Recent news items have put two groups of elected Colorado officials — county sheriffs and coroners — in the spotlight: the sheriffs for their vociferous opposition to Colorado gun-control legislation, and the coroners for an unseemly spat between an incumbent and his predecessor, former friends, now bitter opponents on rival party tickets.
If they were normal politicians, our sheriffs’ policy pronouncements and our coroners’ public spats wouldn’t be particularly newsworthy. It’s what politicos are supposed to do. But these officials are essentially police chiefs and medical examiners, from whom we would expect rigorous professionalism and strict non-partisanship.
Is there anything inherently political about a sheriff’s or coroner’s work? Is there a uniquely Democratic or Republican approach to taking fingerprints or measuring a knife wound? Is a sheriff going to treat Libertarian and Socialist jaywalkers differently? Does a corpse have a position on the death penalty?
So, why do we elect them? One possibility is laziness. We inherited sheriffs and coroners, even their very titles, from ancient England, when the king appointed them as his political agents in the countryside. Robin Hood had no say in the matter. In America, the people are our royalty, and they don’t appoint, they elect. Robin Hood would have been pleased.
A second possibility is that we want it this way. Though our government is republican in form, quite a few Americans are direct democrats at heart and wary of ceding too much power (in this case, appointment power) to elected officials. It may not be by chance that directly-elected sheriffs and coroners show up more in rural counties (bastions of direct democrats) and appointed police chiefs and medical examiners in cities (bastions of republicans). (Perhaps our two parties should switch names.)
If it’s what we want, that may explain why the candidacy qualifications for sheriff or coroner are usually minimal, more or less what we demand of other candidates for political office, with scant mention of training or experience (in Colorado, the training requirement comes after one is elected).
And, if it’s what we want, who’s to say the concept wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be applied across the board?
(Commercial break from The Morning News) Hi, my name is Art VanDelay and I want to be your snowplow man. Look at this picture (cut to The Blizzard of 1907). That’s what your street will look like after a snowstorm if my opponent is elected. Now look at THIS picture (cut to The Endless Summer of 1912). No, it’s not Beverly Hills; it’s Your Street, plowed by me, just minutes after the last flake has fallen. Satisfaction guaranteed, but you’ve got to vote!
(Flyer in Mailbox) Is it fair that a guy has six double Scotches in a bar, gets in his car, T-bones you at 60 mph, flees the scene, and has no insurance?! You want justice, you deserve justice, and you’ll get it from me. Go to the “County Judges” heading on your ballot and make your vote count, for Dave “Like a Rock” Rutkowski. We’ll get the bastard!
(Knock knock) Hi, I’m Brittany Spaniel and I’m running for teacher in your daughter’s elementary school. This isn’t about book-learning, it’s about passion and I love elementary school. I spent eleven happy years there as a kid. I can’t make any promises, but I think your daughter will do just fine if you’ll vote for me …
Fantasy? Maybe not. There are rumors about a Plow PAC, an Attack PAC, and a Backpack PAC, and some murmurings about the Koch Brothers.