When candidates run for one of Maine’s 16 county sheriff offices, they have the option to affiliate with a political party and go through a primary election process. The reasoning behind candidates aligning politically remains vague since once elected, a sheriff is required by state law to relinquish the many benefits that come with party affiliations.

Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr. Franklin Journal photo by Dee Menear

“The only party advantage there is, if you choose to take advantage of it, is if you run — you could be a Democrat or a Republican — is you needed help through your particular party,” Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr. said in a phone interview. “You’d get additional help as far as maybe helping you with your campaign and that could take on a variety of means.” 

Once elected, a sheriff must refuse, from any person, any assessment, subscription, contribution or political service while in uniform, according to Title 30-A, Chapter 1, Subchapter 6, Article 1, Section 355 of Maine’s Statutes.

Nichols, who is running for reelection as a Republican on the Nov. 3 ballot, said he’s never used the party to support his campaigns in any way. The only major advantage he perceives with a candidate being party-affiliated is having to collect 150 signatures, as opposed to the required 300 for an unregistered candidate.

Despite the hurdle of gathering additional signatures during Gov. Janet Mills’ Stay Safer at Home Executive Order, Farmington Police Sgt. Edward Hastings IV was adamant on running for Franklin County sheriff as an independent candidate.

Edward Hastings IV, 37, of Chesterville. Submitted photo

“As I prepared to potentially run for sheriff, the first thing I did was withdraw from the Republican Party,” he said in an email. “I view the sheriff as being responsible to provide law enforcement for everyone regardless of political party. I believe that decisions made should not be based on party lines though rather for the best interest of all residents in Franklin County. I am not saying that is what is done right now – I just want to make sure that is never a factor.”

Androscoggin County Sheriff Eric Samson, who is serving his second term, ran as a Democrat but wished there was more of an emphasis on sheriff candidates themselves than their party.

“I don’t think party affiliation as far as running for the party is a necessity for this office because we’re all elected as constitutional officers with defined roles, and it shouldn’t be a basis for or a hindrance to someone seeking office,” Samson said.

Sheriffs have defined roles as outlined by state law to act as the “chief county law enforcement officer and is responsible for administering and directing the sheriff’s department as authorized by the county budget.”

However, sheriffs do have a less defined role in state legislation where they are able to advocate or contest proposed laws that they perceive as either upholding or breaching civil liberties. Maine’s 16 county sheriffs meet monthly, and they also form a committee that weighs in on legislation related to law enforcement.

“You’ll see sheriffs get involved down in Augusta when it comes to concerns of law enforcement, and you’ll see us quite frequently … discussing the pros and cons of individual (legislative bills) being presented and what the opinion of the Maine sheriffs are on that,” Nichols said.

During legislative sessions, Nichols said the committee of sheriffs meet every week and takes a position on a proposed policy or law when deemed necessary.

“And so politically, that’s how sheriffs really represent the constituents down in Augusta,” Nichols said.

A sheriff’s political party or other partisan affiliations may shed light on how an individual will advocate for their county’s constituents on the state level. Although, Samson and Nichols said they think the committee puts aside partisan opinions when reviewing proposed legislation.

In 2016, 12 of Maine’s 16 sheriffs formally opposed the controversial Question 3 that would require expanded background checks on gun sales and transfers. 

“I don’t like the expectation because I’m an elected official, a Democrat, that there’s this expectation that maybe I have to support every Democratic initiative or Democratic candidate,” said Samson, who opposed Question 3. 

Nichols was also outspoken in 2016 about his perception of Question 3 infringing on people’s rights and said he consistently advocates against legislation that he views as violating the Second Amendment.

His Second Amendment advocacy caught the attention of a national organization, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Officers Association, which named him Sheriff of the Year on Sept. 30. The association is a far-right group that promotes a militaristic approach to immigration and encourages states to expand their enforcement wherever federal control seems lacking.

Nichols said he is not a member of the association and was not aware of it until six months ago.

“You’ve got groups out there that try to manipulate you and find you and they’re both on the left and right,” Nichols said. “That’s the awful part of politics, is the seedy underside of politics that I really don’t like, and I don’t need people defining who I am. I know who I am. I don’t need to be defined by anybody else.” 

More recently, Nichols’ name was falsely cited on an anti-mask rally flyer that was set to take place at the same site as a Trump rally in Bangor on Oct. 10. Nichols had agreed to speak on the role of a sheriff at the Trump rally, but backed out once his name appeared on the anti-mask group’s flyer.

As far as partisan groups, Samson said he is not involved with any organizations but does pay attention to various groups such as the Tea Party or the Maine Militia to better understand his constituents and colleagues.

“When I look at active groups, I’ve gotten information from the Maine militia groups and where they are,” Samson said. “I know sheriffs involved with different groups and I say, ‘hey can you forward information,’ so I can review it to see what they’re thinking.”

Hastings also said he has no involvement with partisan organizations and expressed some skepticism as to whether a sheriff could make independent decisions if involved with political groups.

It’s not like I’ve ever been to a meeting of one party or another where they say you have to do this or support that, but it just seems like boy, the environment could be there and I don’t want any part of that,” Hastings said in phone interview. “I really just want to do a good job for the citizens of Franklin County and make decisions that are relevant to us.” 

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