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2018 Election Preview: Sheriff of Ulster County, New York

Election for Ulster County sheriff fought over over immigration, opoids.

Ulster County sheriff loses primary fought over immigration and opioids, but Nov. is a rematch

Daniel Nichanian

Paul Van Blarcum faced no opponent in 2014 when he won a third term as the Democratic sheriff of Ulster County. In fact, he was endorsed by the Democratic, Republican, Independent, and Conservative parties. But Van Blarcum was resoundingly rejected by his party on Sept. 13, losing the Democratic primary 82 percent to 18 percent to Juan Figueroa, a retired state trooper.

What changed? “Trump made us look at these local issues and evaluate our local elected officials and ask ourselves, ‘is this what we want?’” Andrew Zink, head of the Ulster County Young Democrats, told The Nation. Van Blarcum has been in office since 2007, but the Trump era made it more widely glaring that his policies are relevant to political contestation.

In 2015, Van Blarcum began to check for arrest warrants for anyone entering the Department of Social Services (DSS) to gain access its services. He stopped the practice when the state attorney general’s office questioned its legality and slammed its disproportionate impact on people of color. He has also drawn attention for statements he issued on the Facebook page of the sheriff’s office. In 2015, he urged licensed residents to “please” carry a firearm. Two years later, he called for boycotting the National Football League over some players’ actions protesting racial injustice. “They show an utter lack of patriotism and total disrespect for our veterans,” he wrote.

Van Blarcum proactively cooperates with ICE. His office notifies ICE of foreign-born persons it arrests. “We do immigration-naturalization checks on everybody that comes in,” he told Hudson Valley One. “We would get a hold of customs and immigration and ask if they’re interested in picking the person up,” he explained elsewhere. Figueroa casts Van Blarcum’s “hard-line policy of reporting immigrants” as a threat to public safety. “Immigrants should feel safe to seek the protection of the law,” a Figueroa flier says. Figueroa would provide ICE information when ICE has a warrant and when an individual is convicted of a felony. “I am not an extension of ICE and I will not be contacting ICE for minor offenses,” he said.

Figueroa has also denounced Van Blarcum’s policy of checking DSS visitors. “What he did there was to take on the underprivileged that we have in our community,” Figueroa told Hudson Valley One. “The poor people who aren’t going to say anything because they’re there to get help.”

In addition, Figueroa has spoken about changing the county’s policies on opioids. The opioid crisis “is not a problem we can simply arrest our way out of,” he wrote in an April op-ed, and he contrasts the prevailing emphasis on prosecution with approaches focused on treatment and public health.

Van Blarcum and Figueroa face each other again in November because Van Blarcum is endorsed by the Republican, Independent, and Conservative parties. Ulster County leans Democratic—it hasn’t voted for a GOP presidential candidate in 30 years—but Van Blarcum could win if he retains enough support among Democratic voters.