Charmaine McGuffey, an out lesbian, has been elected sheriff of Hamilton County, Ohio.
McGuffey, 63, made headlines in the primary where she challenged the incumbent, Jim Neil, who fired her from the sheriff’s department three years ago.
Neil insists he terminated McGuffey for creating a hostile work environment.
In a pending lawsuit against the department she will soon lead, McGuffey says she was the one subjected to a toxic workplace.
She maintains it was because she spoke out against excessive force — and because she is an openly gay woman.
Born and raised in Cincinnati, McGuffey said she knew she wanted to be a police officer by the time she was 14. But when she enrolled at the University of Cincinnati in the late 1970s, women weren’t allowed to be uniformed patrol officers.
That changed by the time McGuffey graduated, and she joined the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in 1983. Rising through the ranks, she received glowing reviews and numerous accolades over more than three decades of service.
In 2013, McGuffey was promoted to major in command of jail and court services, making her the highest-ranking woman in department history. Under her watch, the Hamilton County Justice Center moved from being Ohio’s worst-ranked large jail to its best in only three years, according to audits by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Corrections.
In 2014, McGuffey was named regional Law Enforcement Officer of the Year, according to her bio, and two years later, the Ohio Chapter of the National Social Workers honored her as Citizen of the Year.
But even during her rise, McGuffey said, she felt singled out in “one of the harshest male-dominated environments you can imagine.”
When she spoke up about the mistreatment of inmates, “I was told to sit down and be quiet,” she told LGBTQ Nation. “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 …”
Her gender and her sexual orientation were also issues, she said.
In one alleged incident, a staffer waved a Trump hat at McGuffey while she was attempting to lead a meeting.
“Everybody burst out laughing,” she told LGBTQ Nation. “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.”
After a deputy filed an official complaint alleging she screamed at and belittled subordinates, Neil launched an internal investigation.
The chief investigator determined McGuffey “used her position to retaliate against employees, as well as engaged in favoritism,” according to department records.
To McGuffey, though, the real goal of the investigation was to discredit her.
After more than 30 years, Neil demoted her to a lower-paying civilian job, according to McGuffey’s lawsuit. She refused the lesser role and was fired by the same man who promoted her to head the Hamilton County jail.
She filed a discrimination suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2018. In February of this year, a district court advanced her case to trial, ruling that similar investigations of male, heterosexual officers had resulted in much lesser penalties, or none at all.
It wasn’t the first time McGuffey faced disciplinary action, though. In April 2010, she was brought up on criminal charges stemming from a confrontation with police outside a gay bar in Covington, Kentucky.
McGuffey had been watching a college basketball game with some friends. When the group left around 11 p.m., they were confronted by two patrolmen.
According to her, one of them threatened to arrest her friend for leaving the bar with a beer.
The officers maintained they only asked the friend to discard her beverage, which she did. But, according to a departmental report obtained by the Cincinnati Enquirer, which NBC News has not seen, McGuffey then became “loud and belligerent,” cursing and shouting that the male officers had “problems with gay women.” She was cited for public intoxication, menacing and disorderly conduct.
According to McGuffey, who denied she was acting menacingly, she and her friends were targeted because of their sexual orientation.
“They were horrible. When they found out I was a captain, it became this thing, like, ‘What are we going to do about her?’” she told NBC News. “They pushed me to the ground and handcuffed me. It was absolutely unlawful what they did, and they knew it.”
Ultimately, the charges, all misdemeanors, were dropped. But the sheriff’s office disciplined her for “conduct unbecoming” and suspended her for five days without pay.
Until then, McGuffey had been closeted at work.
“I was always terrified that the sheriff would find out and I would lose my job,” she said, alleging that the decision to discipline her was also fueled by homophobia.
“Being outed — it was such a harsh, awful experience,” she said. “But being able to be out? That was tremendous. As the highest ranking woman in the sheriff’s office, marching with my wife at Pride was one of the best days of my life.”
After being fired in 2017, McGuffey nursed her pride for a year and a half. Then she decided she could do Neil’s job better herself.
She declared her candidacy in May 2019, promising her election would mean “our country is moving forward.”
Endorsed by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., and countless civil rights groups, McGuffey won the April Democratic primary against Neil handily with 70 percent of the vote.
Neil crossed party lines to endorse her general election opponent, Republican Bruce Hoffbauer. In an op-ed for the Cincinnati Enquirer declaring his support for Hoffbauer, Neil said McGuffey “would use the office of sheriff to be a political activist, pushing an anti-law enforcement agenda,” while he referred to Hoffbauer as a “tried and true law enforcement leader dedicated to public safety.”
On Tuesday, McGuffey defeated Hoffbauer 52 percent to 48 percent.
“I’ve lived here my whole life — people know me,” she said. “I have been out in the community in uniform, helping people. I’ve never strayed from those core values. It served me through his attacks.”
Neil declined NBC News’ request for comment.
Her victory isn’t just a vindication, she said. It represents hope. “Not just for the LGBTQ community, but for the Black and brown communities, for people of color. It means we can achieve.”
McGuffey will be the first LGBTQ sheriff in Hamilton County, as well as the first woman to serve in that role. And in a nation so divided, she said, that’s “a ray of sunshine through the clouds.”“I’ve been hearing from so many people, not just in Hamilton County, but across the nation. They’re glad to have some hope.”
When she takes office in January, she said her first priority will be making sure everyone she’s sworn to protect believes the justice system works for them.
“I know what it feels like to be targeted,” she said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “I know what it feels like to be the only woman in the room. I’ve seen a system that does not allow diversity in the upper echelons of law enforcement.”
And she wants to close the door on the divisiveness of the past.
“I’ve ordered a bunch of wood, because I plan on building a lot of bridges,” she said.