Ninety-four Democratic Party operatives, not average voters, will decide who will most likely fill out the final two years of former Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp’s term in office.
A judge’s ruling Tuesday barred election officials from formally tabulating the results of next week’s primary election for sheriff. Under state law, party leaders, not primary voters, have the right to pick their nominee to be the sheriff when the job is vacated voluntarily in a year when the job would not normally be up for election.
Sharp resigned in April amid scandal in the midst of his third four-year term. County Executive Frank White had the legal right to pick someone to replace Sharp through the rest of this year, and selected former Kansas City police Chief Darryl Forte.
But the county Democratic Party committee claimed in a lawsuit that the clerk of the County Legislature, Mary Jo Spino, did not have authority to open up a one-week window in May allowing candidates to file for office and compete in their party primaries. The party said the normal filing period closed March 27, and the law states that election officials cannot reopen filing periods unless the incumbent or the only candidate for office dies, withdraws or is disqualified from running.
Circuit Court Judge David Michael Byrn agreed, and the county has no plans to appeal the ruling.
The decision comes too late to remove the three Democratic and two Republican candidates’ names from the ballot that voters will see next Tuesday. Running as Democrats were Forte, retired Kansas City police Sgt. Ramona Arroyo and Mike Rogers, a captain with the sheriff’s office. The Republicans were David Bernal and Randy Poletis.
Each party’s committee now has the responsibility for selecting a nominee for a general election race that the Democrats are heavily favored to win because of the heavy concentration of Democratic voters in Jackson County.
Primary voters will elect those committee members next week, but those insiders alone will decide who gets on the November ballot. Anticipating Tuesday’s court ruling, some candidates had already launched their internal party campaigns days ago.
“The politicking has already begun,” said Geoff Gerling, executive director of the Jackson County Democratic Party.
Instead of seeking the support of thousands of voters, Democratic candidates need only to woo a majority of the 94 committee members, who will make their selection Aug. 21.
“Candidates will be welcome to come to the committee and make their case,” Gerling said.
County Republican Party Chairman Mark Anthony Jones did not respond to an email seeking comment.
As for the Democratic candidates, Rogers could not be immediately reached. Whereas Forte responded to the ruling with a tweet late Tuesday afternoon, saying he remained “excited and committed to serving, with a forward-focused mindset, @JCSheriffOffice @JacksonCountyMO. There’s much work to be done!”
Arroyo, meanwhile, was less than pleased with the ruling, saying she was disappointed that average voters would not get a chance to choose her party’s nominee.
“I’m mad, that’s crazy,” she said. “But I’m still in it to win it.”
On the GOP side, Poletis said he was unsure whether to proceed with his candidacy, and Bernal could not immediately be reached.