In a heated race in Ohio, democrat Charmaine McGuffey is running to be both the county’s first female and out LGBTQ person elected sheriff. She is also running against the man she alleges fired her because she’s a lesbian – current Sheriff Jim Neil, a fellow Democrat.
“The current sheriff and I got into a pretty serious disagreement about the practice of him not holding officers accountable for use of force and harassment of women, female officers, and female inmates,” McGuffey told LGBTQ Nation. “He fired me. So after about a year or so of contemplating, I decided I can do a better job than him.”
McGuffey spent thirty-three years working in the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. When she was promoted to Major in Command of jail and court services, she also became the highest-ranking woman in the office’s history.
Now, McGuffey has been endorsed by the Hamilton County Democratic Party, the LGBTQ Victory Fund, Hamilton County Young Democrats, and former US Representative Gabby Giffords, among others. The Democratic primary will take place on March 17th.
“[My election] would mean that our country is moving forward,” she said, “that we really have moved away from the 1950s model of law enforcement, where not just women are embraced in the law enforcement world, but also LGBTQ members of the community can wear a uniform and be quite successful.”
McGuffey said it would also mean that the community recognizes the importance of diversity in law enforcement, and also the importance of a sheriff who is honest about who they are.
“Quite frankly, my opponent has pretended to be a Democrat for many years now, when he’s actually much more aligned with the Tea Party Republicans. He tells people what they want to hear and then doesn’t follow through.”
Neil’s behavior has indeed confused some Democrats over the past few years. He apologized in 2016 after attending a rally for Donald Trump. He has also been criticized for failing to hold police officers accountable for inappropriately using force.
Neil claims to have fired McGuffy based on the results of an investigation that said she created a hostile work environment and bullied employees. A Cincinnati Enquirer article noted that the internal investigation was done in 2016 after a deputy filed a complaint claiming that McGuffey screamed at employees, cursed at them, and engaged in favoritism.
McGuffey denies the allegations and maintains she was fired for speaking out for what she believes in, as well as for being a lesbian and a woman. A pending lawsuit she filed discusses the office’s toxic male culture.
“I was told to sit down and be quiet,” she said, in regards to her speaking up against the mistreatment of women officers and inmates. “And I was the Major of that jail, so my name’s on that, if you guys are going to shove the use of force under the rug…I came up against internal affairs. I filed a lawsuit. The fact I was a woman was an issue with some of the men in the upper echelon. The fact I was gay was an issue [too].”
At one point, McGuffy said, a staff member waved a Trump hat at her while she tried to present in a command staff meeting.
“And everybody burst out laughing. It made me feel targeted, made me feel alone. I didn’t like it but I was getting things done and I just continued to work.”
Now, she hopes to revamp the Sheriff’s Office—starting with accountability and justice reform.
Not everybody should get out of jail or prison, McGuffey emphasized. “There are people who quite frankly need to be incarcerated to keep society safe and I’m a law and order candidate as well, but I also understand there are people sitting in our jails and prisons who really have embraced reform and can return to their families and communities.”
McGuffy has quite a track record in the realm of justice reform. Under her leadership, the Hamilton County Justice Center moved from the worst-ranked large jail in Ohio to the best in just three years.
Within the jail, McGuffey started a committee called WRAP, Working to Refer Appropriate Placement, a weekly meeting that connected inmates to social services programs and increased their ability to successfully reenter their community.
Accountability is another priority. “Overall, the officers that work in that sheriff’s department that wear that black and gold are exemplary,” she said. “They’re wonderful, they’re excellent officers and their reputation is tarnished when we have officers that are bad actors and not held accountable.”
McGuffey says some elected officials allege she is not fit for the job based on an incident ten years ago in which she exchanged words with police outside a gay bar.
She and some friends were confronted by police while walking to their car after leaving the bar. She criticized them for targeting a gay bar and was charged with disorderly conduct, public intoxication, and menacing. The charges were dropped, but the sheriff at the time disciplined McGuffey for “conduct unbecoming” and gave her five unpaid days off of work, a move she believes was due to homophobia. Until then, McGuffy had been closeted at work.
During the campaign, she said, she is not letting any of these challenges stop her.
“I’ve been gay my entire life,” she said, “and what I learned as early as 11 years old was this: if you don’t stand up to bullies, they run you and they cause you to fail and a whole lot of negative things happen to you. You have to stand up to them, but when you do stand up to them, there are consequences. It’s not easy, so it’s what I’ve done my whole life, and I have tremendously great people surrounding me who helped me through those rough times.”
In 2015, McGuffey was named local and regional “Law Enforcement Officer of the Year.” In 2016, the Ohio House of Representatives honored her after she was named Public Citizen of the Year by the Ohio chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
McGuffey also recognizes how many LGBTQ+ people have fought for her right to do what she does.
“I always like to end interviews, especially ones with LGBTQ publications, by thanking all those men and women, and the women out there at large, who have fought for enough rights and enough of a path for me to walk along.”