2020 Primary: A Very Unusual Sheriff's Race In Hamilton County

Mar 6, 2020

A candidate for re-election to a Hamilton County office who can't get the endorsement of his or her party is a true rarity in local politics.

Usually that's automatic, on both the Democratic and Republican sides.

But it was anything but automatic this year as Sheriff Jim Neil faces one of his former top administrators – Charmaine McGuffey – in an extremely contentious primary on the Democratic ballot in the March 17 primary.

On the morning of Jan. 18, at the Laborers Union Hall in Evanston, over 100 members of the Hamilton County Democratic Party's executive committee voted overwhelmingly to endorse McGuffey – a 33-year member of the sheriff's department who was fired by Neil in 2017 – over the incumbent sheriff, who is running for a third term.

It has been a nasty, ugly fight between two people who have known each other since high school and ended up working in the sheriff's office for decades until their friendship went sour.

Now, after years as one of his top aides, McGuffey, who ran the jail, sued the sheriff in federal court after she was demoted from major in 2017 on multiple charges that she created a hostile work environment for deputies in the jail.

She was fired by Neil after refusing to work in a lower-paying civilian job in the department.

Her demotion, she claimed in the suit, was not due to her work performance but because of her concerns about the use of force against inmates and her status as an openly gay woman.

The 62-year-old McGuffey lives in downtown Cincinnati with her wife, Christine Sandusky, and their two dogs.

Neil lives in Sayler Park with his wife, Kim.

Neil had been in charge of the sheriff's bomb squad when long-time Republican Sheriff Simon Leis announced he would not be running for re-election in 2012.

The Democrat jumped into the race and won fairly easily in 2012, and was re-elected in 2016.

But it was during that 2016 campaign that Neil made a major faux pas.

He showed up front and center at a West Chester rally featuring then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. There he was, in uniform, smiling in the background of every TV shot of Trump at the podium.

Hamilton County Democrats were furious; and Neil got a good talking-to by the then-chair of the county party, Tim Burke.

Nearly four years later, the county party's executive committee had not forgotten; and, at the January endorsement meeting, speaker after speaker heaped scorn on the sheriff for appearing with Trump.

Neil apologized to the Democrats, and explained that he was at the West Chester rally at the invitation of Butler County's sheriff, Richard K. Jones, a Republican and hardcore Trump supporter.

"He is my friend,'' Neil said of Jones. "We sheriffs around the state tend to stick together."

Britt Born, the county party secretary who headed the committee which interviewed Neil and McGuffey, said Neil was asked in his endorsement interview if he acknowledged disparities between how white people and black people are treated in the criminal justice system, as McGuffey has argued.

"Sheriff Neil would only respond that he is color blind,'' Born said.

Neil has his own issue which he and his supporters have been using against McGuffey.

In April 2010, McGuffey and some friends left a now-closed gay bar in Covington. Some kind of confrontation took place with Covington police officers and she was accused of cursing and yelling at the Covington officers.

McGuffey has said repeatedly that she did nothing unlawful and was not arrested.

She was, however, charged with the misdemeanor charges of public intoxication, disorderly conduct and menacing. All the charges were dropped, but McGuffey was suspended from her job for five days.

The Hamilton County Democratic Party is backing McGuffey, but Neil has significant local endorsements from individual Democrats, including county commissioners Denise Driehaus and Stephanie Dumas, Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and County Auditor Dusty Rhodes.

Recently, McGuffey picked up an endorsement from former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was severely wounded in Jan. 2011 in a mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona. Gifford, who is still recovering from her wounds, has become a high-profile figure in the battle for gun control.

McGuffey also has endorsements from County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval, former Cincinnati council member Yvette Simpson, Cincinnati Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld and organizations such as the Cincinnati Women's Political Caucus and the Equality Cincinnati PAC.