Four men with wide-ranging and lengthy law enforcement careers are vying to become Douglas County sheriff in a hotly contested race.
Republicans Aaron Hanson and George Merithew will face off in the May 10 primary, while Greg Gonzalez and Wayne Hudson are competing for the Democratic Party’s nomination. The winners will challenge each other in the statewide Nov. 8 general election.
Hanson, 48, is a sergeant in the Omaha Police Department’s fugitive unit who has worked with the agency for nearly 26 years. He also served for six years as the president of the police union. Merithew, 55, worked for the Omaha department for 25 years, retiring as a lieutenant. He’s also a licensed attorney and U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel.
Gonzalez, 50, retired in January as a deputy Omaha police chief after 26 years in the force. He began his law enforcement career working for two years in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. Hudson, 53, who has spent 28 years in the Sheriff’s Office, is the current chief deputy sheriff. Before that, he served six years in the U.S. Air Force.
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The November winner will replace Sheriff Tom Wheeler, who was appointed in November 2020 after longtime Sheriff Tim Dunning retired. Dunning spent 26 years on the job, winning seven elections.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office serves the residents of the state’s most populous county. Deputies oversee security at the county courthouse and handle handgun purchase permits. Primarily, they patrol and respond to emergency calls in the unincorporated areas of the county.
According to a survey of roughly 1% of the 34,000 unincorporated Douglas County households conducted by University of Nebraska at Omaha researchers in 2021, most said the agency does a “good” or “very good” job fighting crime, dealing with problems in neighborhoods, being visible on the streets and being available when residents need them.
Yet despite being the second-largest law enforcement agency in the metro area with about 130 deputies, the Sheriff’s Office ranks sixth of all metro-area law enforcement agencies in terms of pay, said Deputy Jason Mass, who is president of Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #2, the union that represents 115 deputies who have a rank below captain. Eleven recruits will graduate in mid-May, and officials want to hire eight more deputies to provide security at the Douglas County Juvenile Justice Center, which will add to the force.
In interviews with The World-Herald, all four sheriff candidates independently brought up the pay disparity as an issue. They all said they want the deputies to be compensated fairly, something that would help with hiring and keeping deputies, as officer retention is a problem locally and nationwide.
“It’s a tough thing in this economy, the recruitment of potential applicants — most don’t understand the benefits that Douglas County offers,” Mass said. “I applaud (the candidates) for addressing and acknowledging that that needs to be changed, and I hope that whoever gets elected can hold up that end of the bargain.”
Mass said the membership voted earlier this year to endorse Hanson and Gonzalez. Mass said neither he nor the union’s board members had heard from Merithew since he announced his intention to run Feb. 28, the day before the deadline for candidates to file.
Merithew said his last-minute decision to run for sheriff came after he volunteered at a booth for Gonzalez’s campaign at the Omaha Home & Garden Expo in mid-February and heard what voters wanted.
Gonzalez was Merithew’s supervisor at the Omaha Police Department for nine years. Both said they are friends with differing political views. If each won his primary race, both said they would run good-faith and hard-fought campaigns against each other.
Democratic candidates Gonzalez and Hudson have clashed leading up to Tuesday’s vote. In April, Hudson said in a press release that a paid staff member for Gonzalez had made disparaging remarks about Hudson and shared false information about him with voters.
Gonzalez said the allegations are unfounded. He said the worker is a longtime Democratic campaign canvasser.
Gonzalez said his work investigating crime and his nine years serving as a deputy chief in a highly visible management position gave him the skills to lead. He pointed out that he is the sole candidate who has been both a sheriff’s deputy and an Omaha police officer.
Gonzalez said Douglas County deputies know how to combat crime, but the Sheriff’s Office is understaffed and needs more deputies on patrol, something he wants to fix.
“I have that unique ability to be able to kind of see where the deficiencies are and how to make our workforce more relevant and content with staying at the Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “I’m the only candidate that has executive level experience — from legislative work, to recruitment, to budget, to networking, to education, to working with all the different cogs in the wheel to get the job done. And working with elected officials and being down in the unicameral. I feel like I’m the most well-rounded individual in the campaign, and that does matter.”
Hudson, the first Black man to serve as chief deputy sheriff in Douglas County, said he wants to increase community engagement and reach people in diverse communities in the hopes that they apply to become deputies. He said he also wants to create a restorative justice program for lesser offenses to help both offenders and victims reach closure while providing accountability and helping offenders change.
As the only insider candidate in the race, Hudson said voters should choose him because he’s deeply familiar with the Sheriff’s Office and has connections throughout county government.
Hudson said if he loses, he would return to serve the agency as a captain and the winning sheriff would appoint his own chief deputy.
“I have either worked, supervised or managed every area on this department,” he said. “If, God willing, I will win, I will be an even more active individual in this community and in our criminal justice system.
“A lot of our community feels like they’re not being heard,” Hudson said. “So, as sheriff, I have a very good seat at the table to bring the voices and bring the concerns of the community directly to our criminal justice system.”
While working at Gonzalez’s booth in February, Merithew said that as he talked to potential voters and told them he was a Republican, he realized he could be a conservative, pro-Second Amendment choice that he said was desired by the people with whom he talked.
Merithew said he has been a member of the National Rifle Association since he was 17 and supports a so-called “constitutional carry” law that would allow Nebraskans to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
A bill sponsored by State Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon failed by filibuster this year, but legislators also rejected a compromise amendment supported by the Omaha Police Department and the Omaha Police Officers Association that would have required registration of all handguns of those who live in Omaha.
Merithew does not support that amendment.
“The concept is constitutional carry. Constitutions don’t end at city borders, and there never should have been an exception for Omaha,” Merithew said. “I wanted to make sure the voters in Douglas County have the choice between a true conservative and Aaron Hanson. That, I think, is a huge distinguisher between he and I.”
