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LANSING — Two traditional political battlegrounds could become, well, less bloody, if 83 county prosecutors and 83 county sheriffs were elected without Democratic or Republican affiliations.
Four lawmakers led by Rep. Joel Johnson, R-Clare, want to switch those positions from partisan to nonpartisan. The co-sponsors are Reps. Terry Brown, D-Pigeon; Kevin Daley, R-Lum; and Martin Howrylak, R-Troy.
Statewide, the GOP holds a majority of both positions.
“We have too much partisanship in so many ways,” Johnson said, adding that the idea for the bill came from a couple of sheriffs in his district.
“They said, ‘We don’t make the law; we enforce it equally for everyone. When we knock on the door, we don’t ask if you’re a Republican or a Democrat,’” he said.
David Houghton, a political scientist at Western Michigan University, said the proposal has merit.
“Weighing justice on a scale as we are taught seems more achievable in nonpartisan than partisan elections. Trends have to start somewhere. Why not here?”
Some of those who would be affected by such a change sound uncertain about whether it’s a good idea, and sheriffs and prosecutors alike insist they’re committed to carrying out their duties professionally and without partisanship.
For example, Montcalm County Prosecutor Andrea Krause said, “When prosecutors get together to discuss issues, it is not along Republican or Democratic lines. It is how justice is best served. How do we help crime victims and make sure criminals are punished for the crimes they commit?
“That being said, if this bill passes I would have no issue with running on a nonpartisan ticket,” said Krause, a Republican who was re-elected without opposition last November.
Allegan County Sheriff Blaine Koops said he’s intrigued by the proposal and sees both pros and cons. On the plus side, it’s “more broad-based,” but on the minus side is the fact that the office of sheriff — originated in England — is “steeped in tradition.”
In addition, political parties are strong in many counties, as is the office of sheriff, “and I think the parties would want to hold on to it,” said Koops, a Republican.
Thomas Robertson, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, said the idea of nonpartisan elections has been floated before but generated little interest among his members.
“Prosecutors treat the job as nonpartisan,” he said.
Scott Strait, the Mackinac County sheriff and president of the Michigan Sheriffs Association, said party allegiance is less a factor in small rural counties like his than it may be in metropolitan areas.
“What matters more is that the position remains elected,” Strait said. “The sheriff must be chosen by the people. We answer to the people of our county. That’s more important than whether it’s partisan or nonpartisan.”
He added, “We all know that nonpartisan politics is still politics. We all know who came from Republican roots and who came from Democratic roots.”
Neither office generally switches party control from election to election.
Last November, a Democrat became Kalamazoo County prosecutor for the first time in more than 100 years.
Elsewhere, a Democrat ousted the Republican incumbent sheriff in Eaton County, while a Democrat defeated the incumbent Democrat-turned-Republican sheriff in Mason County. In the prosecutorial ranks, Republicans ousted incumbent Democrats in Calhoun and Otsego counties, while a Democrat beat an incumbent Republican in Iosco County.
Some holders of both offices have aspired to higher-level partisan positions.
There are two former sheriffs in the Legislature, Rep. Matt Lori, R-Constantine, and Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, but no former county prosecutors.
Other sheriffs and prosecutors have run for higher partisan office, including a number in southeast Michigan, such as Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, a Republican, who lost a 2006 U.S. Senate race. Others include William Lucas, a Republican, who was Wayne County sheriff before becoming county executive and then ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1986; L. Brooks Patterson, who was Oakland County prosecutor before becoming county executive and was a failed Republican candidate for attorney general in 1982; and Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, a Democrat who was a former sheriff.