Iowa professors: sheriffs in political ads don’t violate rules

Published: Sep. 28, 2022 at 10:29 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Three local sheriffs are featured in campaign ads for Iowa politicians running for Congress. Local experts say the sheriffs’ appearances in don’t break any rules, but they understand why it can be strange to see it.

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner and Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson appear in an ad for Liz Mathis, a Democrat running for Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District. Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel is a spot for Democrat Christina Bohannan, who is in the race for the first Congressional district.

Megan Goldberg, Assistant Professor of American Politics at Cornell College, said, “Sheriffs are sort of a weird elected position because they are also a uniformed position, which is not that typical.”

Being a partisan elected official makes all the difference, she added.

“We wouldn’t really bat an eye at Kim Reynolds endorsing Ashley Hinson,” said Goldberg. “County sheriffs are similarly elected officials.”

The issue of sheriffs in campaign ads has come up before the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board.

Tim Hagle is an Associate Professor at the University of Iowa. He said, “Apparently [the board was] asked about this many years ago, as far as sheriffs appearing in political ads, and it’s particularly appearing in uniform. And basically, they were fine with it, that is not considered an expenditure of public money for political purposes, which would be the big concern.

That’s at the state level, but as Goldberg pointed out, “There are overlapping state and federal laws when it comes to elections.”

On the federal level there is the Hatch Act which restricts the political activity of some people employed by the federal government, or by state and local offices that get federal money. There is an exemption for a person who is elected to the head of a local executive department.

The professors did disagree about whether the Hatch Act even applied.

“It’s not a Hatch Act situation,” said Hagle.

“The Hatch Act, from my understanding, applies if we’re talking about a race for federal office, which, if we’re talking about Mathis or Bohannan, is a federal office,“ said Goldberg.

While it’s legal for sheriffs to appear in these ads, the professors understood why it was jarring.

“The thing that we’re reacting to is the idea that anyone is being pressured or coerced into voting a certain way,” said Goldberg. “We start to feel uncomfortable...when we think about like, law enforcement having particular political views and being, you know, sort of out there with them in public with them.”