CAPE MAY COUNTY — Rich Harron started the race for the sheriff’s office as a Republican, but when the Cape May County GOP picked another candidate for the November election, the Democrats asked Harron to run on their ticket.
“I was never involved in politics,” Harron said this week in an interview with the Gazette. “I was a registered Republican, but that didn’t define who I was. My positions haven’t changed.”
Harron said he wrestled with the idea of changing parties for about a week before accepting an offer by Jeff Sutherland, chairman of the Cape May County Democrats, to run as the party’s candidate.
“My Republican supporters convinced me to make the change,” Harron said.
“We define people too much by the labels Republican and Democrat. People assume to know somebody because they’re Republican or Democrat, but when they display their opinions, they’re not that far apart.”
“I look at the sheriff’s office as not a political position,” the county chairman said. “Rich is a part of law enforcement.”
Sutherland said he heard about Rich and his experience from other Democrats in the party, and he liked what he heard.
“After I looked at the overall situation, if Rich didn’t run, the sheriff would have been picked by a room of about 200 people,” he said.
That factored into Sutherland’s decision to ask Harron to switch parties.
“I wanted the people of Cape May County to have two candidates to pick from,” he said. “I’m proud to put Rich forth as a candidate.”
Harron has served 27 years with the sheriff’s office: 25 years in the correctional center, with seven years as warden of the jail; and two years as the coordinator of the alternative to incarceration program.
Harron also serves part time as the Lower Township emergency management coordinator, and has been a volunteer firefighter for 27 years at Villas Volunteer Fire Department.
If elected sheriff, Harron has several ideas for the department, though two areas stand out: working with kids and families to prevent opioid abuse, and increasing awareness of the potential for terrorism in Cape May County.
“The office should be involved with the opioid issue,” he said. “They could support police in the Law Enforcement Against Drugs in the vo-tech school, and bring it to other public elementary schools that don’t have school resource officers.”
Harron also said he would like to develop an interactive program at the Cape May County Park and Zoo to work with kids and make them aware of the dangers of drug abuse.
“We need to educate kids about good choices and the issues that come with bad choices,” he said. “The sheriff can be a leader in the county in bringing good programs to the people.”
Nationwide, people don’t pay enough attention to security, Harron said, and as a resort area, visitors and residents here need to be aware of the potential for terrorism.
“We need to heighten awareness,” he said. “For example, we have airports, the ferry, and just a few weeks ago, a large-scale music event.”
Harron said that by involving people at all levels – such as business owners, teachers and principals – county residents could possibly identify people before they are radicalized.
That kind of preparation means communication, not only with other law enforcement agencies, but people throughout the county, leading not only to better security, but to an overall preparedness for disasters of any type – manmade or natural, according to Herron.
“I was the incident commander on the scene in Lower Township at Sandy and Irene,” he said.
Practicing communications and response prior to a disaster is critical to dealing with the destruction and aftermath, he said.
If he’s elected, Harron said his experience as warden at the county jail would help him lead the department as sheriff.
Running a jail is similar to running any small community, he added.
“Corrections is like operating a small town,” Harron said. “Corrections officers are like the police, and we have nurses and food services.”
Herron, 52, has been married for 33 years. He and his wife, Margaret, have two children, Rich Jr. and Bryan, and four grandchildren. Harron was born and raised in Villas.
“If I’m elected, I would bring a different approach to the sheriff’s office,” he said. “We would be more community oriented, and the staff would be teamwork oriented. They take pride in wheat they’re doing, and I would approach the officers with fairness and respect for what they do.”