King County Sheriff John Urquhart's re-election campaign has been beset by allegations of sexual abuse and mismanagement, setting the stage for a bitterly contested race against Mitzi Johanknecht, a 32-year veteran of the sheriff's department.

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In a surprising showing, challenger Mitzi Johanknecht led incumbent John Urquhart in Tuesday’s returns in the bitterly contested race for King County sheriff  and promised she will “restore dignity and respect” to the embattled office.

Urquhart, who has been sheriff for the past five years and is seeking his second full term,  was dejected by the early numbers, which showed his rival with about 52 percent of the vote with about half of the anticipated ballots counted, but he did not concede the race and remained defiant, saying a lot of ballots are still to be tabulated.

“Never say die,” a subdued Urquhart said at a small gathering at a downtown pub, while acknowledging the early results didn’t bode well for him.  The remainder of the ballots will be counted in the coming days.

Election 2017

Statewide and local results

A loud “whoop!” went up at a lively West Seattle party where Johanknecht had gathered with about 150 supporters, including a number of deputies and command staff from the sheriff’s office.

Johanknecht, introduced to the crowd by her wife, Maureen Warren, said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we’re going to restore dignity and respect to the King County Sheriff’s Office.”

The campaign to lead the office’s 1,100 employees was defined by sharp exchanges between the two — and growing legal problems for Urquhart.

Johanknecht, a 32-year Sheriff’s Office veteran now serving as the major in charge of the Southwest Precinct in Burien, accused Urquhart of mistreating employees.

Urquhart attributed the attacks to tough new standards he put in place since taking office more than four years ago. He said he had fired 22 deputies and held commanders more accountable.

Johanknecht said she supports accountability and would have fired some of the same people. But Urquhart’s actions went too far, she said.

Read our profile of Johanknecht from earlier this year.

Urquhart, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for nearly 30 years, became sheriff after a special election for the open seat in 2012. He faced no challengers in the regular election for the seat in 2013, winning a four-year term.

Beginning late last year, Urquhart came under fire over his handling of a rape allegation leveled against him by a former deputy. Urquhart didn’t refer the allegation for an internal investigation, saying the FBI already had found the former deputy’s story from years ago to lack credibility.

In the last week of the campaign, leaders of three political-advocacy groups blasted Urquhart over what they described as his mistreatment of the woman and of another former deputy who recently alleged Urquhart inappropriately touched him in 2014.

The 2014 groping allegation has been referred to the Renton Police Department, which has said it is conducting a criminal investigation.

Urquhart fired back at the former deputy, filing a defamation lawsuit last week that contends the allegations are malicious, politically motivated lies made “for the purpose of causing substantial and irreparable harm” to derail the sheriff’s re-election bid.

King County Sheriff candidate Mitzi Johanknecht reflects on a career that led to tonight – and explains the trick to pronouncing her last name. (Susan Kelleher / The Seattle Times)

Underscoring the stakes, Urquhart, as of early this week, had contributed nearly $300,000 of his own money to his campaign.

Johanknecht had provided more than $63,000 of her own money, saying she and her wife have refinanced their home to contribute to the campaign.

As the first returns were posted, King County sheriff’s Capt. Carl Cole slid open the door to the room where campaign staff were monitoring the returns.

With arms pumping and fists clenched, he let rip a whoop and announced that Johanknecht had pulled in 51 percent of the early returns — a far better showing than her campaign had expected.

Johanknecht appeared stunned. Someone cracked, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

Johanknecht ran as “Mitzi,” but if she wins, you can call her Sheriff Johanknecht — pronounced “Joe Hank Nick,” she said. “Three guy’s names.”

Capt. Scott Somers, who’s been with the department for 39 years, said he expected a celebration in the office when people return to work on Wednesday.

Somers said Johanknecht had the respect of people in the department.

“My personal phone is blowing up right now,” Somers said.

“Mitzi stepped up, put her career on the line, mortgaged her house to take care of her troops,” he added. “God bless her. That’s the sign of a leader.”

Urquhart, who has been critical of The Seattle Times’ coverage of the sexual abuse allegations made against him, sent its reporter to a non-existent campaign party across town from where the sheriff showed up Tuesday night at Shaun O’Donnell’s American Grill and Irish Pub in the Smith Tower. When the reporter tracked him down, Urquhart said he had sent the reporter to the wrong place as a “joke.”

Urquhart declined to comment on what made the difference in the early returns, saying, “I think I’ll analyze that over the next few days.”

“Close race, absolutely,” John Urquhart told reporters after learning disappointing election results for King County Sheriff. “But no predictions.” (Steve Miletich / The Seattle Times)