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Experience, endorsements among dividing lines in race for St. Louis County sheriff

Jason Lukovsky and Gordon Ramsay sat down with the News Tribune to explain why they're the right choice in this fall's rare opening for the county's chief law enforcement officer.

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Jason Lukovsky, left, and Gordon Ramsay
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DULUTH — St. Louis County voters have a rare opportunity as they head to the polls this fall.

On the ballot for the Nov. 8 general election is a contested race for county sheriff — the first time in 20 years that voters will select a new top law enforcement officer, or even face a choice.

The candidates have a lot in common: Both are 50 years old, Duluth natives, University of Minnesota Duluth graduates and longtime police officers in and near their shared hometown. But the two men bring very different professional backgrounds and perspectives to the race.

Jason Lukovsky is the insider, having worked his way up the ranks and through every division of the sheriff's office over the past quarter-century. He cites hands-on experience that earned him the endorsement of the retiring incumbent and positions him to serve as a steady hand through a rapidly evolving era of law enforcement.

"The biggest question coming my way routinely is, 'Are you an extension of Ross Litman?'" Lukovsky said. "That was predicted as Ross has been a five-term sheriff. He's a dear friend of mine, and he's done tremendous things. But there are differences between Ross and I. One of the biggest is that I'm a little younger and I'm more open to some of the technology that's coming down the pike and what's expected to come in the future."

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Gordon Ramsay is the outsider, having never worked within the agency but enjoying significant name recognition from a long stint as police chief of the county's largest city. With more than 15 years as the top cop in Duluth and Wichita, Kansas, he says he has a proven track record of progressive leadership and will bring a fresh perspective to the office.

"There is tremendous experience in broadening your horizons," Ramsay said. "The experience that I got on the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement, the (Kansas) governor's Commission on Racial Equity and Justice, dealing with hundreds and hundreds of homicides and shootings and cases that are at the national level — that's experience you just can't replicate. To me, you want leaders with the most experience."

two men sit at a table with microphones
St. Louis County sheriff candidates Gordon Ramsay, left, and Jason Lukovsky answer questions at a forum hosted by the News Tribune and Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 3.
Wyatt Buckner / File / Duluth News Tribune

In addition to general law enforcement duties, the sheriff is responsible for emergency planning and response; processing and servicing of warrants and court documents; security at courthouses in Duluth, Virginia and Hibbing; and operation of a 197-bed jail and two temporary lock-up facilities.

Regardless of which candidate prevails, the next sheriff will be assume leadership of roughly 280 employees and a $36 million budget at a pivotal moment in the law enforcement profession. Among the immediate priorities, both agreed, will be addressing staffing shortages, demands for greater transparency and bridging the gap between urban and rural segments of the sprawling county.

Improving community relations, technology

Lukovsky, a Denfeld High School graduate now living in Fredenberg Township, said he's made it a mission since becoming undersheriff in early 2021 to reach out to work with the Duluth NAACP and the Law Enforcement Accountability Network. He's also part of a county diversity and equity project.

"I've made a conscious effort to let it be known that when I'm sheriff, I will continue those conversations and develop those relationships," he said. "I have my opinion on whether or not there is racial disparity within the sheriff's office. But, on the same token, I also have to back it up. ... If, during our conversations, we can get to the root of the problem and produce results, people can interpret those results how they want. If it means that there is racial disparity within the sheriff's office, well then we formulate a plan involving our partners to fix it."

Ramsay, an East High School graduate who has returned to Duluth's Lester Park neighborhood, said his record speaks for itself. His resume includes the creation of citizen review boards in both Duluth and Wichita.

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Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay visits with Kim Randolph, stabilization services director at the CHUM shelter in Duluth, on Jan. 13, 2016, shortly before leaving to become police chief in Wichita, Kan.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

"Race relations and fairness has always been a passion of mine," Ramsay said, "because I’m passionate about the role law enforcement and criminal justice plays in society. Disparities are a significant concern of mine, and I want to do everything I can to be part of solution. Throughout my career, I have worked closely with community groups such as the NAACP and the Indigenous Commission to listen and work towards solutions. As sheriff, I'll do the exact same thing. It's a complex problem. We can't just bury our head in the sand. We need to be at the table working with our partners."

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Ramsay noted that he implemented body cameras at the Duluth Police Department in 2014 — well before they were common tools in law enforcement. He said he also wants to bring back services such as crime mapping and notifications.

"I’ve committed to being as transparent and open as possible," Ramsay said. "I believe my record shows that. We do communicate with the media, right, wrong or otherwise. In terms of engaging the community, I do think there is tremendous room for growth."

The sheriff's office only recently purchased body cameras, a delay that Lukovsky attributed to several years of unsuccessful attempts to secure federal funding. The agency also remains a bit of an outlier among modern law enforcement agencies in that it does not maintain any social media presence or have a dedicated public information officer.

