Robert E. Comes thrashed incumbent Dominick J. Mele by nearly 4,000 votes to win the sheriff's seat in Tuesday's Democratic primary by using many of the same campaign strategies Mele used in 1986.
No Republican filed for the race, so Comes is unopposed in the Nov. 7 general election.
Four years ago, Mele became the first challenger to unseat an incumbent sheriff in Harford -- his former boss, Theodore S. Moyer. Mele combined grass-roots campaigning, strong support from within the Sheriff's Department and sharp criticisms of Moyer's administration.
Turnabout is fair play, noted Comes supporters.
Comes, who was second in command in Moyer's administration, swept 39 of Harford's 40 precincts.
He garnered 11,343 votes to Mele's 7,383 votes to win the $52,000-a-year job. The only precinct 56-year-old Mele won was in his home district in Fallston.
"I expected to win, but not by that great a margin," said Comes, 58, of Churchville. "We worked hard in this campaign."
Despite the loss, Mele said he would not have conducted his campaign differently. Throughout the race, Mele has said he stayed on the "high road" by operating a campaign of "dignity and integrity."
"You either avoid smear tactics or you get involved with returning the mud that's thrown," said Mele. "In that case, I would never stoop to throwing mud by answering what I consider untruths."
Observers of the race say Mele and Comes ran similar campaigns, with one of the only differences being the color of shirts supporters wore. Members of the Mele camp wore green; Comes supporters wore red.
"I thought they both ran very professional campaigns," said David W.
Shrodes, a member of the county Democratic Central Committee. "It seems that the campaigns were pretty much identical."
But Stuart J. Robinson, a Bel Air lawyer who was Mele's campaign treasurer in 1986 and an adviser for Comes this year, said Comes had to go beyond the basic strategies to gain name recognition, show his own style and pinpoint his stand on issues.
"Campaigns have to be tailored to the individual," Robinson said. "I think Bob's biggest asset was the fact that he came across just the way he is ... He'll not only hear what you say, he'll listen to what you have to say."
Signaling the outcome of the election, campaign financial reports filed by the candidates showed that Comes raised $25,448 to Mele's $21,850. In 1986, Mele raised $23,000 and Moyer collected $17,000.
Comes supporters estimated that as much as 90 percent of the Sheriff's Department supported their candidate for sheriff -- about the same amount of support Mele said he had in 1986.
The 1986 campaign sharply divided the Sheriff's Department, with some staff members saying that wounds caused in the election are still not healed today.
Once in office, Comes said, he hopes to ease the friction created by this year's campaign.
"I'm going to try to treat everybody fairly and get us back together as one department," Comes said. "We've got to work together."
Throughout the campaign, Comes volleyed a number of criticisms against Mele that observers say played a factor in the incumbent's defeat at the polls.
Comes asked the state attorney general and state prosecutor to investigate Mele for using on-duty deputies in campaign commercials. The state prosecutor found Mele did not violate election laws or his departmental policy.
Comes also attacked Mele's refusal to recognize the county Deputy Sheriffs Union, which formed two years ago to represent about 70 members of the Sheriff's Department.
Mele said after the election that he still would not reverse his decision, maintaining that he has no legal authority to recognize the union for collective bargaining purposes.
Comes, who had the union's endorsement, said he will formally recognize the union so its members can "meet and confer" with department administrators.
Comes said the union issue, his plans for increased traffic patrols and stronger drug enforcement programs, as well as questions over Mele's campaign commercials brought voters into his corner.
Mele said he believes the outcome of the election indicates growing support among voters for a police chief appointed by the county executive to take away the police duties of the Sheriff's Department.
Mele is against the idea of forming a county police department. Comes said he is willing to help establish the new agency if the new county executive pursues the plan.
On election night, Mele's headquarters in Forest Hill were decorated with green and white balloons, ribbons and banners. But the mood became subdued as precinct after precinct went under Comes' column.
Supporters, standing around a scoreboard that displayed the results, used words like "unbelievable" and "amazing" to describe their frustration.