For nearly three and a half decades Bitterrooters knew only two county sheriffs, Dale Dye, who served from 1966 to 1986, and his hand-picked successor, Jay Printz, sheriff from 1986 until his retirement in 1998.
Both men were larger-than-life figures who could literally fill a room. Both, for instance, would typically begin their annual budget battle with the county commissioners by striding into the room, a posse of large, uniformed deputies trailing behind to make their point about how tax dollars should be spent.
Both men were tough-guy sheriffs cast in the wild west mold, and neither man faced many serious challengers for the job at election time. Both were Democrats. But during Printz’s tenure in the 1990s the political pendulum in the valley swung to the right. Most people tended to overlook Printz’s party affiliation as he was a National Rifle Association stalwart and public supporter of Republican Gov. Marc Racicot, a Democrat, he often said, in name only.
Both were native Bitterrooters. Everyone, it seemed, knew them personally, as well as their parents, their spouses, siblings, children and grandchildren. They were the proverbial big fish in a small pond, and after winning their first terms they had no real trouble getting reelected.
But 1998 brought a change in management, along with a change in public attitudes towards law enforcement, when voters rejected Printz’s chosen successor, long-time detective Jim Chinn, and chose instead the less-experienced Perry Johnson, then a detective with the Hamilton Police Department and a former Ravalli County deputy.
Johnson is not cut from the same cloth as his two predecessors. A polished politician always ready to say the words people wanted to hear, Johnson, a Republican, brought a different attitude to the office. Unlike Dye, who once grabbed a gun away from a man who had shot at him from a distance of six feet, and missed, or Printz, a known table-pounder during meetings, Johnson as sheriff has been Mr. Nice Guy. With his startling blue eyes and ultra-sincere manner, Johnson is at once both charming and disarming.
But to his critics, his manner has also been deceiving. Once elected, for instance, Johnson put a stop to the casual open-door policy established by Dye and continued by Printz, that afforded the public and the press easy access to the sheriff’s office and his deputies.
Now, after one term Johnson is leaving the post to spend more time with his family, he says, clearing the way for a new era in Ravalli County law enforcement.
Thus far, only a few days into the two-month filing period, two men have declared their intent to run for sheriff. Both are Republicans and both have law enforcement experience, but that’s where the similarities end.
Of the two candidates, Brad Squires, another native son, brings more experience, but also more baggage, to the campaign. For candidate Bob Graler the reverse is true: less experience as a Ravalli County deputy but also less baggage.
Squires, 40, is a descendant of Bitter Root Valley pioneers who arrived in 1910 during the apple boom. Unlike some native Bitterrooters, who wear their native status like a badge of honor, Squires doesn’t lord it over anyone. “I’m here for the same reason the newest arrival is here for,” he says.
Squires says he’s wanted to be sheriff since he began working at the Ravalli County sheriff’s department as a reserve officer in 1990. Among his accomplishments: a decade with the department, four as a reserve deputy, six as a full-time deputy, and in his last two years with the department, as sergeant. He graduated third in his law enforcement class of 24. He’s supervised other deputies, and during the 2000 fire season, when most officers were on 14-hour-a-day fire duty, Squires alone handled all patrols and non-fire related criminal matters. His personnel file is filled with letters of commendation from the county attorney’s office and former sheriff Printz.
Like all candidates for political office, Squires calls himself honest. But unlike others, he has the proof. While on patrol one day he allowed his mind to wander and unintentionally ran a red light in Hamilton. Knowing he would have cited anyone else for the same violation, he wrote himself a ticket. “We have to be held to the same standards [as everyone else] or even higher standards,” he explains.
As a supervisor with more than two years experience, Squires says he has more administrative experience than Johnson had when he was elected.
Then there is his past and the mistakes he’s made, mistakes which will surely come up in public campaign forums. Squires has been divorced more than once, and was forced into bankruptcy as a result of one of those divorces. More damaging, however, is the reason he now works as a carpenter and not as a deputy: Johnson fired him from the force in 2000 for sleeping on the job. Squires doesn’t deny the accusation, but says his termination was unfairly administered. He’s not the only deputy to have taken catnaps during a graveyard shift, or during the grueling back-to-back shifts required during the 2000 fire season, but he’s the only one who was fired for it. And his dismissal, he says, came because he had accused the sheriff of lining his pockets by moonlighting for the U.S. Forest Service during the fire season, a violation of state law. (Johnson was later exonerated by a state attorney general’s opinion.)
Does Squires fear that voters will accuse him of running for sheriff simply out of vengeance? “Could be,” he acknowledges. “I hope not. I see myself as a normal citizen that’s had a lifetime of experience and I think these experiences will benefit me and the department.”
Bob Graler, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Marine Corps and a Washington state native, doesn’t have as much experience as a deputy—five years as a reserve deputy and a full-time sworn deputy since October. But Graler has packed a lifetime of experience into his 59 years, including a stint as an intelligence gatherer for the U.S. Army in Ethiopia, and two years as a Marine Corps infantry platoon leader in Vietnam during the February 1968 Tet Offensive. “About the only thing I can say about that is that I survived it.” Indeed. The man who joined two branches of the military survived Vietnam with three injuries—none, he says was serious—for which he was awarded three Purple Hearts.
Far from the stereotypical stiff-backed ex-Marine, Graler comes across as casual but direct, engaging and even a bit modest and self-deprecating. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of Kentucky in 1967, the same week he was commissioned second lieutenant and “came out to Hamilton to get married” to local girl Kathleen James, granddaughter of former Montana Gov. Sam Ford and descendant of a Montana territorial governor.
“I’m not quite from here,” he quips, “but I married into Montana.”
Having joined the Marines at a time when most of his peers were protesting the war on college campuses and city streets, Graler says he was the counterculture: his hair was short and he enlisted in the toughest branch of the service. “I basically felt very comfortable doing what I was doing,” he says.
Graler got a taste of law enforcement as a military policeman, but his most valuable experience, and one he says he would bring to the office, is his Marine Corps supervision of 230 civilian employees, where he would pick the smartest people and let them do the job they needed to do without any overbearing supervision. “I’m absolutely not a micromanager. I never have been. I’ve never been able to do that.”
Other names have been mentioned as possible candidates, but only Squires and Graler have officially announced their candidacy.
The filing period for all national, state and local offices ends March 21.