Daniel Nichanian

Seven people died in the Milwaukee County Jail under Sheriff David Clarke’s tenure. One man died in 2016 after being denied water for seven days, and a criminal complaint later described “an institutional practice of punitively shutting off water to unruly inmates.” Clarke was also known nationally for harsh policies toward immigrants, disparaging comments toward Black Lives Matter, and his staunch support for President Trump—this, despite the fact that he was elected as a Democrat in a blue county. But Clarke resigned in 2017, and his chief deputy Richard Schmidt became acting sheriff.

Schmidt is now running for a full term. In the Democratic primary, he faces Earnell Lucas, a former police captain who now works for Major League Baseball, and Deputy Robert Ostrowski. (The primary winner faces no Republican in November.) Lucas has received the endorsements of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Milwaukee County Democratic Party, and Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights group that led protests against Clarke. But Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele endorsed Schmidt and is spending on his behalf.

Schmidt has distanced himself from Clarke. He asked the National Institute of Corrections to evaluate the county jail and he says that he will improve its conditions. But his share of responsibility in the abuses perpetrated at the county jail are one of this election’s defining issues. Schmidt was the county’s inspector of detention services from 2006 to 2010, at which point Clarke made him senior commander. Schmidt is named in a lawsuit filed over a death at the jail, and Lucas and Ostrowski both flag his power under Clarke. “I don’t know how anybody can be number two in any organization and not responsible for either making decisions, making recommendations or implementing those decisions,” Lucas said. Lucas attributes the jail deaths to a lack of “respect for the workers,” inadequate training, and overworking, and casts himself as a better manager.

The debate over Schmidt’s responsibility occasioned a strange confrontation in April: Clarke himself called into a radio show that was interviewing Schmidt to say that Schmidt’s efforts to blame him for the jail’s conditions were a “political cheap shot” and that Schmidt was in charge of the jail during the deaths of people detained there. Schmidt responded that he did raise concerns that “fell on deaf ears.”

The campaign has also revolved around immigration. Schmidt rebuts criticism that the immigration policies of the sheriff’s office have been too severe. “We have never as an organization, ever, targeted illegal immigrants,” he said in April. But in 2017 Clarke applied to join ICE’s 287(g) program, which deputizes local officers to act as federal immigration agents, and Schmidt did not withdraw this application when he became acting sheriff in September. ICE ended up rejecting the application in November.
Like his two challengers, Schmidt has committed to not ask people in custody their immigration status. But Raven Rakia reports in The Appeal that Schmidt’s office honors ICE “detainer” requests by holding individuals for the federal agency. Lucas said that the county has “more pressing needs for holding persons in our jail than individuals who simply do not have the proper documentations,” but he did not commit to definitively stopping this practice, noting that there are circumstances under which he would honor an ICE request even absent a warrant. Critics have also faulted Schmidt over recent comments regarding victims of domestic violence.

Update: Earnell Lucas won the Democratic primary against the acting sheriff, Richard Schmidt, 57 percent to 34 percent. He faces no opponent in November. Voces de la Frontera Action—an immigrants’ rights group that organized local opposition to former Sheriff David Clarke, assisted Lucas’s campaign, and sent a mailer linking Schmidt to President Trump’s immigration agenda—claimed victory on Tuesday. “The results were an overwhelming affirmation that Milwaukee County voters do not want local leaders to collaborate with Trump in the separation of families,” the organization’s executive director said in a press release.