“I’m prepared to lead,” an excited Johanknecht said Thursday, pledging to boost efforts to help people in crisis and begin what she called a “healing process” in the King County Sheriff’s Office.
Mitzi Johanknecht has been elected King County sheriff, defeating her boss, incumbent John Urquhart, in a bitterly contested race in which she faced an uphill climb.
“It does not feel daunting. I’m prepared to lead,” an excited Johanknecht said Thursday evening, pledging to boost efforts to help people in crisis and begin what she called a “healing process” in the Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s a great feeling,” she said of her victory, in which she overcame Urquhart’s name recognition.
Johanknecht won 61 percent of Thursday’s vote count. About 130,000 ballots remain to be counted, but Urquhart would need to win about 62 percent of the outstanding votes to catch up.
Johanknecht extended her lead Thursday with a total of 54 percent of the vote, compared to 53 percent a day earlier, an upward trend that has continued since Tuesday’s election. She has 200,636 votes to Urquhart’s 169,885 in the latest count.
Urquhart, who turns 70 on Friday, has been sheriff for the past five years. He was seeking his second full term amid allegations of misconduct and mistreatment of employees.
He did not issue a statement Thursday on the results and did not respond to an email. Johanknecht (pronounced “Joe Hank Nick,” as she likes to say) said Thursday she had not heard from him.
Johanknecht, 58, now serving as the major in charge of the Southwest Precinct in Burien, is a 32-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office who will oversee the department’s 1,100 employees when she takes office in January.
The Sheriff’s Office provides service to unincorporated King County, Metro and Sound Transit agencies, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, King County International Airport/Boeing Field and 10 cities and two towns.
“I am so grateful to the voters of King County for voting for me,” said Johanknecht, a former basketball player at the University of Washington and Western Washington University, who explained she maintained a “winning feeling” throughout the campaign.
She attributed her success to getting out her message in person, through social media and with feet on the ground.
During the campaign, Johanknecht said she was “very excited about the opportunity to listen and be informed by people.” At a time when law enforcement is at a crossroads with communities, she said, she wants to focus on making people of all backgrounds feel safe and to treat them with dignity and respect.
She said Thursday that, in response to community expectations, she will emphasize de-escalation and crisis-intervention training and tactics, and purchase and deploy more less-lethal weapons for deputies.
She also wants to create a community-outreach and recruiting section, along with advisory councils to help, among other things, in devising strategic plans.
Additionally, she plans to develop leadership and career-path programs; bolster DUI enforcement; and focus more on cybercrime.
After joining the Sheriff’s Office in 1985, Johanknecht became a captain in 1998 and has spent time in supervisory roles in field operations, patrol operations, technical services and special-operations divisions.
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 SWAT team. She also has led two precincts.
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Urquhart previously attributed attacks he faced during the race to tough new standards he imposed, including the firing of 22 deputies and holding commanders more accountable.
In June, the union representing the department’s high-ranking commanders filed an unfair labor practices complaint against Urquhart, alleging he and his two top associates tried to intimidate Johanknecht and threatened to “destroy” any sheriff’s commander who publicly supported her. Urquhart has denied the allegations, dismissing them as politically-motivated lies.
Johanknecht said during the campaign that she, too, supports accountability, but that Urquhart had created a climate of fear within the department.
On Thursday, she said she will work to bring strong leadership to the organization, establishing clear goals and objectives based on open internal discussions.
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 lacking in 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 been conducting a criminal investigation.
Urquhart filed a defamation lawsuit last week against the former deputy that contends the allegations are malicious, politically motivated lies brought “for the purpose of causing substantial and irreparable harm” to derail the sheriff’s re-election bid.
A blunt-talking former media-relations officer, Urquhart parlayed his name recognition into a successful bid for sheriff in 2012. He retired with a sergeant’s rank before running for sheriff.