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St. Louis County Supervising Deputy Jason Lukovsky.
Steve Kuchera / 2021 file / Duluth News Tribune

Lukovsky agreed that the agency needs to always be looking at new ways of conducting business. He said he has a strong interest in adopting new technology that can improve services, having already added drones and currently looking toward a future that include video calls to the 911 center.

"I'm already undersheriff and can affect change," he said. "The feedback by our command staff members is that we do have employees in all divisions who are doing tremendous work on a daily basis, and I think perhaps we've missed the opportunity in the past to really recognize or highlight that. And along with that comes better informing the public.

"Now, I'm not going to make an edict that says on every officer-involved shooting, I will release video within three days. I'm not going to go that far. However, I think we need to evaluate our responses. If appropriate on a case-by-case basis, perhaps you pull in certain members of the public who have been affected by this incident and let them view it. ... We need to be open to these options to meet the expectations of our citizens."

Combating crime through coordination

When it comes to combating crime, Ramsay has stressed a need to bridge the gap between urban and rural areas. St. Louis County has a population of about 200,000 — roughly half living in or near Duluth and the remainder dispersed among an area larger than some states.

"The smaller agencies, particularly, rely on the sheriff for help with investigations," he said. "You look at the Range, where they have high concentrations of smaller municipalities with their own police departments. They really want to work closer and have stronger relationships. With regard to the drug problem and crime issues, one of the things I really want to do is create twice-monthly meetings where we talk about investigations and crime trends and work together to target those problem offenders."

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Retiring St. Louis County Undersheriff Dave Phillips, left, stands with his successor, Jason Lukovsky, in the county courthouse in Duluth on April 26, 2021. Lukovsky was picked for the No. 2 role by Sheriff Ross Litman, who has also endorsed his bid for the top job.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

Lukovsky said he believes the sheriff's office needs to maintain its primary enforcement focus on areas outside city limits and avoid interfering with municipal departments. But he said he's committed to maintaining and expanding partnerships at the local, state and federal levels, noting the department already has four deputies assigned to the regionwide Lake Superior Violent Offender Task Force.

"We're going to continue committing resources to hit our problem areas within St. Louis County," Lukovsky said. "I need to be there as a resource for (local departments). In monitoring crime, we pull our (call) stats monthly. We're pulling township numbers. We're well aware if burglaries are occurring — perhaps increasing in a certain area —and we're going to dedicate resources, dedicate technology to those areas to try and combat that."

Ramsay also has been critical of a pandemic-era policy that he believes is "creating significant dysfunction in the criminal justice system." The sheriff's office in March 2020 was granted authority by the 6th Judicial District to quash some misdemeanor warrants, providing a court date to defendants rather than booking them into the jail.

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Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay speaks to a group of people who participated in a "Walk For Renewal" in July 2008. The event was aimed at boosting residents' spirits following concerns about crime in the area.
Derek Montgomery / File / Duluth News Tribune

"When the offender does not show up for court and a judge issues a warrant, it is voided by the sheriff’s office, which then leads to a total breakdown in the system and, in turn, lawlessness in certain areas," he said. "It's equivalent to a prosecutor saying they will not charge certain crimes like shoplifting."

Lukovsky said he understands the frustration, but maintained that the agency's efforts to resume normal operations have been hampered by a judicial system that is still dealing with a major backlog and not yet operating at pre-pandemic conditions. He noted that the policy only applies for nonviolent offenses — many of whom would be out after a 12-hour hold anyway — and that choosing to make every arrest would involve significant taxpayer expense, with the county paying about $80 per day to house each inmate in another jurisdiction.

"I think we're to a point now where, if you believe in COVID, fine; if you don't believe in COVID, fine; I think it's time to get back to business," Lukovsky said. "The one thing that's holding us all up is the fact that the courts are not in full motion yet. At any time, we have 150 to 190 inmates at the county jail, some of who have been there 2 ½ years awaiting their trial, and the sentence they end up receiving is probably going to be less than the time they've already spent in jail."

Getting 'creative' to address staffing woes

Recruiting and retaining staff will be a key priority, as law enforcement agencies across the board have struggled to fill their ranks since the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Ramsay said St. Louis County is particularly challenged in its 911 operations, "hemorrhaging staff" and recently dropping the minimum staffing level from nine to seven.

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Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay talks to the media outside the Last Place on Earth after owner Jim Carlson's arrest in March 2013.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

"This is not just the police that are impacted," he said. "There are also a lot of volunteer fire departments who want to see some changes. They deserve to have a voice at the table."

Ramsay said the jail and, to a lesser extent, patrol divisions also are experiencing shortages. He said the county may need to increase salaries and look at wellness programs to reduce stress on employees.

"We're bordering on a crisis if we don't get a strategic recruiting and retention plan in place," he said.

