Schmidt is a career officer in the sheriff’s department, rising through the ranks to become Clarke’s No. 2 in 2010; he became acting sheriff upon Clarke’s resignation. And it was Clarke that dragged him down in the race. All three candidates said they wanted to move beyond the Clarke era, but Schmidt was unable to effectively separate himself from his former boss.
As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported, “In his campaign, Schmidt emphasized the dozen or more changes he made at the agency since Clarke’s departure, from balancing the budget and going after reckless drivers on freeways to reforming jail operations after several custody deaths during Clarke’s tenure.”
But activist groups hammered Schmidt for his role in the Clarke administration, during which he had oversight of jails, and for his cooperation with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Lucas, a former Milwaukee police officer who is a top security officer for Major League Baseball, won endorsements from Senator Tammy Baldwin and Mayor Tom Barrett, both Democrats, and progressive groups including the Working Families Party. Schmidt had the backing—and substantial financial support—of Democratic County Executive Chris Abele. Although Tuesday’s election was a primary, Lucas is almost certain to win the general election.
Schmidt is the latest sitting sheriff to lose his reelection bid this year, which is unusual because the average U.S. sheriff serves 24 years in office. These elections seem to be part of a grassroots push for criminal-justice reform at the local ballot box. In two big North Carolina counties, Mecklenburg (home to Charlotte) and Durham, voters in May decided to toss sitting sheriffs in favor of challengers. In these cases, as in Milwaukee, jail conditions and cooperation with federal immigration authorities became central weaknesses for the incumbents.
How law-enforcement reformers are concentrating efforts at the local
Voters have also kicked out sitting prosecutors in favor of reformists. Earlier this month, Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor in St. Louis County, Missouri, lost a primary to Wesley Bell. McCulloch attracted national notoriety for his approach to prosecuting Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. In May, in Durham County, an incumbent district attorney lost to the progressive challenger Satana Deberry. In 2017, in the most high-profile illustration of the trend, Philadelphia voters elected Larry Krasner, a longtime reformist gadfly, to be the city’s chief prosecutor.
Lucas’s victory Tuesday is important because it’s a repudiation of Clarke’s particularly bleak record as Milwaukee County sheriff. But taken together, these victories by challengers show how the theater for criminal-justice reform has shifted from the federal level to local races. Since the appointment of police-friendly Attorney General Jeff Sessions, federal criminal-justice reform has slowed substantially, despite some efforts by the White House senior aide Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law. Filling that void, activist groups are working for piecemeal reform in cities and counties.
As for Clarke, his profile has been lower since leaving office, but he hasn’t totally disappeared. On Sunday, an episode of the prankster Sacha Baron Cohen’s show aired in which Cohen, in disguise, asked Clarke about how he would have dispersed anti-fascist protesters in 1930s Germany.