There Was Almost a New Sheriff in Town
Seven Bernalillo County sheriff contenders squeezed into the most crowded race on the Dem primary ballot. One of them was the first openly gay male candidate to run for sheriff in the nation.
Pat Davis’ sexual orientation didn’t generate local headlines in the run-up to June 1. Instead, candidate Sheriff Manny Gonzales snagged those by arresting opponent Josh Timberman on a failure-to-appear warrant a week before the primary. It’s something Davis can’t talk about without chuckling a little.
He didn’t play politics, he said, looking back on his run a week later. Instead, his was an issue-based campaign. And he didn't shy from the controversy that will fuel debate nationwide in this election cycle. Davis denounced Arizona's pending immigration law, and he was the only candidate to go further, saying he wouldn't stand for Mayor Richard Berry's agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The deal allows the feds to set up shop in Albuquerque's prisoner transport center and check the immigration status of every person arrested in the county.
Even with his opponents' absurd stunts, Davis said he had a lot working against him. "I'm a young, Anglo guy from the East Coast, who is also gay, trying to run for a high-profile position in Bernalillo County."
On election night, he walked from the Dem gathering at the Doubletree Hotel in Downtown Albuquerque to Marble Brewery to watch votes roll in with his crew. His family in Georgia was waiting nervously for counts to appear online. Davis' Albuquerque supporters greeted him at the dim pub, asking if there were any poll numbers yet, shaking his hand, smiling and talking jovially. Davis said he was more relaxed that day than he’d been in a long time. He was genial, buying beers for friends and paying for pizzas when they arrived.
Davis’ supporters would join the rest of the Democrats later in the evening, but first "we wanted to come over here and do it with our people our way," he said.
Their way on the campaign trail included good, old-fashioned door-knocking, especially on the doors of those who vote in primary elections and volunteer for progressive campaigns. Instead of blowing cash on signs and ads—the high-visibility tactic—they reached out to the LGBT community early on and asked: Will you support us? Do you think this is the right move?
Davis and partner Matt Wolke decided in the beginning that if they couldn't get enough support to run a viable campaign, they wouldn't do it. But, Davis said, he encountered no resistance, and his campaign was supported entirely by the community. He and Wolke, a detective with the gang unit in the sheriff's department, didn't have to mortgage their home to stay in the game.
“I hope in all of this that we struck a chord, and we proved that Bernalillo County is able to run an openly gay candidate and not make sexuality an issue.”
Setbacks for gay rights in New Mexico made Davis wary as he considered a run back in November. "We had concerns about whether an openly gay candidate could run in a position like this," one that is defined by a traditional stereotype of masculinity, he said. But a sheriff can't give equality rights or take them away, Davis pointed out. "It's harder to attack a candidate for how they conduct themselves at home and within their family when that doesn't affect their ability to do their job, and that's not in their job description."
The campaign hit a turning point when Davis got the endorsement of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which backs openly LGBT candidates who, it specifies on its website, "can win."
"That was the seal of approval saying we were viable not because I was gay but because I had a good campaign going and happened to be gay." That resonated with voters who didn't care either way, he added. "I hope in all of this that we struck a chord, and we proved that Bernalillo County is able to run an openly gay candidate and not make sexuality an issue."
Davis said he knew it was the right time to run because the sheriff's department needs a more progressive plan. "The old way, putting everyone in jail and throwing away the key, just wasn't working," he said. Davis has been a spokesperson for the District Attorney's Office since 2009. Before that, he was a lieutenant with the UNM police force for four years and was, at one point or another, responsible for all security services on campus. Before that, he was a street cop in Washington, D.C. "That was my favorite job I've ever had," he said. "Every day was almost like an episode of 'COPS.' In D.C., there was always something weird going on. When I was a young, new cop and wanted to get involved in everything possible, that was the place to do everything from homicide to traffic tickets."
At 31, Davis was young for a sheriff's candidate. He favors a forward-thinking approach to law enforcement, he said. These days, only a small part of what street cops do is put bad guys in jail, Davis said, and the rest is social work—counseling families, taking care of kids in schools, preventing gang activity and building neighborhood coalitions. "That's really where law enforcement has moved here in Albuquerque and across the nation. We are changing." Punishment is no longer enough, he said, and sometimes the way to reduce crime is to understand the motives that feed it.
The ideas and the candidate might seem too liberal for a law-and-order position in Bernalillo County, but the race came down to just a few hundred votes. As the Tuesday, June 1, primary wore on, anxious Davis supporters watched numbers stay close until the end. Davis was neck and neck with Sheriff Gonzales and candidate Marie Sisi Miranda.
Davis wasn't ready to admit defeat until about 10:30 p.m. When all was said and done, Gonzales won with about 27 percent of the vote; Miranda came in with around 24 percent and Davis managed 21 percent. (See results here.)
"I don't know how I feel about having lost," he said, taking in the final tallies. "But I will say I'm proud we ran. If it opens the door for the next person to say, 'He did it. I can do it,' it's worth every volunteer hour and dollar."
He hasn't made any future political plans, but he said he's never burned a bridge. "Who knows what's next?"
So what does Davis think of the remaining candidates who will face off in the Nov. 2 election? Sheriff Manny Gonzales believes in the department, Davis said, and "absolutely has his heart in this race." Dan Houston, the Republican candidate, has been endorsed by Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who's done numerous sweeps in the Hispanic neighborhoods of Maricopa County looking for undocumented immigrants. "It will make for a very interesting race," with little gray area, Davis said. "Voters are not going to be able to say, I just can't decide."