Local Election

Lawyer vs. lawman: A look at candidates for county sheriff

LEFT: McHenry County Sheriff Candidate Bill Prim heads to his next appointment after stopping for coffee in Crystal Lake on Thursday. RIGHT: McHenry County Sheriff candidate Jim Harrison at his campaign office in Woodstock on Friday.
LEFT: McHenry County Sheriff Candidate Bill Prim heads to his next appointment after stopping for coffee in Crystal Lake on Thursday. RIGHT: McHenry County Sheriff candidate Jim Harrison at his campaign office in Woodstock on Friday.

WOODSTOCK – The race to become the first new county sheriff in 17 years can be summed up in one phrase: The lawman vs. the lawyer.

Voters have a choice for the person to replace longtime Sheriff Keith Nygren, who opted not to seek re-election for a fifth term.

There’s Republican candidate Bill Prim, a 27-year police veteran who retired as a commander from the Des Plaines Police Department.

He faces Independent candidate Jim Harrison, a one-time deputy who spent the past 22 years as a Woodstock-based labor, employment and civil rights attorney.

Each sat down with the Northwest Herald to discuss the issues running up to the Nov. 4 election.


Prim has the endorsement of McHenry County State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi along with members of the GOP establishment. He scored a narrow primary election win, and with it picked up support from many of the county’s Republican leaders who had backed Nygren’s hand-picked candidate, Undersheriff Andrew Zinke.

The schism between the State’s Attorney and Sheriff’s Office have been widely publicized, often pitting the two offices at odds. The era of discord will end if Prim is elected, he said.

“I wanted to build bridges, [it was] one of my principle goals,” Prim said. “Now we can say that we’ve accomplished that pre-election. So we can create a working environment free of obstacles.”

“There’s been some contentious relationships in the past between the Sheriff’s Office and other elected officials in the county,” he continued. “We consider these both ineffective and expensive.”

Harrison is supported by the longtime former McHenry Counnty Coroner Marlene Lantz but says if elected, he wouldn’t be beholden to any political party. In fact, that’s the cornerstone of his campaign.

“I think when you choose a party, by necessity you exclude everyone else, and my campaign is about inclusion,” Harrison said. “… Independents generally consider themselves independents because they don’t focus on the party, they focus on the person, on the issue.”

Both candidates pledge to evaluate the department’s staff as a way to control taxpayer costs, each promising that potential cuts would not be extended to the department’s rank-and-file.

Harrison would do away with the undersheriff position, the sheriff’s second-in-command. He called it an “unnecessary administrative layer.” Instead, divisional heads from the jail, police services and administrative and civilian services would report directly to him.

“I’d rather have my divisional chiefs, report to directly to me everyday instead of having a buffer to go through. I’d keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on,” he said.

Current Undersheriff Zinke, who lost his bid for sheriff to Prim, makes $139,421 a year before insurance and other benefits. Harrison says scrapping this position could mean a cost savings and more deputies on patrol.

A oft-touted principle of Prim’s campaign is a network of volunteers he envisions in non enforcement roles, such as traffic detail, security at events, or in the event of a natural disaster.

There would be some cost to get the program off the ground, but Prim says it could come from asset forfeitures, and made up for with a reduction in deputy overtime.

“There is an economic component that comes as well; it enables us to do more with our sworn force,” Prim said.

Heavy-handed policing, or the militarization of the police, is a topic dominating the national news cycle, and has trickled-down locally.

Critics have condemned the Office’s purchase of an MRAP, or Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, that was add to the arsenal of the Sheriff’s Office SWAT team. The military vehicle was bought at a deep discount from the federal government.

“The Sheriff’s Office is a law enforcement agency who’s primary statutory function is to keep the peace. The Sheriff’s Office is not a militia and there’s no need for the sheriff’s office to become a militia,” Harrison said. “… If we start having a need for vehicles that can transverse a land mine, I’ll be the first to be out shopping for such a vehicle.”

The candidates come close to agreeing on this issue, but not quite. Both said its purchase was ill-advised, but its future if elected was vastly different.

Prim promised to evaluate its use, saying he’s employ is primarily in the event of a natural disaster.

“It’s a cumbersome piece of equipment that could have done without,” he said. “Now that we have it we might as well utilize it.

“It can be utilized in varied roles,” he continued. “... I would have to take a good hard look at is the expense of keeping it – the maintenance, the training that goes into being able to operate it. If these expenses exceed the value, it wouldn’t be something I care to keep.”

Harrison would immediately try to sell it or scrap it for parts.

“I’d park it on the courthouse lawn, I’d take the engine out of it, and I’d make it a monument to the all the soliders who had to go over to the Middle East and fight for our country. And that would be the end of it,” He said. It would never leave the courthouse again, and it would be inoperable.”

Despite at-times tense dealings with the media, Prim promises that if elected, his administration would be an open book.

The public, including the media, would be invited to see how the Sheriff’s Office operates, he said.

“I don’t believe you can be transparent unless you invite people to come in and see what you’re doing,” he said. “It creates a trust between the office and the public to the mutual benefit of both.”

Harrison’s plan to engage the community and media is through monthly meetings where public would have the opportunity to talk with him directly.

“I’d like to make sure we have a strong relationship with the media, that we can trust them and they can trust us,” Harrison said. “… We’re there working for the people, it’s the people that put us there, and the media are part of them.”

Harrison points to his background running his law firm and practicing labor law as reasons voters should check his name in November, and Prim says it’s his more than two decades of police work that makes his the best candidate.

Prim: “There’s a huge difference between the two of us,” he said. “I have a law enforcement background, I have a experience and training in police supervision and administration, he has none. He was a deputy for a short period of time, a long time ago. .. Police [work has] changed dramatically since that point in time.”

Harrison: “The sheriff’s office is anything but a street cop job, it’s an administrative job, its an executive position in county government,” Harrison said. “The sheriff’s primary job is the administration of a $34 million budget, attending to the personnel issues of a 400-person workforce and addressing the law enforcement needs of a 600-square mile community with 308,000 people in it. Those are administrative jobs, those are executive jobs, which Bill Prim has never held, and I have done nothing but.”

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