While a few ultra-conservative sheriffs failed to get elected in Southwest Washington, one of the Constitutional Sheriff movement’s most enduring faces appears on track for a third term.
Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer lead challenger Garique Clifford by 153 votes with about 35 ballots remaining, as of Wednesday. That lead in the Columbia River Gorge community is wide enough to avoid triggering a recount.
The race was closer than Songer’s past campaigns. He faced greater opposition from critics within the county, partly because of frustrations that his law enforcement philosophy clashed with public health precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Songer also rallied supporters. In an interview, the 77-year-old declared victory and said he believed his style won his reelection.
“I have proven to the public that I will stand up for their constitutional rights and liberties,” he said
A broader movement
It’s a win for the controversial Constitutional Sheriff movement, whose supporters believe county sheriffs have greater authority than state and federal entities to decide which laws to enforce. Such sheriffs have come in conflict with states, for example, for refusing to enforce some gun regulations.
Critics of the movement contend it fosters anti-democratic views and antagonizes left-leaning causes, such as Black Lives Matter protests. The Portland-based extremism tracking organization Western States Center said the movement’s adherents try to cherry-pick what’s important to them.
“This is a movement that, within the Pacific Northwest, there’s a hotbed of sheriffs who are espousing these beliefs,” said program analyst Stephen Piggott. “They believe they are able to defy laws they don’t like, laws they don’t deem Constitutional.”
Songer has recently embodied his movement’s defiant philosophy. He refused to enforce any public health restrictions during the pandemic and threatened to arrest any government worker who tried to enter Klickitat County to do so.
On Thursday, he told OPB he plans to continue that streak. He compared pandemic precautions to racial segregation. He acknowledged the power of lawmakers and the courts in deciding the law of the land, but reiterated the sheriff decides in the moment.
“When people (say) the sheriff doesn’t have discretion and that it’s up to the courts whether it’s Constitutional or not, in the long-run, they’re correct,” Songer said. “But in the meantime, if you’ve got a lick of common sense and you look at that law and it’s violating people’s rights, why in the hell would you enforce it against the citizens of your county? It just makes no sense.”
Songer faced a tougher reelection this time around. Clifford became his most well-heeled challenger, raising $23,000 to Songer’s $46,000. A grassroots political action committee called Klickitat Voters for Responsible Government formed to raise another $4,500 against Songer.
“We’ve gone through two elections with Songer, and we just felt that it was important for voters to be educated, to know what his track record is,” said Lynn Mason, one of the PAC’s organizers.
One of Songer’s most publicized activities is forming a 150-person posse to hunt cougars and stand as a potential militia.
Between 2019 and 2020, posse members killed at least 19 cougars, according to Northwest Public Broadcasting. While the hunts have been criticized by animal rights groups, Songer has insisted they are vital for protecting livestock.
The posse is also a check on the federal government, Songer has said. When accepting an award from the Arizona-based Constitutional Sheriffs and Police Officers Association in 2019, he said he would deputize hundreds more if he saw any perceived federal overreach in Klickitat.
“If they think the Bundy deal down in Nevada was a big thing, that would be nothing compared to what would be happening here,” he said.
Multiple sheriff candidates in Southwest Washington espoused similar views as they ran for office this past cycle.
Vancouver Police Department officer Rey Reynolds and Woodland Police Department Sgt. Rob Gibbs both aligned themselves with the movement as they sought to become sheriffs in Clark and Cowlitz counties, respectively.
Summer Scheyer, a sheriff candidate in Skamania County, currently holds a narrow lead. Her views on the movement aren’t fully clear, but she touts endorsements from Songer and one-time Washington gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp. Culp, like Songer, is a CSPOA honoree.
Using the last election as a thermometer of the Constitutional Sheriffs’ strength is difficult, Piggott said. Even as some failed to gain traction, he said, multiple law enforcement officials like Songer won reelection across the country. He called it a “mixed bag.”
“This movement within our region is certainly still a viable one,” he said. “I think it’s going to mobilize around issues like targeting LGBTQ folks, drag queen story hours and things like (critical race theory) teachings and tools.”
Songer said his views may have sparked more critics, but they also rallied him support. He acknowledged the county is split. He said some “hate my guts, and they would do anything they can to get me out of office.”
“But thank God we have people with common sense and believe in the Constitution and want Bob Songer as their sheriff,” Songer said.
Songer would serve another four-year term, and it’s one even he didn’t expect. He planned to retire this year, but entered the race when his undersheriff, Tim Neher, dropped out due to “personal family matters,” the Goldendale Sentinel reported.
In the coming years, Songer said he would like to grow the posse and start some new initiatives: a cadet program, an academy for reserve deputies, and free firearms training for the public.