Even though the "primary" isn't until Sept. 19, GOP candidates Cal Walker and Ozzie Knezovich have spent these last two weeks pounding lecterns with their messages and pounding campaign signs into lawns in a wave that has swept the county.
Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed is predicting a 35 percent turnout for the primary, says Paul Brandt of the county elections office: "We figure, because of the interest in the Republican Sheriff's race, we will be a little higher than that --35 [percent] to 40 percent."
Interest in the sheriff's race? A driver can't go anywhere in Spokane County without seeing a blur of signs for Walker or Knezovich . Often the signs are found side by side.
"Yard signs? I have 23 hundred out right now," Knezovich says. He has roughly 3,000 signs in all, ranging from yard signs to billboards.
Walker says he has roughly 4,000 signs in place.
Other candidates in countywide races are happy to have 1,000.
"Early on, I was told signs are important -- and to concentrate on name identification and name identification," Knezovich says.
As if someone who answers to Knezovich (and it starts with the hard K) has any issues left about names.
Theirs has become a battle on a grand scale, and it may well be a referendum on how sheriffs around here are selected.
The roots of this election go back to last year, when former Sheriff Mark Sterk announced that he was taking early retirement and began pushing his prot & eacute;g & eacute; Walker as a replacement.
Everything seemed routine until a Dec. 7, 2005, meeting of the county's Republican Precinct Committee Officers, in which the group was to forward three names for a new sheriff to the county commissioners. When the PCOs backed Sterk's choice with minimal discussion, then named Sterk county GOP chairman, suddenly a perception arose that perhaps skids were being greased.
Enough outrage was expressed during the next couple of months that the all-GOP county commissioners took the rare step of holding public interviews of all three people on the replacement list.
And then they unanimously selected Knezovich -- who was a sergeant at the time -- over Walker, who is captain of the Valley precinct and, as such, chief of police for the City of Spokane Valley.
Surprise does not begin to describe the aftermath, which began with an awkward handshake in front of TV cameras in a crowded hallway.
Any resentment either candidate may feel toward the other is being kept in check publicly. Both Walker and Knezovich -- though they disagree on a number of points -- keep the focus on running a clean, professional agency.
If they lost the race would they stay with the department? Both say yes. If they won the race, would the other still have a job? Both say yes.
"There is no animosity," Walker says. "You've heard me say it -- and I hope I have lived it during this campaign -- that I will not throw any mud. I think we take a stand on the issues and I am willing to stand on that and win or lose."
Looming issues include what to do about the chronically overcrowded jail. An expansion committee has been meeting for years and has recently presented choices that include building a jail-and-courts complex near the airport or expanding the jail at its current location in the cramped county campus just north of downtown.
Walker and Knezovich each insist an expansion -- whether in a new or old location -- must last more than 10 or even 15 years, or else it's money wasted. Walker appears to have greater detail when it comes to thinking about sentencing alternatives and dealing with the mentally ill -- although both stress mental health programs need better funding so the mentally ill don't wind up in jail as a default.
They differ somewhat on the issue of community policing, although both are fans of the concept. Knezovich says detectives need to be assigned by precinct to stay in closer touch with patrol officers and cop-shop volunteers. This leads to better intelligence on crime trends and connection with communities, he says.
Walker, as an administrator under Sterk, helped institute a new scheme in which detectives were assigned cases from a central office -- meaning they could be working the Valley one week and the north county another.
Service levels were declining under the old system, Walker says, and he saw trends in caseloads rise under the new.
Knezovich disagrees. "I investigated 98 crimes under the old system, 99 under the new."
Even though they have taken a high road through the campaign, each does get in digs at the other.
"Ozzie was a district-based detective," says Walker. "And he had some great successes. [But] that's a narrow view from the trenches; as a manager you need to look at the bigger picture." Walker cites his experience running the Valley precinct -- working closely with the mayor and council of Spokane Valley -- as providing a broader perspective.
Walker is quick to admit he was jumped from sergeant to captain by Sterk in much the same way Knezovich was jumped from sergeant to sheriff by the county commissioners.
Learning on the job is possible.
And a couple of recent scandals have given Knezovich a chance to show leadership qualities that -- judging by the always imprecise talk radio and letters to the editor -- have caught attention.
Shortly after he was appointed sheriff, an investigator was caught exposing his genitals to a young woman at a coffee stand. More recently, a jail supervisor was accused of having affairs with coworkers and pushing his lover for promotions.
In each case, Knezovich swiftly fired the offending officer.
"The first one? The guy at the coffee shop? Hell... he was a friend," Knezovich exclaims. "He showed my daughter where to hunt deer last fall.
"That one really caught me off guard... But you learn what needs to happen. Dragging things out is not good for the citizens and it's not good for the department."
There is something of a blue collar/white collar split in the campaign, with more regular deputies listed as contributing to Knezovich (who was union president before his elevation last spring), while more officers support Walker.
"We think Ozzie is good for us not because he was union president, but because he's a guy who stands up and does what's right," says Det. Dave Skogen, who has replaced Knezovich as president of the Spokane County Deputy Sheriff's Association. "I know that sounds corny and some people say 'Oh, you only want him because he was union president.'
"I think it's meaningful that we, the rank-and-file, are backing a candidate who is not necessarily well-connected, but who will do what is right. The real bottom line for us is what's good for police is good for the community," says Skogen, citing transparency, accountability and fair discipline.
Connections. This is why the race seems so interesting... why there are 7,000 signs and huge fund totals. (Walker cracked the $100,000 barrier this week, according to documents on the Public Disclosure Commissioner Web site, while Knezovich is just shy of $70,000 despite a later start.)
Given the way Sterk's attempt at mentoring blew up in his face, the race has become a referendum on connections as much as anything else.
Yet both candidates offer serious and largely similar takes on law enforcement issues -- especially the need for cops to connect with the community in which they serve.