The race for King County sheriff began Tuesday, with John Urquhart announcing he would challenge Steve Strachan in this year's election for the county's top law-enforcement post.

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The race for King County sheriff began Tuesday, with John Urquhart announcing he would challenge Steve Strachan in this year’s election for the county’s top law-enforcement post.

A former sergeant and spokesman for the sheriff’s department, Urquhart said he would campaign on leadership and accountability. “The Sheriff’s Office is at a crossroads,” he said. “I don’t want us to go down the road where we run the risk of losing the support of the citizens we serve.”

He would improve accountability, he said, by beefing up internal investigations of complaints and shootings, and creating a new review board to examine use of force.

Strachan, the incumbent, said some of those changes are “occurring as we speak.”

As for Urquhart’s criticism that several police shootings last year weren’t reviewed in a timely fashion, Strachan said the problem has been fixed.

“I fully intend to run and win,” Strachan added. “I’m interested in being a leader, not a politician.”

Former Sheriff Sue Rahr stepped down last month to become executive director of the state police-training academy. She designated her top deputy, Strachan, to be interim sheriff.

The Metropolitan King County Council then appointed Strachan to serve as sheriff until a November election decides who will fill out the rest of Rahr’s term, which concludes at the end of 2013.

The filing deadline for candidates is mid-May. No other candidates have surfaced.

Strachan, 47, was a police chief, city-council member and state legislator in Minnesota before he became chief in Kent for more than four years. Rahr named him chief deputy in January 2011.

King County’s sheriff oversees a department with 1,000 employees and a $150 million budget. The department is the chief law-enforcement agency in the county’s unincorporated areas and in 12 cities through contracts.

Urquhart, 64, retired as a sergeant in September after 23 years at the Sheriff’s Office.

Urquhart said lack of executive experience shouldn’t be considered a weakness. Sergeants have become sheriffs in several Washington counties, he said.

“Rank is not leadership,” said Anne Kirkpatrick, former Spokane police chief, as she introduced Urquhart at his news conference.

Although the sheriff’s position is officially nonpartisan, politics likely will be an issue. Urquhart said he had watched Rahr and her predecessor, Dave Reichert, “dance around” questions about their partisan loyalties, rather than say which political party they favored.

Urquhart said he was more aligned with Democrats, particularly on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion rights. But he considers himself an independent, he said, and has voted for Democrats such as Barack Obama, and Republicans, including Reichert, a GOP congressman from the state’s 8th District.

Saying the “war on drugs has been an abject failure,” Urquhart supports Initiative 502, which seeks to legalize marijuana in Washington state. “And I was a narcotics detective,” he pointed out.

He also said he would not seek the endorsement of unions that represent sheriff’s deputies and captains. Because the sheriff has a hand in negotiating union contracts, he said, it would be unethical to do so.

Strachan said he welcomes more clarity in the state’s medical-marijuana laws, which I-502 might bring. But he stopped short of endorsing legalization. “At the end of the day it’s up to the will of the people,” he said.

As for seeking endorsements from his employees, Strachan said: “I’ve really been focused on upcoming negotiations (with the deputies union). … “I really don’t have any statement on that.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or