Posted: June 22, 2010
SHOOTOUT FOR SHERIFF
By Celia Cohen
Mike Walsh has not been the New Castle County sheriff so long that he rode shotgun with Wyatt Earp, but close enough.
Walsh, a Democrat, won his first election 30 years ago, and he has become such a fixture in the office that the Republicans have been more inclined to let him run unopposed for the last 20 years than bother to field a candidate against him.
It is never a good sign when someone with that kind of standing cannot lock down the New Castle County Democratic endorsement, but it is what happened last week.
Walsh was waylaid by Trinidad Navarro, a fellow Democrat also running for sheriff. Navarro is a county policeman, a senior corporal who is the public information officer for the department he has been with for 19-plus years.
Neither of them was endorsed, as the vote by the New Castle County Democrats' executive committee ended in a 10-10 tie. The committee will try again in July to decide between the candidates, although it also could vote not to choose sides at all.
"It's just a testament to how important the endorsement process is," said Erik Schramm, the New Castle County Democratic chair.
Whatever, the showdown looks like it will go to a primary on Sept. 14.
Walsh is fortified by the endorsement he already has from the Democratic executive committee in Wilmington, the home base of Loretta Walsh, a city councilwoman who is the chief deputy sheriff and a political force to be reckoned with.
Once upon a time, Loretta Walsh was Mike Walsh's sister-in-law, before a divorce from his brother. The only thing more complicated than politics is families.
Navarro has taken heart after nearly swiping the county endorsement from an incumbent. "Coming out tied is not a bad place to be," he said.
This has not exactly been a cordial competition between Walsh and Navarro, not unless mortal insults are a new way to "friend" someone.
Walsh has been tagged as an absentee administrator who would rather play golf, Navarro as a plant for Tom Gordon, the former county executive, to set up a new beachhead in the government.
There is still nothing that gets a reaction in county political circles like flinging around Gordon's name. More than five years after leaving office, he continues to be maligned along with Sherry Freebery, his intimidating chief aide and fellow past police chief, the two of them roundly accused of trying to turn the county into a police state, even if they did keep taxes down.
The hostilities are so out in the open that neither candidate is even resorting to surrogates.
"I will treat the position as a full-time job, which I think would be a refreshing change," Navarro said.
"It's a mystery how he has traction, except for the Gordon factor. Gordon is a pariah, but he has a coterie," Walsh said.
The sheriff serves a four-year term at a current salary of $83,900 a year and supervises a staff of 20 people, who serve court papers, shuttle prisoners to court and conduct sheriff sales on foreclosures. The only patronage job is the one for the chief deputy, who is paid $71,100 a year.
Walsh, who is 72, was elected in 1980 as a reformer, casting out a system whereby sheriffs used to collect a salary based on mileage and milked it shamelessly. He declares that the office not only runs efficiently but that he has given up golf.
"As a 30-year person who has been in office since I was in the fifth grade, he deserves some respect," Navarro cracked.
Navarro, who is 40, is something of a familiar presence as the voice of the county police. He is responsible himself for cementing his association with Gordon in the public mind. Navarro went to court when he was not promoted under Chris Coons, the Democratic county executive who got himself elected as an antidote to the Gordon-Freebery connection.
It was some lawsuit. The most incendiary element was a conversation Navarro said he had with Coons' communications director, who told him he was on the "losing team" and "Chris butters the bread." The county settled before trial, although Navarro never made sergeant.
"I'm still surprised that someone who has been a non-promotable corporal for the 20 years he has been there thinks he should be the sheriff," Walsh razzed.
Navarro said he decided to run for sheriff after Walsh let it be known he was ready to retire. Walsh said he did nothing of the sort.
Regardless, Walsh could look like weak prey after so many soft re-elections, and for a while there, he appeared to be in denial that anyone could take him out.
Navarro insists he is not fronting for Gordon, although they are friendly and Gordon wants him to win. Gordon is certainly still in politics, these days as the Democratic chair in the 20th Representative District covering the Hockessin-Pike Creek Valley area.
With the candidates' filing deadline still three weeks away, the primary for sheriff is shaping up as the Democrats' bitterest feud. Political parties hate primaries, because the bad blood can be exploited in the November election by the other side.
There is little doubt the resentments of this one will linger, but more than half of the county voters are Democrats, and the Republicans have found no one who wants to run for sheriff. Never mind.