For more than two decades, Darin Balaam and Heidi Howe were familiar figures in the halls of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office. They both rose through the ranks into supervisory roles, overseeing deputies and developing leadership skills. Now the two retired captains are running against each other for the top job in what has become a closely watched — and often personal — campaign.
On many issues, the candidates agree. Where Balaam and Howe distinguish themselves most is on philosophical differences. Balaam, the son of former sheriff Dennis Balaam who rose to the position of chief deputy, casts himself as a steady hand to right a department that saw a spike in inmate deaths at its jail and never recovered to pre-recession staffing levels. Howe, who recently filed a gender discrimination complaint against the department, sees herself as the change candidate, arguing that she will make the office inclusive and move it away from a “warrior” mentality on the streets.
By most accounts, Balaam is the favored candidate. He has endorsements from the mayors of Sparks and Reno. State legislators, former top sheriff deputies and the unions have backed him. As of Friday, Balaam had raised $314,599 drawing contributions from casinos and other businesses. Howe had raised $165,129, and she contributed more than half of that.
In public forums, Howe has argued that the deck has long been stacked against her. She has described Balaam as the anointed one and views the race as a challenge to the establishment.
But in a local nonpartisan race with little polling, who voters will choose is anyone’s guess.
An anti-establishment candidate?
At the center of Howe’s message is that she wants to change the office’s “boy’s club” culture and how it is seen by the public, rhetoric that she said has not sat well with the establishment.
“Is it a message that is always going to resonate with the status quo? Nope,” Howe said. “I also know that it’s not fun to speak up against the popular crowd when you’re working there. I’ve watched it for decades. If you’re one of the few that steps out and disagrees where the cool kids are going — and it’s very cliquey — then you’re a target. You’re a problem.”
Howe understands that her campaign has irked some, and she doesn’t care. In an interview at her campaign office last month, she pointed to a necklace with the Greek goddess Athena on it. In ancient mythology, she is the goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare sprung from Zeus’ head
“She’s a strong woman that gives men headaches,” she said.
In a separate interview, Balaam pushed back against Howe’s charge that he was part of the “good ol’ boys club” and had doors open to him that other deputies in the department did not.
“I will not apologize to anyone for following in my dad’s footsteps,” Balaam said. “I would tell you I had to try harder because people who may not have liked my dad scrutinized me more.”
He also argued that he has not been viewed negatively because of his background. When the sheriff deputies union endorsed him, its members did so decisively. All but two of the 346 deputies in the Washoe County Sheriff Deputies Association voted for Balaam over Howe.
“I have not seen an overwhelming support for one candidate at this magnitude,” said Cameron Wagner, the union president and an employee of the department since 2002. “It is impressive that he received and garnered that much support. At the same time, it wasn’t surprising.”
Differences on leadership and experience
At an intensely polarized moment in politics, many have tried to place Balaam and Howe on the liberal-to-conservative spectrum. Neither of the candidates see themselves as fitting neatly into one party. They see themselves as law enforcement professionals. And while they differ on the details, they have many similar positions. They don’t think the county should participate in the 287(g) program, which gives local municipalities immigration enforcement. They favor the use of diversionary programs to keep low-risk offenders out of jail. They favor partnerships to tackle mental health issues, particularly in the county jail. They favor increasing office diversity. Both want to fix staffing shortfalls, although they differ on where they would find the funding.
“In all of our forums over the last month, we’ve been basically saying the same things when it comes to that,” Balaam said. “It’s how do you accomplish that. Do you have the experience to actually make it occur is I think where we differ. And that would be the management style.”
As a result, in debates and interviews, they have traded barbs less on policy and more on what kind of leader each candidate might be. Whatever their personal feelings are, they go out of their way to say they want to be as polite as possible when criticizing each other. They see themselves as law enforcement professionals, not bickering politicians. But they still attack.
“I was that person always working,” Howe said. “I wasn’t out there networking. I wasn’t out there golfing and hunting and building those types of relationships in the background.”
Balaam and his supporters argue that he has more experience because he has worked in the department’s detention division and on the operations side, which is charged with overseeing detectives and street patrols. They said that allowed him to understand all aspects of the job.
“Ms. Howe is only qualified to work in the detention part of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office,” said Mike Haley, a former Washoe County sheriff who supervised both candidates for many years and endorsed Balaam. “Darin Balaam is qualified to work on both sides of the house.”
Howe and her supporters argue that she had patrol experience working for the Reno Police Department, and they point to her experience as a captain running the jail, which consumes about 50 percent of the sheriff office’s annual budget. On her website, Howe wrote that she had the opportunity to switch from working in the jail to working patrol but that the “patrol training program had a bad reputation and was known for harassing and bullying female trainees.”
Brooke Santina, a former sheriff’s deputy and public information officer, said she was endorsing Howe because she would bring a more respectful and innovative voice to the office. She said it didn’t matter that Howe, her former supervisor, didn’t have operational experience because she was the best leader.
