In the 1969 parody Support Your Local Sheriff!, James Garner plays a skilled but somewhat-disreputable gunslinger who stumbles his way into the job of sheriff in a Colorado frontier town. During one escapade, the mayor, played by Harry Morgan, shakes his head and remarks that “I guess you know what you’re doing, Sheriff.”
“I don’t know what I could have said to give you that idea, Mayor,” Garner’s character replies.
In the real world, sheriffs aren’t necessarily newcomers to law enforcement and don’t typically improvise their job performance. Many run for the office after working as police officers or deputy sheriffs, or after service in some other government post. Some are so effective in earning public trust that they stay in the job for decades.
Indeed, a recent Elon University poll revealed that sheriffs are better known than many other state and local pols. Asked to name the offices held by various leaders, most of the 625 voters interviewed correctly identified Mike Pence as vice president (89 percent), Roy Cooper as governor of North Carolina (82 percent), and Richard Burr (62 percent) and Thom Tillis (56 percent) as U.S. senators.
On the other hand, only 11 percent knew Phil Berger was the president pro tem of the North Carolina Senate, and just 8 percent knew Tim Moore was speaker of the North Carolina House. Berger and Moore wield significant power in Raleigh, obviously, but aren’t much known elsewhere — except perhaps in their own communities. Even back home however, only 22 percent of respondents correctly identified their state representatives, while 17 percent recognized their state senators.
By comparison, nearly half (46 percent) correctly identified their county sheriffs. Why are sheriffs more recognizable than state legislators? I think there are at least two reasons.
One is that for most North Carolinians most of the time, politics is not first and foremost in their minds. They are working, rearing children, reading or watching TV, volunteering, exercising, worshipping, or otherwise pursuing their private interests. Government is a provider of services, not the source of meaning to their lives.
The national political story is certainly compelling to many, to be sure. But they often watch it as more as a spectacle, as a reality-TV series, than as a serious effort to address public concerns or a worthy continuation of America’s great mission to establish self-government in a representative republic. Viewers know the characters. That doesn’t mean they take the current political show seriously.
Governors are often familiar to state voters, as well, and usually viewed with less disdain. They lead very publicly during times of crisis, help set the state’s agenda, and garner attention as they perform various ceremonial and economic-development duties.
At the local level, sheriffs are a bit like governors. They represent entire counties, while many other local officials are elected to represent districts, wards, or municipalities. Sheriffs also often act as public leaders during local emergencies and controversies.
The latter brings me to my second point: sheriffs are prominently associated with a local service that virtually everyone cares a lot about: public safety. Not all sheriffs prosper from the attention. In recent cycles, we’ve seen incumbent sheriffs defeated for reelection because they took actions that lost the confidence of key constituencies in the community, exhibited insufficient attention to public safety, or in a few cases revealed shocking levels of incompetence or corruption.
As we move into the 2018 election cycle, don’t be surprised if — in counties as disparate as Mecklenburg, Henderson, Cabarrus, Ashe, Davidson, Surry, Cumberland, Vance, and Pender — sheriff races prove to be more heated, and more interesting, than the congressional, legislative, or judicial contests. In fact, the outcomes of some supposedly higher-profile party primaries or general elections might actually be affected by differences in turnout between counties with competitive sheriff races and counties without them.
In Support Your Local Sheriff!, the James Garner character ends up becoming governor. In real life, the office isn’t often a steppingstone — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t politically important.