Candidates for sheriff differ in strengths, background

If the September primary is any indication, the hotly contended race between two longtime deputies to replace outgoing Sheriff Dan Kimball is going to be close.

Sheriff’s Lt. Debbie Mealy, who is running as a Democrat, tallied 28,648 votes in the Aug. 17 primary, beating John Snaza, SWAT team commander for the Sheriff’s Office who is running as an independent, by 204 votes.

Both candidates bring different strengths to the table and tout comparable support among Thurston County’s law enforcement and political communities.

Both candidates have raised roughly the same amount of cash as the Nov. 2 election approaches, with Snaza’s $36,157.14 slightly edging Mealy’s $34,480.99. Mealy’s contributions were boosted by an influx of cash on Sept. 29, when the Democratic Central Committee of Thurston County gave $7,000 to her campaign, according to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission’s website.

So what separates the two candidates?

In a recent interview, Snaza said his work on the front lines of local law enforcement sets him apart. He said he is a proven leader – supervising lieutenants and sergeants as the commander of Thurston County’s SWAT team. He also acts as community service deputy for the Sheriff’s Office, a role that he says gives him lots of face-to-face time listening to the concerns of ordinary residents.

“I’ve devoted my entire adult life to public service,” Snaza said.

Snaza uses words such as integrity, accountability and character when describing how he would approach the sheriff’s job if elected. “I’m the most well-rounded candidate and am more in tune with what the citizens of Thurston County need and want,” he said.

Mealy says her management experience and education – she has a Ph.D. in knowledge and learning management from Walden University – give her the edge over Snaza.

“I have experience managing a complex budget during difficult financial times,” she said. “I have the education and passion to lead our Sheriff’s Office through these difficult financial times. That’s a big difference between us.”

Mealy said her campaign is going “fantastic,” and that some people have given Snaza too much credit for finishing a strong second in September’s primary.

“People forget that we won the primary,” she said.

Mealy also said that like Snaza, she has experience as a road deputy – and she worked as a road deputy for three years when she was hired by the Sheriff’s Office in 1995. She made patrol sergeant four years later and was promoted to lieutenant in 2007, after earning one of the top scores on the civil service exam.

Snaza, a Navy veteran and two-time winner of the Sheriff’s Office’s Lifesaving Award, is supported by current Sheriff Kimball, also a Democrat, and his predecessor, Gary Edwards, a Republican who served as sheriff from 1987 to 2006. As community service deputy for the Sheriff’s Office, he works in crime prevention, putting out community notifications of crime trends, publishing them in the Sheriff’s Office newsletter and to its website.

One of Mealy’s supporters, Neil McClanahan, a former undersheriff for the Sheriff’s Office for more than 20 years and a current Tumwater City Council member, said Snaza’s handling of his own finances – he declared bankruptcy in early 2009 – should be a warning flag for voters.

“She didn’t file for bankruptcy in February,” McClanahan said of Mealy. “She’s beyond reproach in that respect. We’re talking about a person (sheriff) who is going to take over a $29 million budget. You can’t ignore that.”

In a prior interview, Snaza has acknowledged his financial problems, citing a “bad investment in a house.” He said he has learned from his financial mistakes, and one of his supporters, Edwards, has said that Snaza’s finances should not be an issue, given the state of the national economy the last several years.

Snaza called the continued criticism of his finances by Mealy’s supporters “disappointing” and had a message for them. “If that’s the best you’ve got, then I’m OK with that too.”

Mealy serves as deputy director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien. The state reimburses her regular salary to the county while she is on loan to the state. Mealy has worked at the training commission’s headquarters in Burien for the past three years.

Like Snaza, Mealy touts her fair share of endorsements, from her colleagues in law enforcement, and from fellow Democrats such as Thurston County Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim, who is running unopposed in his own race to replace outgoing Prosecuting Attorney Ed Holm.

In interviews and on the campaign trail, Mealy says her managerial experience at the law enforcement academy is one qualification that would serve her well as sheriff. At the law enforcement academy, she said, she helps manage a $22 million budget, and is second in command of the academy’s basic and advance law enforcement training.

Sheriff Kimball said in a recent interview that Snaza has bipartisan support from Thurston County’s two most recent sheriffs, himself and Kimball. Kimball also said that the Thurston County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, the union for all commissioned law enforcement and support staff in the Sheriff’s Office, excluding corrections deputies, voted to not make an endorsement in the election, after Mealy asked for one.

Kimball added that he likes both candidates, but chose to endorse the candidate he thought would best lead the department. He conceded that Snaza lacks managerial experience, but is a “quick study” and will surround himself with the right people once he is elected.

“The key I really focused on is leadership and commitment,” Kimball said. “I feel John has the better leadership skills and the personality geared more toward leadership. I wish I didn’t have to pick sides, but I feel I owe it to the citizens to pick the best person.”

Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465 jpawloski@theolympian.com

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