Voters have the rare opportunity to choose between two candidates on the ballot for Kitsap County sheriff for the first time in nearly two decades.
The sheriff has been unopposed in every election since 2002, when Steve Boyer faced off against William Johnston. Since then, Democrats Boyer and Gary Simpson held the position.
The incumbent this year is Democrat Sheriff John Gese, 61, who served as undersheriff for Simpson beginning in 2015. Gese was appointed sheriff in 2021 by the county commissioners after Simpson retired midterm.
Gese has served in the sheriff’s office for 31 years, time which he said gives him a distinct advantage in the election.
“I’ve worked with all the communities here in Kitsap County for thirty years, and I’ve worked hard to build relationships with all these communities and build relationships with all the people that are community leaders and partners,” he said. “I just think that experience gives you the wisdom that you’ve learned over those years, and you’re going to apply what you’ve learned to make better decisions.”
The challenger is Republican Rick Kuss, 44, who served in the Navy for 24 years before retiring in April with the rank of lieutenant commander. Kuss served as an apprentice in the Saline Police Department for four years at age 16 and also attended the Michigan State Police Law Enforcement Career Academy. He also earned a Master of Science degree in Criminal Justice with a 4.0 GPA.
The election comes at a time when law enforcement suffers from a lack of employees due to retirements along with lack of applicants due to society’s current negative opinion of the profession. Gese said that while the pandemic impacted recruitment the past two years, the sheriff’s office is going to events and schools with the hope of bringing people into the occupation.
Kuss said the effort to recruit has been more lacking than what Gese said and needs to be more than occasional Facebook posts. To fix the problem the office needs to job source and promote itself to the proper candidates, especially younger ones. “We need to reach out,” he said. “There are different colleges where people are graduating, and a lot of them are choosing to go to different districts.”
The homeless have been a key issue for the office the past few years. The office is part of the Homeless Encampment Action and Response Team, which provides resources for the homeless. Gese said while the sheriff does not necessarily focus on solving homelessness, it is a resource for them. “The goal is to work with the encampment, build the trust and the relationship, and then get them into services so that solves the problem,” he said.
Kuss said the sheriff’s office is only scratching the surface of what it is capable of. “When I go further than just the main stretch along the trails, people don’t know the resources,” he said, “so I’m trying to provide that to them as a community caretaker.”
Drugs have also plagued the county. More potent, life-threatening drugs such as fentanyl have hit the streets.
Kuss has called out Gese and Prosecutor Chad Enright for a lack of enforcement. “The plan that I have is I will hold people accountable,” he said. “We’re going to immediately start tracking the numbers that we defer, and then on the third time, they’re going to jail.”
Gese said the problem is with state laws that make it harder to get drugs off the streets. “What I’ve advocated for is that the legislature has to figure out something this year,” he said, “and I do believe that we need some sort of law on the books that gives police the power to put a check on use of hard drugs.”
Both candidates are critical of each other. Gese has pointed out Kuss’ lack of experience in Kitsap and elsewhere and also criticized people who endorsed Kuss, referring to a few as “dangerous politicians.”
Kuss went after Gese’s communication skills and lack of willingness to participate in public debates.