Boundary County sheriff candidates debate at packed high school gym

oundary County sheriff candidates Jon VanGesen, Travis Stolley and Dave Schuman debate at Bonners Ferry High School on Thursday. Photo by James Hanlon - Spokesman-Review
Boundary County sheriff candidates Jon VanGesen, Travis Stolley and Dave Schuman debate at Bonners Ferry High School on Thursday. Photo by James Hanlon – Spokesman-Review

By James Hanlon, Spokesman Review

Boundary County sheriff candidates Jon VanGesen, Travis Stolley and Dave Schuman debate at Bonners Ferry High School on Thursday. Photo by James Hanlon – Spokesman-Review

The retirement of Boundary County Sheriff Dave Kramer at the end of this term has left the field open for three candidates running for the position in a competitive Republican primary.

Since Idaho’s northernmost county is stoutly conservative, the winner of the May 21 primary would be the presumptive winner in November. No other candidates have filed for other parties.

About 400 people crammed into the bleachers in the Bonners Ferry High School gym to see the three debate Thursday evening.

Dave Schuman, a Boundary County sheriff’s deputy since 1999, is running against Jon VanGesen, who spent most of his career with the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office in Washington, and Travis Stolley, a former deputy and sheriff reservist who was born and raised in the county.

“You will be witnessing this county’s most important job interview,” said Elena Quinn, president of the Panhandle Republican Women, in opening remarks at the debate. “And you all are the hiring managers.”

The Panhandle Republican Women, which hosted the event, was formed last year to inform voters, Quinn said. They are neutral and will not endorse a candidate.

Sheriff Kramer, who led the Pledge of Allegiance at the debate, also has no plans to endorse anyone.

Top issues facing the candidates raised in the debate are an aging jail, drug enforcement and how to handle perceived federal overreach .

Schuman, a corporal patrol deputy for the sheriff’s office, is running on an idea of promoting citizen involvement with the sheriff’s office, including a “citizen’s academy” that could use civilian volunteers, separate from the reserve program. Their training would be a minimum of two weeks.

In a brief interview, Schuman addressed a rumor that he is not actively on duty pending a complaint about his employment, saying it is a personnel matter and he has not been suspended. He would not share any details but expects it to be wrapped up before the election.

Kramer said he could not comment on personnel matters.

Schuman ran for sheriff against Kramer in 2016, losing first in the primary, then as a write-in candidate in the general election.

For this campaign, he has raised $505 from eight donors.

Before joining the sheriff’s office, Schuman was a military policeman in the U.S. Army for 20 years and retired as a staff sergeant.

VanGesen, a lieutenant in the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office, is running on “experience, integrity and leadership.”

Before moving to Naples, Idaho in 2021, VanGesen spent 29 years working for the Kitsap County Sheriff in Washington, where he was acting chief of the detective division.

Kitsap County in 2021 settled a $200,000 lawsuit involving an alleged racial profiling incident in 2015 on Omari Taylor, a Black man who VanGesen arrested and jailed following a traffic stop.

An obstruction charge against Taylor was later dropped. Part of the incident was caught on video by a friend of Taylor’s, since it occurred in front of her house.

VanGesen said the lawsuit wasn’t filed until almost three years later when “the Puget Sound region went berserk with Black Lives Matter, antifa and defund the police.”

He said the county prosecutor’s office would not have represented him as an employee if they could prove that he violated policy or laws. The agreement to settle was “a business decision” by the county, he said.

VanGesen grew up in Seattle, but his wife’s family is from North Idaho going back generations. Boundary County was at the top of their list of places to settle down because of the community feel and support of law enforcement in Idaho.

He got a job with the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office because he wanted to continue his career in law enforcement and there wasn’t an opening in Boundary County at the time.

VanGesen said his biggest challenge will be to build trust with the community – yet he was met with great applause when his name was called at the debate.

VanGesen announced his run for office at a John Birch Society meeting in November.

His campaign was one of the sponsors of the sheriff debate. VanGesen has loaned his campaign $9,250.

Travis Stolley, a 2005 Bonners Ferry High School graduate, said he is running on the principles of “accountability, honesty, transparency, work ethic and working together.”

Stolley highlighted his military service when asked about his comparatively few eight years of law enforcement experience. He served as a helicopter mechanic and aircrewman in the Marine Corps with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He retired as a staff sergeant after nine years, then worked for the Bonners Ferry Police Department and Boundary County Sheriff’s Office as a detective. He retired a couple of years ago to focus on his construction business but remains an active member of the sheriff’s dive team and a reserve deputy.

“It is a calling,” Stolley said of his desire to return to law enforcement. “I care about this community. I want to be involved.”

Stolley downplayed the premise of a question asking if being born and raised in the county would make him a better sheriff.

“I don’t know if that would make anyone a better person,” he said, “but I do know the values I was raised with, I know the community I come from.”

Stolley said he sees many people willing to serve in various ways across the community.

“I’m not unique,” Stolley said. “It’s just who we are, and I’m proud of that.”

Stolley’s campaign has raised $7,810 from 75 donors.

Thursday’s debate was cordial, and the audience clapped politely after each response.

Questions were selected from online submissions.

Some were easy, like “Would you ever go door-to-door confiscating firearms?”

(All three candidates gave a resounding no.)

Candidates affirmed their loyalty to the Constitution and were in agreement on the need to do something to upgrade the jail that is over capacity, and that the county is facing a serious problem from fentanyl.

Other questions centered on their views of local versus state and federal control.

The candidates said they would not have surrendered local authority to the federal government in Ruby Ridge, the disastrous siege that played out in Boundary County almost 32 years ago.

They gave similar responses for a hypothetical national emergency, such as another pandemic.

Voters who attended the debate responded to VanGesen’s résumé and said his outside perspective could do the sheriff’s office a lot of good.

“All three were good, but VanGesen stood out to me,” Dan Trabucco said. He was most impressed by his leadership experience.

Others said Stolley has deeper ties to the community and they know him personally.

Bonners Ferry Police Chief William Cowell, who was Stolley’s first field training officer, said he will vote for Stolley.

James Hanlon’s reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community.