Sheriff candidates in Eau Claire, Chippewa counties debate

Oct. 11—EAU CLAIRE — One candidate running for Chippewa County sheriff said he'd support legalizing marijuana, while his opponent is leery of such a policy.

The two were part of a candidate forum Monday evening organized by two community groups and held at The Community Table, 320 Putnam St., in Eau Claire.

Toward the end of the two-hour event, Eau Claire resident Chris Buske noted public support for legalizing marijuana and whether the sheriff candidates would agree with changes in either state or federal laws to make that happen.

"I would support legalization of marijuana," responded Travis Hakes, who is running on the Republican ticket for Chippewa County sheriff.

He followed up by saying "chasing kids for dime bags of pot" is not productive when methamphetamine and opioids are "destroying our communities."

Democratic candidate for Chippewa County sheriff, Chris Kowalczyk (brother of outgoing Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk), said he'd have reservations about legalizing marijuana, as it is a "gateway drug" to using other drugs.

He did indicate a desire for a more consistent policy on marijuana as a criminal offense, as it is treated more seriously in some jurisdictions compared to others.

"We don't know half the time what some counties are enforcing rather than others," he said.

Both candidates for Eau Claire County sheriff attended Monday's forum and responded to the question much like Kowalczyk did.

"I do have reservations on having another mind-altering substance made legal," said Dave Riewestahl, who's running as a Democrat.

He noted the sheriff's office already does focus its anti-drug efforts on meth and opioids as opposed to chasing down people with small amounts of marijuana.

"I also have reservations about legalizing it," said Don Henning, the Republican candidate in the Eau Claire County sheriff's race, said about marijuana.

Deputies already have to be on patrol for drivers under the influence of alcohol, he said, and Henning believes making marijuana legal, too, will result in more impaired driving.

Marijuana wasn't the only topic for the sheriff hopefuls running in the Nov. 8 election in their respective counties. With about 25 questions asked by a moderator and the audience, debate topics included proportionally higher incarceration of minorities, inmate voting, peer support programs, mental health, immigration enforcement holds and traffic stops.

As Eau Claire County's jail population has risen, the potential for adding another pod to house more inmates has been raised and candidates were also asked about that.

Riewestahl said to reverse the increasing number of inmates would take a commitment from more officials in the criminal justice system than just the sheriff. And while he doesn't personally want to see a jail expansion project, Riewestahl said, "it is on the table."

If the County Board would decide to fund an expansion of the jail, Henning said he'd support it. But he added that he'd want the addition to include space for services to help inmates with education, alcohol and drug treatment, and to aid in securing housing when they're released.

Programming offered to jail inmates also came up as a topic for the Chippewa County candidates.

Kowalczyk said the jail has 43 programs — all faith-based and relying much on volunteers. He would like to see evidence-based programs, too, but said the jail lacks the budget and staffing to run those.

Hakes said he believes asking the County Board for funding for evidence-based programming would be worthwhile as it would be intended to reduce recidivism.

Neither Eau Claire nor Chippewa county has incumbents running for sheriff with Ron Cramer and Jim Kowalczyk, respectively, not seeking reelection. (Cramer also died unexpectedly last month.)

Monday's forum was jointly sponsored by local group JONAH and Expo Wisconsin, a statewide organization working to end discrimination of people who were previously incarcerated and restore their rights.

Dennis Franklin, an EXPO fellow, told his story at the beginning of the forum.

"When I had the opportunity to vote, I never voted," he said of his younger years.

But after serving time behind bars, getting out, improving his life and becoming a working, taxpaying member of the community, Franklin now wishes he would have the ability to cast a ballot.

"If you have the right to vote, get out and vote," he urged the audience.