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Sometimes your best isn't good enough.

MY MOST MEMORABLE endorsement experience also happens to be my saddest and most embarrassing. I'm sure all my colleagues feel the same.

It's memorable because it involved the most significant local election that year, the Allen County sheriff's race. It's embarrassing because it was an endorsement I was in charge of investigating and writing.

It was October 1990. I was a still-wet-behind-the-ears editorial writer, having just joined the paper in mid-August. Mostly this county election year was shaping up like all the rest. Republicans held all the county offices and either had no challengers or none who warranted a second look.

Except in the sheriff's contest. The Democrats had Glen Harpel, a husky 300-pound high-school-educated teddy bear. He was the county jail commander, and he came across as genuinely interested in the welfare of jail inmates. He had long advocated expansion of the county jail, not to make room for more crooks but to give the inmates somewhere else to sleep besides the floor, and somewhere to recreate and read, period. He wanted to get more participants in the work release program and supported a domestic violence mandatory arrest policy. To all of us flaming liberals, Harpel was the minister of sweet music.

He stood in stark contrast to the matter-of-fact, spit-and-polish, repressed army general we saw in Joe Squadrito, the Republican candidate. Though articulate and menacingly polite -- this late-fortysomething fellow insisted upon answering our questions with "sir" and "madam"; I was only 29 at the time -- and practically a shoo-in for election, there was something about Squadrito that frightened us.

In the general election interview, he talked seriously about terrorist attacks being a big concern in the county, and a few months prior he had dispatched the county's SWAT team to the city's abortion clinic to control protesters on both sides. We saw in this man a penchant for the use of fire power. Besides, our editor was convinced that it was time for a Democrat to become sheriff. It had been 50 years since the last one. Needless to say, we slobbered all over Harpel in our endorsement.

Then, just 10 days before the election, Harpel dropped a bomb. He was speaking at a Democratic luncheon and told his party mates that a county police shooting death of a drug suspect was in error. Though his opponent, Squadrito, wasn't a member of the SWAT team that shot the alleged dealer, he was in charge of the unit. Harpel claimed that contrary to published reports, the suspect wasn't armed, and everybody in the police department -- including Squadrito -- knew it and tried to cover it up. Harpel said he had no evidence but that his story could be corroborated by others, including the county prosecutor, a Republican.

Yeah, right. A week after Harpel's bomb, not a single soul publicly or privately corroborated any aspect of his story. He brought forth no evidence. Yet he had stirred up emotions in the family of the drug suspect. He inflamed racial fears. (The suspect was black.) And he widened the schism in the county police department, which had begun at the onset of the campaign.

To the most important question of all -- why, if his claims were valid, had Harpel waited until the eve of an election he was losing to publicize them -- he had no credible answer. Didn't the family deserve to know 2 1/2 years prior? Didn't the public? He mumbled something about fearing the charges wouldn't have been investigated by the current Republican administration.

Harpel looked foolish and irresponsible. We were angry and ashamed. Three days before the election, we did the only thing we thought we could. We retracted our endorsement and suggested voters "pull the lever for Squadrito, and pray."

Meanwhile, Squadrito is still our sheriff, and we still have concerns about him. Just a few weeks ago, however, the FBI completed an investigations of Harpel's charges and found them baseless.

We got lots of positive response from the public about our retraction. Readers said it was bold and respectable. We, of course, got a painful reminder of how little you can learn about a person just going over newspaper clippings or talking to reporters, or to the candidate in an hour-long interview.

The endorsement process is as imperfect as are the candidates, and as we who daily sit in judgment of them. But often it is the only guide that voters have. They still value it, and take it seriously.

So do we.

NCEW member Caroline Brewer is an editorial writer for The Journal-Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:political endorsement
Author:Brewer, Caroline
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:762
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