“If you’re not a good leader, I don’t think it matters,” she said. “Law enforcement is changing. It is changing in a lot of ways. A lot of people in the business don’t want to make that change.”
First female sheriff candidate
Howe is the first female candidate for Washoe County sheriff. For Santina and many Washoe County voters, that is one of the reasons that the local race has received so much interest.
“I was a woman up there in uniform,” Santina said. “I knew how it felt.”
In a male-dominated law enforcement world, Howe has argued for years that discrimination over her gender prevented her from having the same opportunities as her male counterparts.
Howe has filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) during the tenures of the past three sheriffs, which include Dennis Balaam. Her most recent complaint was filed in early 2017 against Sheriff Chuck Allen. In July, the federal commission gave her the right to sue. One month before the election on Oct. 3, Howe sued the sheriff’s office.
“It was not a political ploy on my part,” she said, noting that the lawsuit was filed roughly a year after she had exhausted a lengthy administrative process, which included mediation.
But the lawsuit alleges years of misconduct, and it is hard to separate the complaint from the race. After all, Howe is running on a platform of changing the culture of the department. Howe, as noted in the lawsuit, was wrongfully terminated by Dennis Balaam when he was sheriff. Now she is running against his son. She said in the lawsuit that when she returned to work in the early 2000s, she was retaliated against. In 2011, the lawsuit claims that Howe was first on the list for a promotion to captain, yet she was passed over by Darin Balaam and other employee.
“You’re dealing with a non-traditional place to work,” Howe said of the office’s culture. “It’s majority male. No doubt about it… [Women] have been placed in support roles.”
She said that the office has traditionally not valued those in support roles or positions where deputies are not patrolling the streets, and she said that has created larger morale issues.
“You are not going to see a lot of women on motors,” Howe said. “You are not going to see a lot of women on SWAT. You are not going to see a lot women on tactical teams. There are certain roles and positions — the sexy and the non-sexy pieces of the organization. All of those positions are valuable… You need to value everybody and what they are bringing to the table. And if you don’t, you end up with what we have now, which is an organization where we don’t value a lot of what half of the organization is working on. And then as they try to move forward in their careers, they are not seen as as valuable as the rest of their [colleagues].”
When Howe decided to run for sheriff in 2016, she met with Balaam, who retired in 2015, to discuss some of these past issues. Both candidates described the conversation as amicable.
“She talked the whole time about her history,” Balaam said. “And I listened. That was it.”
Balaam, whose wife also worked at the sheriff’s office and was trained by Howe, said he understood and wanted to address the systemic issues that female deputies face.
“My wife had the same issues,” said Balaam, who declined to comment directly on the complaint. “One is always the perception that you have to be tough.”
He added that he would place an emphasis on expanding diversity throughout the office.
“That’s one of the things I want to focus on is being more diverse, not only with females but minorities period,” he said. “Let’s have a fair representation throughout the office.”
Inmate deaths at the jail
Another reason people are captivated by this race: the county jail.
As the Reno Gazette-Journal reported in an investigative series last year, there was a 600 percent increase in inmate deaths at the Washoe County jail starting in 2015. The uptick coincided with a new medical contractor recommended by Allen without a bidding process.
Howe was a captain in the jail at the time, and Balaam has suggested that she bears some responsibility for what happend at the jail, a claim Howe pushes back on vociferously.
“If you don’t understand the budget, if you don’t understand staffing, if you don’t understand the liability of every bureau and how they are supposed to be interworking and more importantly, serving the community, you are going to have another tough road, as the last four years [have been with the inmate deaths],” Balaam said. “I would politely point to the deaths in the jail, and my opponent was the captain. Since her departure, there have been no deaths. There have been one [of natural causes.]… I just politely point to that. The inmates didn’t change. The staffing has not changed. The only thing that has changed was that position.”
Howe called such attacks unfair and misleading — and a symptom of the office’s larger issues.
“Considering I spent a larger portion of my career assigned to the Detention Bureau, if this was all connected to me, this would have been happening my whole career,” she said in an email.
That was not the case, she argued. The surge in inmate deaths was complex and isolated to those two years, she noted. Moreover as captain, Howe said she warned the sheriff that the medical contractor was understaffed and that upper management was not focusing enough on the jail. She said if the jail had been more valued, some issues could have been mitigated.
What happens on Tuesday? Neither candidate is certain. Balaam, who is spending most of the weekend knocking on doors, is not taking anything for granted but he said he was optimistic. As for Howe, she is still surprised she made it out of a primary field that included seven candidates.
“On Election Night, I just sat there and kind of crossed my fingers and waited for the numbers to come in,” she said. “I had no idea. When they came in, I was like whoa, I am clearly number two… And right now, I really don’t know. It would just be completely guessing on my part.”