by Paul Heintz, Seven Days staff writer
Chittenden County Sheriff Kevin McLaughlin was practically born in the county jail.
When his dad, Earle “Buzz” McLaughlin, became sheriff in 1955, 3-year-old Kevin moved to the old Burlington jailhouse at 220 Main Street with a family that would eventually include 11 children. He spent his formative years sleeping in a converted jail cell.
“It hangs over my head,” McLaughlin jokes. “When I apply for a job and they ask, ‘Have you ever been in jail?’ I say, ’14 years.'”
Then again, McLaughlin hasn’t had to apply for too many jobs. He joined his father in the sheriff’s department in 1973 and ran to succeed him in 1986. For the past six election cycles, he hasn’t faced a challenge.
This year, he’s got an opponent.
Ed Cafferty, an adjunct criminal justice professor at Champlain College and a longtime Democratic Party activist from Charlotte, is running against the Burlington resident in the Democratic primary.
“After 27 years, it doesn’t seem like Kevin McLaughlin is very engaged in his job,” Cafferty says. “I feel that it’s time to put somebody in the sheriff’s office that is going to show leadership and institute programs that are going to help people.”
His priorities include hiring more officers to take on Vermont’s opiate-abuse problem and advocating for more restrictive gun laws.
“I believe that we really need to have more enforcement, because we really are being inundated by people bringing drugs from out of state to Vermont,” he says.
A leader of the gun-control group Gun Sense Vermont, Cafferty says he’d use the sheriff’s office to advocate for universal background checks.
“Drug dealers come up here and when they find out how easy it is to buy guns, they go back and sell them on the streets of Springfield, Massachusetts,” he says.
Rep. Mike Yantachka (D-Charlotte), a fellow gun-control advocate, supports Cafferty. He believes the newcomer could reawaken one of local law enforcement’s sleepiest offices.
“I think he wants to make the sheriff’s office more proactive, as opposed to just being there,” Yantachka says.
But McLaughlin and his allies say Cafferty doesn’t quite understand the job for which he’s running. In Vermont, sheriffs are principally charged with serving summonses, transporting prisoners, taking fingerprints and directing traffic. While Vermont’s more rural sheriffs provide policing services for towns lacking their own forces, the Chittenden County sheriff does so only for Westford, Jericho and Underhill.
“This is not high-profile stuff,” says Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, who, along with Mayor Miro Weinberger, has endorsed the incumbent. “He’s done a very competent, good job. He’s a good man. He’s got a first-rate staff.”
While McLaughlin struggles to identify concrete achievements, he characterizes himself as an experienced manager of 31 employees who has saved taxpayers money by taking advantage of contract work. He questions his opponent’s law-enforcement background — Cafferty has served 11 years as a part-time officer in the Vermont State Police’s marine division — and disagrees with his approach to fighting drug addiction.
“His theory is we’ve gotta have more cops, more cops, more cops,” McLaughlin says. “I understand how this whole thing works, and what I understand is we need more treatment to deal with demand.”
So who’s got the upper hand in a low-key Democratic primary scheduled for August 26? Presumably, the guy who’s won the job every four years for nearly three decades, right?
Then again, do you know who your sheriff is?
Commentary by William Floyd:
The sherriff’s office is the only true law enforcement agent in a constitutional republic such as Vermont and the US at large. It is charged with acting on behalf of the people as an agent of issue, enforcement and record of prosecution. Even the State’s Attorney is technically subject to the assistance and advice of the constitutionally mandated sherriff. Of the two the position is inherently meant to be distanced from politics and favoritism as the experience of early colonists had led to a deep mistrust of the King and his prosecutors/henchman/cudgels. The neutrality of the sherriff is ensured by his or her popular election and often a requirement that they live in the community they serve (and protect). Both officers of the court are required to pledge similar oaths that demand an honorable defense of the constitution and the state.
Obviously, this Cafferty fellow denies history, legal tradition, the constitutional protection against the crown and all reasonable respect for firearms rights. The only thing that will stop his ilk is to vote early and often for Sherriff McLaughlin. Caff should run for King if he wants a bully pulpit! Yantchatka should also be targeted as an enemy of our cherished Vermont gun freedoms! First to the ballot box, then to the soap box, last to the ammo box!