Hanson said he wanted to see Brewer’s bill pass with the compromise.
“I support the concept of constitutional carry as long as it does not create unintended loopholes for criminals to masquerade as law-abiding citizens while committing crimes. And I think that’s a smart balance, that that balance can be struck,” Hanson said.
“I’m a huge advocate of law-abiding people carrying concealed weapons in public,” Hanson said. “But we have to do it in a way that doesn’t create unintended loopholes.”
If elected, Merithew said he would analyze the agency’s spending and see what changes would be necessary. He noted that deputies must use the Omaha Police Department’s gun range for required training. He said he would like to see if he could build a range through a public/private partnership that could serve the Sheriff’s Office and keep taxpayers’ costs low or at zero.
Merithew said the experience he has as a certified law enforcement instructor and the years he spent traveling for the military gives him a unique view of how things work.
“I have a tendency to look a little more globally and a little more strategically at things than a lot of the other candidates do,” he said. “I’ve lived quite a few different places and have a lot more depth and breadth of experience … that’s something that gives you an outlook and an ability to see things. And then couple that with my law degree, which is training you how to look at both sides of an issue.”
Merithew is in the middle of a lawsuit against the City of Omaha and Police Department alleging retaliation that led to a forced resignation. He said he had brought attention to discrimination within the Police Department.
Merithew’s complaint, filed July 2, also notes that he was removed from a safety review board position “based on his refusal to absolve (Hanson) of his unlawful Use of Force,” which was a knee strike from an incident in 2017.
Hanson said any reasonable use-of-force expert would say that he appropriately used force in that situation.
“In that case, I had to use a very minimal amount of appropriate force to make that situation safe not only for that suspect, but the other gang members in the car, myself, and the police officers that I was supervising at the scene,” he said. “So I disagree completely with the allegations in that complaint.”
Hanson said that as sheriff, he would balance the priorities of keeping residents safe with providing avenues of rehabilitation for offenders. He said he would have deputies work with probation officers and the county court system to better supervise offenders who are not in custody to help prevent repeat crimes.
As a Fugitive Task Force supervisor and former gang unit and K-9 officer, Hanson said his experience helps give him a view of how to effectively fight crime but also how the Sheriff’s Office can work with other agencies. He said the teamwork between the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office has been good but can be improved.
“I think that, unfortunately, we don’t see a lot of heathy overlap … I think there should be more coordination,” he said. “When I was a gang unit supervisor, my focus was to prevent street-level, gang-related gun crime. It would have been extremely valuable to me to know that the Sheriff’s Office was working to locate absconded juvenile offenders when they’re high risk, or to help supervise high-risk repeat pretrial release offenders who are supervised by the county.”
Hanson leads the pack in financial contributions, with a little more than $117,000 in cash on hand as of April 25, according to his most recent filing with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Gonzalez is next with about $29,000 cash on hand, followed by Hudson with roughly $3,300 and Merithew with $132.
Hudson’s statement shows his campaign made a $717 payment for “vet challange (sic) coin” on Feb. 18.
Hudson, who is the primary news media contact for the Sheriff’s Office, then wrote a press release that was shared via the Douglas County website and to local media outlets about passing out the coins with a local nonprofit on March 29.
Hudson denied that the event was in any way connected to or promoting his campaign for sheriff.
“Our department cannot purchase items like that for the community. So that was something I did as a veteran to other veterans,” he said. “At the event, there was no mention of me running for office. There was nothing in a press release that was mentioning me running for office at all.”
The Sheriff’s Office union, in line with their endorsements, gave Hanson and Gonzalez each $2,500.
Hanson has received many donations from prominent current or former elected Republicans and their campaigns, which follows the string of in-party endorsements he has received.
After a vote of the members, the Omaha Police Officers Association gave hefty donations to two of the candidates — $25,000 to both Hanson, in August, and to Gonzalez, in September. The association then gave another $500 to Hanson in October.
The police union voted to endorse only Hanson, however. It was a unanimous vote taken by those who attended meetings on April 12, said OPOA President Tony Conner.
Hanson publicly shared three big-time endorsements last summer, a week after he announced his candidacy. Gov. Pete Ricketts, Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine all were featured in a commercial that was posted online in mid-July.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert also has endorsed Hanson, as has former Gov. Dave Heineman.
Merithew, who has no major endorsements or financial backers, acknowledged that Hanson had “locked up pretty much all the Republican endorsements,” which he attributed to entering the race late.
In his corner, Hudson has the police chiefs from three Douglas County cities — Valley, Bennington and Waterloo — as well as current Douglas County Sheriff Wheeler. Hudson also touted his support from Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing and Public Defender Tom Riley.
Gonzalez listed his endorsements from various local unions, former U.S. Sens. Bob Kerrey and Ben Nelson, former State Sen. Ernie Chambers and former Omaha Mayors Mike Fahey and Jim Suttle.
Dunning, the former longtime sheriff, chose not to make an endorsement in the primary but said he plans to do so for the general election.
Gonzalez and Hanson lived in Sarpy County when they announced their intention to run for Douglas County sheriff. According to state election law, a county’s sheriff must “reside in the county for which they hold office,” but the deadline to do so is the day he or she is sworn in, which in this case would be January 2023.
Hanson said he has moved into a Douglas County apartment as of May 1 and is a newly registered Douglas County voter for the primary. He is awaiting the completion of his Omaha home, which he will move into this summer.
Gonzalez is working on selling his home in Sarpy County and has purchased a new home in the Elkhorn area, where he said he will move this summer after it is completed.
Both said that as Omaha police officers, their work and primary focus has been Douglas County, where they both were born and raised.