Lukovsky, though, said he believes the office has "weathered the storm" and is facing a brighter future on the personnel side. They've stepped up outreach, aggressively advertising positions through the internet, physical mail, TV and even video spots at local movie theaters.

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A 1999 photograph shows Jason Lukovsky, from left, with fellow St. Louis County deputies Dave Phillips and Lauren VanLoon.
File / Duluth News Tribune

"I think the jail experienced an increase of maybe 40% in applicants," Lukovsky said. "We just need to be creative. There are still people out there that want to work."

In recruiting, the undersheriff said he doesn't want to take staff away from other departments in the region.

"That's not a solution," he said. "It might benefit our organization, because we are a bigger draw and we have more opportunity, but collectively it doesn't solve the problem. I would much rather increase wages and then steal somebody from an Edina or another metro suburb because they're sick of working down there and maybe wanting to come to St. Louis County to retire, to spend their last five or eight years. It's a little bit more of a private-sector mindset where you're headhunting."

Mike Ceynowa steps in as the department faces some significant challenges, but the 24-year veteran says he's optimistic about the years ahead.

Candidates explain why they're running

Ramsay led the pack in an August primary, garnering 40% of the vote. Lukovsky advanced with his 33%, falling roughly 2,500 votes behind the front-runner.

Also technically still in the race is local gun shop owner and part-time Moose Lake police officer Chad Walsh, who is mounting a write-in campaign after being eliminated from contention with 26% of the primary vote. While winning is an extreme longshot, his continued presence in the race could skew a tight election.

Lukovsky has acknowledged that Ramsay likely entered the race with a significant head start.

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St. Louis County sheriff candidate Jason Lukovsky (wearing the cap) waves to paradegoers at Hoghead Festival in August in Proctor.
Contributed / Jason Lukovsky

"I'm not overly excited and I'm not overly worried," he said. "I knew one of my hurdles was going to be trying to overcome the name recognition that Gordon had. I looked at the precinct results and I was optimistic that there were many lanes that could be taken to gain that back, and that's really what we've been focusing on since the primary."

Lukovsky has pitched himself as the man who is ready to step in and lead the office from Day One. He started in patrol, joined the tactical team as a sniper and got a promotion to investigator — at one point solving a 2000 murder cold case — before being placed in charge of the 911 call center and later getting picked by Litman as second in command.

It's experience that Lukovsky believes solidified him as the candidate of choice for fellow officers. He not only has the support of the county deputies union, but also both units representing officers up to lieutenants at the Duluth Police Department — Ramsay's former agency.

"I think it should resonate loudly to the voters in St. Louis County who may not pay too much attention to the office of sheriff," Lukovsky said. "I think why you're seeing those two Duluth unions backing me is because of the way I went about my job. They're confident that if I become sheriff, it's going to be the same old Jason as it was in 1997, when he got hired."

Ramsay said he doesn't believe endorsements from top union officials necessarily reflect the full rank-and-file, saying he has the backing of numerous Duluth cops and St. Louis County deputies. His endorsements also include the Iron Range Chiefs of Police Association and Hibbing Police Department command staff, along with many current and former area mayors and police chiefs.

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St. Louis County sheriff candidate Gordon Ramsay, left, campaigns Aug. 5 at the North St. Louis County Fair in Hibbing.
Contributed / Gordon Ramsay

Ramsay pushed back on any notion that he lacks experience in the duties of the sheriff, noting he was responsible in Wichita for overseeing security for a large municipal court system, along with operating a dispatch center and a holding facility.

And unlike Lukovsky, who has never been the head of an agency, Ramsay noted that he has more than 15 years of executive leadership under his belt. With that comes some bumps in the road — in Wichita, he faced scrutiny for racist messages exchanged by officers and a high-profile SWAT team killing — but he said he's proud of his tenure.

"The department is forever different," he said. "We changed the face of the department as far as diversity, from 11% to almost 17%. We had the largest classes of Black, African American, Hispanic, Asian (officers) in the history of the department. We lowered robberies and burglaries to lows going back 30, 40 years. But I learned a lot, too, about being the outsider and how to come into an agency."

Lukovsky, by comparison, has spent more of his career quietly working behind the scenes. If elected, he doesn't expect much to change.

"This isn't about a title for me," he said. "This isn't about another award, another badge. It's first and foremost for the citizens of St. Louis County."

Ramsay, likewise, said his campaign isn't about prestige. He was a popular chief in Duluth, leaving to accept the challenge of overseeing the largest police department in Kansas, and likely had opportunities for advancement — as evidenced by his selection as a finalist for chief in Austin, Texas, the 11th largest city in the country.

Ramsay said he and his family grew homesick for Duluth, and he wanted to spend more time with his 90-year-old father, who has cancer.

"There's a lot of factors that go into it," he said. "But, ultimately, this is home. And no matter what happens, it will remain home."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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