WASHINGTON — The country’s largest gun safety group is turning its attention down ballot by pumping money into local sheriff races this election.
Everytown for Gun Safety, the massive gun control group founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, told NBC News on Friday it's “leaving no stone unturned in the fight to end gun violence” and will spend $300,000 on digital ads in two sheriff races this year.
While that amount is just a fraction of the group's national budget — Everytown spent some $55 million on the 2020 election, and millions more this year on House and Senate races — it could prove consequential in these low-profile races. For example, one of the two sheriffs they're targeting, Tom Hodgson of Bristol County, Massachusetts, has reported spending about $221,000 on his re-election campaign through Sept. 30.
County sheriffs, unlike most law enforcement officers, are directly elected by voters in most parts of the country. Their races rarely garner much attention beyond their jurisdictions but are now attracting more national interest as advocacy groups on both sides of the ideological divide look for new places to help elect their allies.
Everytown says the new spending is necessary to counter a growing movement of pro-gun sheriffs and county officials who have vowed they will not enforce certain gun control laws, though the legality of such declarations is dubious.
“Sheriffs are elected to enforce the law, not make them,” said John Feinblatt, head of Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund.
After successfully testing the spending strategy in a Pennsylvania sheriff race last year, the group is expanding its efforts this year with ads in the New Mexico county that includes Albuquerque, and Bristol County in Massachusetts. Both have competitive sheriff elections with candidates who, in Feinblatt's words, are “hell-bent on using the office to suit their own ‘guns everywhere’ agenda.”
In Bristol County, which is adjacent to Rhode Island and includes the cities of Taunton and New Bedford, longtime incumbent Republican Sheriff Tom Hodgson — his tag line is "no one’s tougher on crime" — is involved with a group called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which describes the association as an “extremist group” that “endeavors to radicalize county sheriffs across America into believing they are the ultimate law enforcement authority, able to enforce, ignore or break state and federal law as they choose.”
Hodgson is being challenged by Democrat Paul Heroux, the mayor of Attleboro.
Hodgson’s campaign responded to the new ads after publication by saying, "voters will not be fooled by an outside Super PAC."
"There is only one person in this race who will keep the people of Bristol County safe, and that is Sheriff Tom Hodgson,” spokesperson Holly Robichaud said in a statement.
The Bernalillo County race in New Mexico race falls along more familiar partisan lines. Self-described "reform-minded" Democratic candidate John Allen, who emphasizes restoring community trust in law enforcement, is facing Republican Paul Pacheco, who has received top ratings from gun rights groups.