Sheriff's race lauds change

GOP's Cochran seeks distance from Golding

Maryland Votes 2006

October 01, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN REPORTER

At a recent televised debate at Harford Community College, Norman R. Cochran glanced at a note card and told the crowd that "a vote for Cochran is a vote for change." The Republican candidate for sheriff said it was time for a command that doesn't tolerate increased crime and misconduct in office.

To observers, Cochran's critical comments and his effort to distance himself from the current regime seemed at odds with the outward appearance of his campaign - that he is aligned with the current sheriff, a Republican, and his influential undersheriff.

But while Cochran enjoys the sheriff's encouragement, supporters say he is determined to convince voters that as sheriff he would be beholden to no one - from the present leadership to the street deputies - and that his Democratic challenger, L. Jesse Bane, a 34-year member of the agency, would maintain the status quo.

On Thursday, Cochran went on the offensive in asserting that profile, claiming at a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters and American Association of University Women that the agency has tolerated crime, sleeping on the job and sexual harassment among officers.

Earlier that day, as the deputies union was preparing to announce its endorsements, Cochran also called for the resignation of union President Fred Visnaw, pending the outcome of an internal trial board hearing this month. Visnaw, a deputy, faces charges stemming from a July incident in which he was reportedly caught sleeping in his patrol car.

Cochran said Visnaw's "conduct is not acceptable nor should it be tolerated. ... the Sheriff's Office deputies ... should not be tarnished by the shadow that has been cast by its representatives."

It seemed to serve as a pre-emptive strike against his imminent loss of the union's endorsement, which went to Bane by a wide margin, 167-6. Cochran, a former state trooper, did not appear at a meeting to solicit the 250- member group's endorsement and later said he hadn't expected to receive it.

Union Vice President Donny Gividen said most deputies believe that Bane - not Cochran -would be the change agent for problems affecting the agency. He also defended Visnaw, saying that he is entitled to due process.

A spokesman for the Sheriff's Office also rebutted Cochran's claim that misconduct and crime were being tolerated.

"The office of the sheriff has never tolerated employees doing anything less than what is required of them in the performance of their duties," said spokesman Robert B. Thomas.

Cochran's about-face, however, will present a challenge for Bane, who retired from the agency in April.

Sheriff R. Thomas Golding was ramping up his election campaign when Bane stepped down to challenge him. Bane said he was dissatisfied with the way the agency was handling crime, as well as how deputies were being treated.

Bane may still represent change to the deputies, but as an outsider, Cochran, will try to use Bane's tenure with the agency against him, painting him as a fixture who has either contributed to or not done enough to cure the agency's woes.

Bane has confined his comments to his plans for combating crime. He gladly boasts about his record with the Sheriff's Office, which he said includes extensive community outreach work and the implementation of advanced technology.

Asked whether Visnaw should resign, Bane said, "It's not a part of my campaign who is union president. I want to talk about the issues affecting the residents of Harford County."

Turmoil within the agency has been rampant in recent months, and the union was divided in the spring when it elected Visnaw. But Bane's candidacy, coupled with what many deputies see as a persecution of Visnaw, has been a rallying cry.

"[Bane]'s very trusted, and from what I heard last night, they know integrity is a priority for him," Gividen said. "He truly has a passion for this agency, and he wants to be the sheriff."

Golding and Undersheriff Col. Howard Walter have appeared at most of Cochran's events, including a small gathering the night of the primary election at his campaign headquarters. Cochran received a $1,000 check from Golding as well.

But in the span of a few hours Thursday, Cochran had angled to reposition himself - from the administration's handpicked successor to an outsider seeking to shake things up.

Many deputies had feared Cochran might create a well-placed position for Walter, who was accused in the spring of pressuring deputies to support Golding's election campaign. Golding decided in April not to run.

According to Bruce Carlin, chief of staff for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, Walter will leave the agency within weeks - before a new sheriff is installed - to take a state position. Walter could not be reached for comment.

Like Golding, Cochran believes that a handful of deputies are creating most of the agency's problems for political purposes. Union leaders point to the endorsement vote margin as proof that the sentiments are largely a consensus.

The campaign for sheriff was not the only race considered by the union deputies, but it was one of only two for which they supported a Democrat. The union voted to spend $30,000 to support their choices, with sheriff and county executive given priority, Gividen said.

By wide margins, members selected David R. Craig for county executive; Billy Boniface for County Council president; and Veronica L. Chenowith, James V. McMahan Jr., Chad Shrodes and Richard C. Slutzky for County Council. They failed to reach a consensus in Districts A and F, with a majority of deputies abstaining or voting for neither candidate.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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