KALISPELL - Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan has spoken to hundreds of voters this spring in his bid for re-election, stumping from one meeting room to the next to debate his challengers.
But the debate that revealed the most about this hotly contested race was the one at which Sheriff Meehan didn't show up at all. It was sponsored by his own employees - the same deputies who recently voted "no confidence" in their leader - and Meehan opted out.
Instead of participating, he sent a prepared message, accusing the deputies' union of a "pattern of conduct unbecoming any political campaign."
"Because of their antics, integrity would have it that I decline participation," he said, accusing the deputies of slander and "falsely inflaming the public for political gain."
For those seeking his views from the debate, Meehan said his door was always open.
The deputies, for their part, have now held two "no confidence" votes in their sheriff during the past year. Meehan won the first, narrowly, but lost the second by a wide margin. Officers complain Meehan is an ineffective leader, and is inconsistent with regard to implementing department policy and discipline.
Meehan counters that the complaints are driven by a "disgruntled few" for political purposes.
"It's not a few," said Lance Norman, a sergeant with the department who is running against his boss. "It's 74 percent of all sworn deputies, and 80 percent of the nonsworn staff. There's obviously some problems in-house."
Norman says he's running in large part because of those problems, adding that "if the office was working the way it should be, then no, I wouldn't be running."
The other challenger, former undersheriff Chuck Curry, likewise says he wouldn't be on the ballot if the department were running smoothly.
"For me," Curry said, "this race is about leadership."
Meehan's basic pitch is that he has one full term of experience as sheriff already, and so knows the job. He touts his successes - namely success winning department grants, initiating child protection programs, crafting more efficient work schedules, hiring additional medical staff at the jail and creating a new work-release program.
"I take my oath very seriously," he said.
His critics say he lacks the necessary leadership skills.
Norman casts himself as the youthful energizer, the cop working the street who knows from the inside out what his department needs. He might not have the administrative experience, he admits, but he can learn.
His critics say he doesn't have the administrative know-how to run such a complex department and its $7 million budget.
Curry is something of a blend between the two, a longtime undersheriff who worked with a popular sheriff's administration for 15 years before retiring in 2005 to become chief flight paramedic on the local hospital helicopter. He promises experience and a steady hand, as well as change from the current status quo.
His critics say he might have a hard time getting back into the job after stepping down five years ago.
It is difficult, sometimes, to tell sheriff candidates apart with the usual slate of election questions. All, of course, vow to uphold the law and to keep the public safe, and to do so within the budget. All think politics don't belong in the office, and all think tomorrow's biggest crime challenges will grow from an increasing population and an ongoing economic recession.
Each likes the idea of a centralized registry for violent sexual offenders, and each is looking to technology and creative sentencing to reduce numbers at the overflowing county jail. Each wishes the budget were bigger, but is committed to working within it.
And so what this race is about, finally, is leadership skills.
When asked about department morale, Meehan spreads the burden, saying "we all have some ownership in that."
"Everybody," he said, "has a part in morale," predicting that many of the problems will "calm down after the election."
Norman, by contrast, emphasizes the need to "lead by example. I think it starts from the top, and it works its way down."
Curry, who's been the boss, says he and then-Sheriff Jim Dupont "ran a very publicly responsive office" that was well respected both from within and without. The trick, he said, is a "strong, competent leader who people can trust."
Morale isn't a problem, Curry said, so long as people know the rules, know the rules apply equally to everyone, and know that both the rules and the rulemaker are fair.
Curry agreed with Norman that morale can be a top-down affair, but also concurred with Meehan that everyone has a role in the game. "You're only as good as the people beneath you," he said.
Their understanding of the department's problems, and of what this race is about, is perhaps most evident in their top three priorities.
Norman would hold an all-hands meeting, set a positive tone and open his door to all.
Curry would establish a set of clear rules and policies, restore confidence with assurances that those policies will be implemented equally, and craft a unified and long-term mission to provide overall department direction.
Meehan would continue working to unify the region's emergency call center, pursue grants for more deputies and build a child abduction response team.
And as for that deputy-driven debate that Meehan boycotted, Norman remains "disappointed." Curry, for his part, is "saddened."
And Dave Kauffman, president of the deputies' union, said only that "I think it kind of speaks for itself."
The union, to date, has not endorsed any particular candidate, but several department staffers have posted Curry's campaign signs in their yards.
Because all three are running as Republicans, and no Democrat has filed, the race will be decided at the June 8 primary.
Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.