by Peter Kusnic
Back in March, Charmaine McGuffey was in the home stretch of a Democratic primary race against her former boss, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil. In 2017, Neil had fired McGuffey from her position as Major and Commander of Jail and Court Services – the highest rank held by a woman in the department’s history – allegedly on account of her gender, sexual orientation, and outspokenness on internal affairs, according to a lawsuit filed by McGuffey.
Poetically, McGuffey landed a decisive victory over Neil in April, winning 70% of the vote. A bellwether for top-down police reform, McGuffey says the election results show her message of structural change is resonating.
Whether Hamilton County elects its first openly gay Sheriff will be decided in November, when McGuffey faces Republican Bruce Hoffbauer in the general. The Buckeye Flame caught up with McGuffey to recap her primary win and hear about the plan for victory in November.
Voters spoke loud and clear in April’s primary. How did it feel to win by such a big margin?
Tremendous. Around 3am, my wife Chris came into the bedroom with tears in her eyes, saying ‘Charm! Charm! You won…by a landslide!’ My campaign manager Mary Carol called and we were laughing and crying. Of course we expected to win, but we truly couldn’t believe [70% of the vote]! It was a relief to know that my campaign resonated with so many people. The voters’ message is that it’s time for the police department to move in a new direction, and the community is going to help me do that.
Did Jim Neil call to concede the primary to you?
I heard from the Sheriff at about 8 o’clock the night after the election. He sent a text that said, ‘Congratulations – J Neil’. So I sent him a text back saying thank you, and he sent me a thumbs up emoji – and, yeah, [laughter]that was our interaction.
Your story has received a lot of attention – including from national publications like The Advocate. What’s the response been like both locally and more broadly?
More than anything, it’s been incredibly humbling to know people are connecting with my story. I’ve heard from people all over the world, and many write to say they know someone in Cincinnati and are telling them to vote for me. It’s been an uphill climb these last three years, so to receive this outpouring of support feels like somebody reaching their hand down and saying, ‘Hang on to me and I will help pull you up.’ The LGBTQ+ community has been particularly supportive, and they have been all along. [Cincinnati City Council President] Chris Seelbach was there with me at the press conference two days after I was fired, and I can’t tell you what it meant to me to have a leader in the LGBTQ+ community standing by me when I needed somebody most.
Tell us why you believe your platform is the winning approach for Hamilton County.
No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, mass incarceration is increasingly viewed as not only morally wrong, but also fiscally unsustainable, and [reducing the prison population]is a central goal for me. I’ve been in law enforcement for more than 30 years and have never seen the level of distrust that exists now between police and the community. Especially with so many recent examples of people dying at the hands of the police, we are finding that we absolutely have to bridge these gaps. That starts with us on the law enforcement side – training officers to respect our communities and exercise empathy and compassion.
What will you do as Sheriff to stop police brutality?
Training, leadership, and transparency are key. Your leader sets the tone and the culture for the line staff. Of course you can’t control every little detail of an officer’s daily life, but when officers know that situations will be scrutinized and fairly assessed from the top down, that impacts their behavior on the street. That’s one of the reasons I got fired. I called out a situation and made a statement that an officer involved in an excessive use of force case should be fired and criminally charged. Not only did that not happen, I was vilified for speaking out. I think that’s a systemic problem in our police departments.
There are many excellent officers who are wearing the uniform for the right reasons, but if there are bad ones getting the message from the top that they can act with impunity, then they will. Nobody can make a difference until those officers are held accountable. Following [the]recent tragic case in Minneapolis that’s causing so much pain across the country, it’s been heartening to see many members of law enforcement speaking out against the officer’s actions.
What’s the game plan for November?
We are getting to victory in the general by doing even more of what we did to have such a terrific win in the primary. I’m on the phone making fundraising calls for hours every day – along with my wife Chris and Mary Carol, my campaign manager. We do Zoom calls and meetings with anybody who wants to know about my platform, and we are sending out mailers to get my name out there. This is my first political race and what I’m finding is that fundraising is so crucial. It’s not a pleasant thing to do, calling and asking for money and support, but at the end of the day, what I am asking people to do is help me change the system, and sometimes the best way to do that is to put money forward so that we can win this race.
- To learn more about Charmaine McGuffey’s campaign bid for Hamilton County sheriff, visit her campaign’s Facebook page.
- The registration period to vote is now over. What you have to do now is VOTE. HERE IS HOW YOU DO IT!
Peter Kusnic is a writer and editor based in Cleveland, OH.