TRAVERSE CITY -- The sheriff's post is up for grabs in most area counties, and candidates believe accessibility, experience and smart budgeting are among taxpayers' chief concerns.
Voters in several northern Michigan counties have multiple choices for sheriff, but races in Antrim, Leelanau, Charlevoix and Manistee counties feature only Republican candidates, so the Aug. 5 primary election will decide who gets those jobs.
Candidates with varying degrees of law enforcement experience -- and in some cases no such experience -- filed to run. A few already work for their county's sheriff's department and some already hold elected office in their respective counties.
Candidates believe accessibility weighs heavily on the minds of local voters. Rocky Windish, a former Mancelona police officer and Republican candidate for Antrim sheriff, said he thinks sheriffs need to increase visibility among their employees and the public.
"Sometimes the sheriffs get caught up in their own (world) behind the desk, I want to be out there on the front lines," Windish said.
A sagging economy is among the most important issues in this election, two-term incumbent Antrim Sheriff Terry Johnson said. Voters want a sheriff who can effectively manage a budget and maintain services as funds decrease, he said.
"This one is very important because of the state of the economy," he said. "People have to be confident" their candidate has good budget sense.
Johnson isn't surprised at the turnout of sheriff's candidates in the region.
"Everybody seems to run against the sheriff," he said. "They don't normally go after the register of deeds or the treasurer."
Benzie County Undersheriff Rory Heckman, a 30-year law enforcement veteran, seeks Benzie's post as a Republican. He believes there should be restrictions on who can run for sheriff.
"The saddest part of the whole thing is the only criteria to be sheriff is to be the top vote-getter in each county," Heckman said. "There should be qualifications ... I think people think the job is much easier than it is."
But challenger Brant Downing, 25, isn't sure experience is such a deal-breaker.
"Experience has not given us a quality sheriff's department in Benzie County," he said.
Downing said he'd bring "energy and passion" to the position. People have been excited about his candidacy, he said, despite his lack of police experience.
"They don't necessarily look at the experience issue, they look at what I have to offer," he said.
If elected, Downing would lean on senior officers as he gets his feet wet, he said.
Downing would be among the youngest sheriffs in Michigan if elected. In Manistee County, Republican Kathy Fenstermacher looks to become the region's only female sheriff.
Fenstermacher is a Manistee County commissioner who put 25 years in with Manistee's sheriff's department as an animal control officer before retiring. She aims to make the department more "user-friendly."
"I've proved myself to people in this county for 25 years," she said.
A Leelanau County commissioner is challenging that county's incumbent sheriff, as well. Mark Walter believes commissioners have valuable ties to the county and a good idea of how to handle a budget, but sitting sheriffs have the edge, he said.
"An advantage is you know all the key players, but other than that there's no great advantage," he said. "The advantage always goes to the incumbent."
Kalkaska sheriff's department Sgt. Dave Israel is one of the few Democrats running. The former River Rouge police chief and 15-year Kalkaska sheriff's department veteran said he chose to run on that ticket at least in part because he wanted the election to continue past the primary.
"I didn't want the race decided in August with the vote split that much," he said.
Sheriff candidates for 13-county coverage area
Antrim: Terry Johnson (R), Daniel Bean (R), Rocky Windish (R)
Benzie: Rory Heckman (R), Jeff Morse (R), Damon Wilkes (R), Brant Downing (D)
Leelanau: Michael Oltersdorf (R), Mark Walter (R)
Grand Traverse: Scott Fewins (R), Thomas Bensley (R), Brian Weese (R)
Kalkaska: William Artress (R), Nelson Gelinas (R), Dave Israel (D)
Manistee: Dale Kowalkowski (R), Kathy Fenstermacher (R)
Charlevoix: William Donald Schneider (R), Donald Sproul (R)
Otsego: Jim McBride (R), Kam Ensing (R), Michael Anthony (D)
Incumbent sheriffs in Wexford, Cheboygan, Crawford, Emmet and Missaukee counties face no competition.
Northern Michigan voters on Aug. 5 will choose among candidates for local, state and national offices and decide a spate of local tax requests. The primary election determines the major parties' candidates for the November general election. Hundreds of candidates seek posts in northern Michigan, many of whom are in contested races.
A special section in Sunday's Record-Eagle will list all northern Michigan candidates, races and millages on the Aug. 5 primary ballot.
For complete coverage of the Aug. 5 primary and November general election, including national election news, see record-eagle.com/election.