For the first time in recent memory, Chenango County Sheriff Ernie Cutting Jr. is not running unopposed.
Norwich Town Council Member Debra Cubbedge announced her candidacy in early March and filed the requisite petitions by the end of the month, making her the Democratic candidate and sole challenger for the position of sheriff.
“It was sort of a last-minute thing,” she said. “I pretty much did all I felt I could do on town council, and now I’m ready to move on.”
Cubbedge is an active member of several Chenango County community advocacy organizations including the People’s Movement for Equality, Chenango Links and a group that successfully petitioned last year for the banning of the Confederate flag at the Chenango County Fair. She said she had been hoping to find a candidate to run against the sheriff for several months before realizing she’d have to take the reins herself.
“‘What do you think?’ I asked my friends,” Cubbedge said. “Everybody cheered. I wasn’t really expecting that, but I decided to go ahead.”
Although she has no direct experience in law enforcement, Cubbedge said her decades’ experience as a lawyer, administrative law judge and child protective services investigator qualifies her for the position.
“I may not be in law enforcement, but I can understand the law and what you’re supposed to be doing,” she said.
Cubbedge said her time working with the Suffolk County Department of Social Services provided her with the best insight into her potential sheriff’s duties if she is elected.
“I have a lot of experience with people in crisis,” she said. “Sometimes that crisis would be caused just by me being there, as a CPS investigator. Sometimes we went places the police didn’t want to go. You can’t have somebody with guns busting in on somebody having a mental health crisis.”
In her capacity as a town council member and as a private citizen, Cubbedge has been an outspoken critic of her opponent’s handling of several recent incidents, including the death of 22-year-old inmate Dillin Button at the Chenango County Jail last month.
“Perhaps the death of this young man in custody might have been prevented if proper medical care had been given,” Cubbedge said.
If elected, Cubbedge said among her first priorities as sheriff would be improving the department’s mental health crisis response and substance use treatment protocols, putting special emphasis on the availability of jail-based medication-assisted treatment, which the National Sheriff’s Association supports, along with behavioral intervention, “to reduce opioid use, overdose, criminal activity and ultimately reduce recidivism.”
Cubbedge said she was motivated in part to run for sheriff in response to Cutting’s handling of state Executive Order No. 203, which required every municipality with its own police department to conduct a “reform and reinvention collaborative” to examine its law enforcement training, procedures and policies.
She criticized Cutting’s committee for enlisting only county officials and limiting opportunities for public input.
“Seven months into the process, the Sheriff’s Office developed a public survey, but never held a public hearing,” she said. “The result was a faulty survey and a lengthy document, with a four-page plan to maintain the status quo, while proposing to review issues that should have been reviewed prior to the issuance of a plan.”
Cubbedge said her campaign will focus less on challenging her opponent and more on hearing the needs of the community.
“If Cutting wants to debate, I’ll debate him,” she said. “I’m thinking more along the lines of hosting town halls.”
Cubbedge said she is expecting the endorsement of the Chenango County Democratic Party in the coming weeks and “welcomes conversations with interested community members to receive the community input that is truly necessary to ‘reform and reinvent’ law enforcement and corrections in Chenango County.
For more information and updates on the campaign, follow “Debra Cubbedge for Sheriff” on Facebook.
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.