Teller Sheriff’s Race Heating Up

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Both candidates predicting victory in November

Rick Langenberg

 

One of the most contentious local sheriff races in the last 20 years is entering the final and climatic stretch.

As a result, local residents can expect to see their share of campaign signs, billboards, videos, print ads and other promotional material regarding the heated showdown between incumbent Sheriff Mike Ensminger and challenger Mark Manriquez, an unaffiliated contender. Residents also will have plenty of chances to talk with both sheriff candidates and their supporters at meet and greets, fund-raisers and various forums, including an upcoming candidates’ exchange, hosted by the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce.

Representatives of both campaign camps are bullishly optimistic about their respective election prospects, but admit the next month could serve as the pivotal time for lobbying for votes. Although the ballots won’t be counted until Nov. 4, local political experts contend that most Teller voters will cast their tallies by the middle of October, as part of the mail-in ballot process. “We feel very confident,” said Manriquez, when addressing a group of supporters in a meeting last Saturday in Divide. He compared his current campaign with that of four years ago, when he was staunchly defeated by Ensminger in the GOP primary, as the difference between “night and day.”

More specifically, Manriquez touted a bevy of endorsements he has received from such groups as the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police and the Colorado Springs Police Protection Association, and mentioned a forthcoming endorsement from the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. And more recently, he obtained the support of two groups who rarely see eye to eye, the Teller County Democratic Party and the Teller County Tea Party. “To me, that is exciting,” said Manriqez about the two opposing organizations coming together to support him. “This campaign is not about polarization. It is about unification.”

As part of this nonpartisan spirit, he announced last week that he and his campaign supporters will feature a free community barbecue on Oct. 4 from 1 to 5 p.m. at a ranch owned by Jerry and Rick Johnston between Woodland Park and Divide at 13800 U.S. Hwy. 24. All local residents are invited regardless of age or political affiliation, noted Manriquez. “Everyone in Teller County is invited,” he added. “This will be a unique opportunity for all members of our great mountain community to get together to meet old and new friends.”

Manriquez, who works as an investigator for the Colorado Division of Gaming, has made it quite clear that he opposes many of the status quo practices of the Teller sheriff’s agency.

During last week’s meeting, similar to other meet and greets hosted by Manriquez, the candidate came out verbally swinging and criticized a slew of issues regarding the current operations of the sheriff’s agency. Some of these dealt with the management of the jail in Divide, and whether the agency is playing a dangerous financial “shell game” with taxpayer dollars and opening up the county to an explosion of significant lawsuits. If elected, Manriquez said he plans to heavily scrutinize the current jail enterprise system and work towards getting the facility officially accredited by the American Correctional Association.

In addition, he blasted Ensminger for the reported high turnover rate of his agency and the bombardment of many expensive lawsuits, which he believes are a result of inadequate training and faulty human resource practices. More importantly, he emphasized a desire to bring back community-oriented policing. “They (the sheriff’s office) should be Mayberry RFD,” quipped Manriquez, when explaining the neighborly law enforcement atmosphere he wants to instill. “We need to go back to being community-oriented law officers.”

Instead, he says many residents are uncomfortable with the county’s use of a SWAT team and what he refers to as the growing “militarization of the sheriff’s department” in Teller County. For example, he wants to immediately change the uniforms and vehicle designs to present a friendlier, tourist image. Serving with Dignity, Honor and Respect

However, unseating an incumbent Republican sheriff is a difficult proposition and Manriquez believes the success of his campaign hinges on the involvement of unaffiliated voters, who comprise a substantial amount of the overall electorate in Teller County. He plans to launch a door-to-door campaign later this month.

But even with these efforts, an overly optimistic spirit abounds inside the Ensminger political camp, with key supporters, including many community leaders, touting the accomplishments of the sheriff “The sheriff has a strong record to stand on and he has been in office for four years,” said Mike Perini, the spokesperson for the Ensminger campaign. Through various advertisements and statements, the sheriff has cited a strong desire to work towards his goals of enhancing public safety, protecting Second Amendment rights and reducing crime. Ensminger believes he has strongly succeeded in these efforts in his first four years in office. “We feel very good with the way our campaign has gone,” added Perini. “We have had a lot of people contact us who want to put up yard signs. There is a lot of support in the community for Mike Ensminger.”

In addition, Perini cited the endorsement of key leaders in the region, including the police chiefs of Woodland Park Cripple Creek. More recently, Ensminger received the endorsement of Dan May, the district attorney for the Fourth Judicial District, including Teller and El Paso counties. “That was a big deal,” said Perini. Recently, the Ensminger camp released a six-minute video, entitled, “Serving With Dignity, Honor and Respect,” that has received much attention. This video touts the sheriff’s accomplishments in the areas of public safety, Second Amendment (gun ownership) protections, crime reduction efforts, fiscal and professional management and leadership. According to Perini, who produced the video, it was designed to give local voters a close, personal look at the sheriff and his accomplishments. “Through the video, you get a chance to really meet the sheriff,” said Perini, the owner of Perini & Associates.

For the most part, Ensminger himself has taken a more low-key role in the re-election campaign, emphasizing that he has a job to perform as sheriff. But no love has been lost between supporters of Manriquez and Ensminger, with the firing of verbal bullets against the two opposing campaign camps. Despite the staunch rhetoric between both sides, Teller County won’t reap the benefits of showcasing an actual sheriff debate.

An upcoming forum is being planned by the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce and is tentatively planned for early October. This event isn’t designed as a debate, although it can turn into semblances of that format at times. According to the format of past chamber forums, both candidates give opening and closing remarks and questions are asked by chamber and press representatives and limited questions can be asked by the public.But four years ago, this forum turned into an all-out verbal slug fest, when the attention focused on the then race between Ensminger and Manriquez as the top Republican front-runners. Few are predicting a tame candidate exchange when the two sheriff contenders meet face-to-face again.