Taking over the job of the boss who fired you is a dream for many workers — and for Charmaine McGuffey, it may come true.
McGuffey, a lesbian who’s running for sheriff of Hamilton County, Ohio, is already partway there. She defeated that boss, Sheriff Jim Neil, in the Democratic primary in April, winning nearly 70 percent of the vote. Now she’s set to face Republican candidate Bruce Hoffbauer, a Cincinnati police lieutenant, in November. If she wins, she’ll be one of only a few out lesbian sheriffs ever elected in the nation.
“I’m thrilled that we came out with such a big victory” in the primary, McGuffey tells The Advocate. “It did surprise me a little bit that we had such a large margin.”
She spreads the credit around for that big victory, thanking her wife, Christine Sandusky; her campaign manager, Mary Carol Melton; and her campaign volunteers. But she also notes, “I have a story.” And it’s a compelling one.
McGuffey joined the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in 1983, shortly after receiving a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati. Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, is Ohio’s third most populous county. “I knew from the age of 14 that I wanted to be a police officer,” she says. “I wanted to help people. … I wanted to be one of those people who makes someone’s life better.”
She rose steadily through the ranks, and in 2013, Neil, in his first year as sheriff, promoted her to major in command of jail and court services, making her the highest-ranking woman in the department’s history. In 2015, she was named local and regional Law Enforcement Officer of the Year. The following year, the Ohio House of Representatives named her Public Citizen of the Year. During her tenure, the Hamilton County Justice Center went from being the worst-ranked large jail in Ohio to the best.
But Neil fired her in 2017. She says it was because she’s a lesbian and she raised concerns about the use of force by officers. He says it was because she created a hostile work environment. She has sued him in federal court, and the lawsuit is still pending.
“My story resonates with people,” McGuffey says. She says she called out “horrible behavior” by some officers, although she emphasizes that they represent a small minority in the department, and opened jail services up to public scrutiny. “I dropped the drawbridge, filled in the moat, and put the welcome sign out,” she says.
She emphasized rehabilitation, collaborating with social service agencies to match prisoners with programs that could help them reenter society — assistance with writing résumés, developing other job-search skills, finding housing, getting a driver’s license reinstated, obtaining child support. She created a program focusing on military veterans and started a book club for women prisoners, with books donated by the public library system.
Her promotion of rehabilitative services doesn’t make her any less a champion of law and order, she says. “There are consequences for behaviors,” she says, and when people commit crimes, they have to pay a price. But that doesn’t mean they should be thrown away, she adds. “People redeem themselves all the time,” she points out.
The accusations of creating a hostile atmosphere at the jail, McGuffey says, are baseless and stem largely from sexism. A couple of officers said they didn’t like the way she spoke to them, and they claimed she hated men because she wanted to encourage women to take promotion exams.
“And I was a whistleblower,” she adds. Neil had brought in his own internal affairs department, and it wasn’t doing appropriate investigations regarding the use of force by officers, she says. Some injuries to prisoners were reported as resulting from accidents when that was not the case, she asserts. And she spoke out. “I was not going to stand down,” McGuffey says. She stresses that the 850-person sheriff’s department “has a tremendous amount of great deputies,” and the problems were caused by just a few.
But as a woman and a lesbian, McGuffey has experienced hostility from some colleagues over the years. When she joined the department, she knew she couldn’t be out at work and succeed. The Hamilton County sheriff at the time, Simon Leis Jr., was known nationally as a homophobe, she recalls. So she avoided socializing with other officers and didn’t discuss her personal life.
Without having to deal with homophobia, the sexism was bad enough. One officer, for instance, cut off her radio transmissions because he didn’t think a woman’s voice belonged on the police radio, she says. He received no discipline other than a stern verbal reprimand, according to McGuffey. She also saw women passed over for promotion. But women worked hard to break down barriers and prove themselves. “We weren’t handed equality,” she says.
She was outed 10 years ago due to an incident that happened when she was coming out of a gay bar in Covington, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. A Covington police officer stopped her and her friends in a crosswalk and wrote tickets to McGuffey for menacing, disorderly conduct, and public intoxication, all charges she says were without merit, and they were eventually dropped. But her department punished her with a five-day suspension for “conduct unbecoming.”
“I was threatened throughout my career,” she says.
She thought long and hard about running for sheriff. It took about a year of contemplation, and she decided to run because the work she had started in departmental reforms wasn’t finished. “We had a huge amount of momentum when I was fired,” she says.
Along with her compelling story, a factor in her primary victory was that Neil had alienated many fellow Democrats by appearing onstage at a rally for Donald Trump in 2016. His apology didn’t mollify them, and he also faced criticism about use of force by officers and gave party officials a tone-deaf response when questioned about racial disparities in the criminal justice system. McGuffey received the party’s endorsement in the primary. She expresses optimism about her chances in November, noting that Hamilton County, once deep red, is turning blue.
She also has the endorsement of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which works to elect out candidates. “Defeating an incumbent in this environment is difficult because you cannot knock on doors or meet directly with the people you want to serve,” Victory Fund President and CEO Annise Parker said in a statement to The Advocate shortly after McGuffey’s win in the primary. “Yet Charmaine ran a brilliant campaign throughout — speaking to her criminal justice reform initiatives while calling out the current sheriff’s homophobia and sexism — and those messages clearly resonated. Her primary victory should give other LGBTQ candidates reassurance that despite the challenges of running for office in a pandemic, authenticity and the right message can still lead to upset victories at the ballot box.”
McGuffey acknowledges the role of LGBTQ+ pioneers and supporters. “I am so thankful for all the LGBTQ community, all the men and women who came before me,” she says. “I couldn’t do what I’m doing today without them.”
She also expresses gratitude to her wife, Sandusky, who works as a real estate appraiser. They have been together for nine years and married in June 2015, as soon as same-sex couples could marry legally. “She’s more than my soul mate,” McGuffey says of Sandusky. “She’s absolutely the person who was meant for me.”
Finally, why should Hamilton County residents vote for McGuffey? “I’m a strong and courageous leader,” she says. “I want the right thing for everyone. I want fair and equal justice. I make myself approachable. I take time to talk to people. That’s what I’m going to bring as sheriff.”