized communities and law enforcement. “You’re closing an entire community,” Figueroa said. “You’re not going to have any witnesses to crimes.”
Figueroa told ThinkProgress that diversity is important to him, and “knowing how important it is we’re a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.”
The sheriff’s approach isn’t limited to immigrants. In 2014, Van Blarcum began requiring anyone visiting the Ulster County Department of Social Services (DSS) to submit ID and then be checked for any active arrest warrants. This meant that the already-vulnerable populations coming in for emergency assistance, child care, or food stamps would face a potential legal threat in a place that is normally there to offer support. The ACLU and state officials objected and the practice stopped. Figueroa wonders why the sheriff did not target the DMV or the Deeds office before the DSS.
NFL boycott on the official sheriff page
Sheriff Van Blarcum used his official sheriff Facebook page, normally filled with arrest notices, to call for a boycott of the NFL last Veterans Day. Like Trump and other Republicans, Van Blarcum’s issue with the NFL was not how the league handled head injuries or sexual harassment but rather the athletes who protested police brutality in pre-game demonstrations.
Van Blarcum said he made a “mistake” expressing personal views on the official page, but defended those views on his campaign site.
To Figueroa, and other Ulster County Democrats, Van Blarcum is taking a cue from the rhetoric trickling down from President Trump. Figueroa lamented “when somebody in a position of authority that’s elected by the people gets on Facebook [to say something] that’s offensive, that makes no sense, and has no bearing on what his office is, it’s because he forgot who put him in office. He forgot what this country’s about, he forgot what his role is as sheriff, and I’m here to remind him. It came from the top.”
While Van Blarcum dons the mantle of patriotic defender of veterans and the military, his opponent does not so easily fit into the role of a liberal foil.
“I’m a Marine, a veteran, the only veteran that’s running in this race,” Figueroa told ThinkProgress. “I did 4 years of active duty, 18 in the reserves, Desert Shield/Desert Storm vet.”
Figueroa said that he fought in the Marine Corps for the right to protest. “African-Americans have been using sports as protest since the 1960s,” he said. “This is not anything new. It’s their fundamental First Amendment right to do it, and they’re doing it peaceably.”
He pointed to lawsuits from corrections officers against Van Blarcum alleging racial discrimination as evidence that the seemingly-unrelated NFL protest issue actually has bearing on the sheriff’s office. He said people have to speak up when a sheriff’s own people sue him because he hasn’t promoted them.
Van Blarcum got enough signatures to force a primary contest Thursday, September 13, between himself and Figueroa for the Democratic party line on the ballot in November.
“I’m a big-picture guy,” Figueroa told ThinkProgress in Woodstock, his voice hoarse from a week’s worth of campaigning. “I’m under no illusion that this is going to be a tough race. He’s a three-time incumbent. I know what the community looks like, and I know what I look like.” He hopes that even if he loses, “somebody that looks like me that’s seen me run, maybe 5-10 years down the road, they’ll run.”
Figueroa’s shot at becoming the next sheriff of Ulster County is to win the Democratic primary and take that momentum into November to defeat Van Blarcum again, who will still be on the November general election ballot on the Republican, Independence, and Conservative Party lines.
“We need to go back to simpler times, to civility,” Figueroa told the crowd in Woodstock, as heads nodded and hands set down glasses to applaud.