New faces vie for sheriff

A growing gang presence in the county, office morale are top campaign issues

Maryland Votes 2006

September 10, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

A former prosecutor, Joseph P. Meadows' successful campaign for sheriff in 1994 was seen as a mandate for change in an agency that had been roiled by an inmate's suspicious death and claims of political persecution.

But instead of seeking a fourth term this fall, Meadows became synonymous with the agency's problems, resigning in 2003 amid a criminal-misconduct investigation.

Now, for the first time in more than 50 years, the incumbent sheriff will not appear on the ballot. And while the decision by Meadows' appointed successor to drop out of the race created a scramble of candidates rushing to fill the void, it has produced few new ideas for how the agency should be run.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's Harford County edition misstated the age and occupation of Terry W. Serago, a Democratic candidate for sheriff. He is 41 and works in security at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore.

Throughout the campaign, the candidates have made it clear that combating the county's recent gang problems is a priority in this year's race. But few have offered a distinctive solution.

"Everyone's starting to sound the same. We all want the same thing," said Democrat Terry W. Serago when he took the stage at a recent forum.

The Republican primary offers the most intrigue, with six candidates vying for the nomination. Norman Cochran appears to have the edge, at least on the fundraising front.

Cochran, 59, has raised about $30,000 as of the first reporting deadline, enough to air commercials on local television channels and hire a plane to pull a "Vote for Cochran" banner over the county Farm Fair. (As of Thursday, the Board of Elections had not received his second pre-primary fundraising report.) He plans to have more than 30 volunteers working polling places.

Cochran, a private investigator who trains officers for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, has pledged to use new technology and federal or state grants to address recruiting woes. Despite more than 500 applicants during a recent recruiting push, the agency's screening process identified only 12 candidates for 16 positions.

But like others, he has largely shied away from specific solutions, particularly with regard to crime-fighting.

"Only by listening to you can we find out what the concerns are," Cochran told a crowd at Edgewood High School. "Then and only then can we effectively police."

Some candidates have picked up on the recently publicized morale problems within the agency as the centerpiece of their campaigns.

Sheriff R. Thomas Golding's decision not to run came amid claims of electioneering and intimidation within the office. The president of the deputies union, Fred Visnaw, also has been gagged as an investigation into allegations that he was caught sleeping during an overnight shift is carried out. Deputies say Visnaw was targeted after making critical comments about the administration.

With no law enforcement experience and a grass-roots campaign, David E. Tritt Jr. remains a long shot to win. But Tritt has been credited with starting the drumbeat of criticism about the agency's intraoffice politics. In his repeated public comments, Tritt, 32, has worked to discredit Golding and make him a liability of sorts for other candidates who seek his support.

The candidate who could benefit the most from Tritt's actions might be Joe Price, a state trooper and former member of the county Republican Central Committee who in recent weeks also has been stressing integrity and accountability as his primary platform. But Price, 51, possesses the law enforcement experience - 30 years with the state police. He was on the short list to replace Meadows in 2003.

"The No. 1 challenge over the four years is crime - absolutely. But a close second is restoring morale," Price told the crowd at a forum for the Fraternal Order of Police in Bel Air. "The sheriff has to lead by example."

Remarkably, Tritt has even stumped for Price when making phone calls. When some voters have told Tritt that they don't believe he has enough experience, he has steered them to Price.

"There's a couple of guys in [the race] that I really think would not be good for the agency and are not talking about change," Tritt said in an interview. "I really firmly believe they need a change, whether it's me or someone else."

To Raymond J. Clasing, a retired trooper, the best way to improve morale is through better police work.

"When the mission is accomplished, the morale goes up," Clasing told Edgewood residents. "The bottom line is: The sheriff needs to get the job done, and I've done it my entire career."

Clasing, 46, says he is the only candidate who has overseen a large number of officers and said his short but productive tenure as a municipal police chief in Prince George's County exposed him to the criminal culture Harford is now experiencing.

He also added a kicker: If elected, he would move the sheriff's office from downtown Bel Air to the yet-to-be-built new southern precinct in Edgewood.

Over the weekend, Clasing hopes to reach his goal of knocking on the doors of 5,000 county residents.

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