Maj. Mitzi Johanknecht, a 32-year department veteran, says she wants to be “a progressive leader who can restore honor and integrity to the Sheriff’s Office.”
A 32-year veteran of the King County Sheriff’s Office, who has served in various leadership roles and broken down barriers for female deputies, will challenge Sheriff John Urquhart in his re-election bid to lead the agency of 1,100 employees.
Mitzi Johanknecht, who holds a major’s rank and commands the department’s Southwest Precinct covering unincorporated areas in Southwest King County, announced Thursday she’s running “because the people of King County and within the Sheriff’s Office deserve a progressive law-enforcement leader.”
“My platform is focusing on public safety, building community trust and support, and being a progressive leader who can restore honor and integrity to the Sheriff’s Office,” she said in an interview.
Johanknecht, 58, a King County native, said she believes both morale within the department and the services it provides to the public have suffered under Urquhart.
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“We need to listen, engage and collaborate with our community,” she said. “We need to effectively remember that … public safety is a team sport. That’s not happening.”
Johanknecht joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1985. She became a captainin 1998 and has spent time in supervisory roles in field operations, patrol operations, technical services and special-operations divisions.
Johanknecht cited the 2 ½ years she spent early in her career as a deputy assigned to a public-housing community near Kent under a federal drug-elimination grant as some of the most valuable experience in her career.
“I learned the importance of connecting with the community,” she said.
With her assignment to command the Criminal Investigations Division in 2013, Johanknecht became the first full-time female deputy to lead TAC-30, the Sheriff’s Office’s SWAT team. She also has led two precincts.
Urquhart — the blunt-talking former media-relations officer who parlayed his name recognition into a successful bid for sheriff in 2012 — retired with a sergeant’s rank before running for office.
“When you look at the two of them, Mitzi far outshines John in terms of breadth and depth of experience, the multitude of different assignments and in managerial experience,” said Brad Thompson, who retired with a major’s rank in 2015 after 37 years in the Sheriff’s Office, and knows both candidates.
Jason Bennett, political consultant for Urquhart, said they “welcome Mitzi to the race.”
“Sheriff Urquhart is the most progressive sheriff in the country — from his work on LGBT rights, to drug reform, to holding deputies accountable,” Bennett added. “No one is better suited than Sheriff Urquhart to continue standing up to the Trump administration while protecting all King County residents.”
Born in Seattle and raised in Burien, Johanknecht grew up the middle child in a family of five children. Her father worked at Boeing, and later became the property manager of the Space Needle, she said.
Johanknecht graduated from Bainbridge Island High School, then went on to play basketball for both the University of Washington and Western Washington University.
She lives in Seattle with her wife, Maureen. The couple’s adult daughter, Sydni, lives in New York.
Outside of the Sheriff’s Office, Johanknecht serves as an associate member of the Seattle Women’s/Seattle Men’s Choruses, working on the production team as a stage manager; and serves on the volunteer directors board of Companis, a nonprofit that connects volunteer professionals with other Seattle-area nonprofit agencies that need staffing assistance.
“Mitzi has a super passion for volunteerism,” said Gary Davis, executive director of Companis, who noted his nonprofit does not make political endorsements. “She brings leadership qualities to the board and wonderful thinking about systems and planning.”
Johanknecht said she’s never run for office, and didn’t think about running for sheriff until “people inside and outside” the department urged her to do so.
In 1997, Johanknecht got into trouble as second-in-command of the Shoreline precinct when she provided comments for a City Council candidate’s campaign flier. The department was facing budget cuts at the time, and Johanknecht remarked for the flier: “Don’t balance the city budget on the back of public safety!”
City officials determined it was inappropriate for a high-ranking officer to insinuate that public safety was being compromised.
The incident led to Johanknecht’s transfer to Kenmore despite supporters who protested her departure from Shoreline.
Johanknecht faces an uphill battle against Urquhart, who easily defeated then-appointed Sheriff Steve Strachan when the two faced off during a special election for the open seat in 2012. Urquhart faced no challengers in the regular election for the seat in 2013, winning a four-year term.
Urquhart, 69, of Mercer Island, has raised nearly $59,000 in campaign contributions, including $31,000 of his own money, records show. He has garnered multiple endorsements from public officials, according to his campaign website.
But his tenure in office also has been marked by allegations of discrimination, mismanagement and misconduct, many of which surfaced publicly during litigation of a bias lawsuit filed by a current and two former deputies. King County settled the suit for $1.35 million last month. He denies the allegations.
Johanknecht, who registered as a candidate with the state on April 28, so far has raised $3,000 she personally loaned to her campaign.
“I believe people will be able to see how we’re different,” she said. “They’ll see how I will be able to lead the organization in a respectful, ethical way that will include bringing both talented leaders and the community into our decision-making.”
Information in this article, originally published May 11, 2017, was corrected May 11, 2017. A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Jason Bennett as John Urquhart’s campaign manager. Bennett is Urquhart’s political consultant.