Mylessa Denny, a De Baca County sheriff’s deputy and Democratic nominee for sheriff, stands beside her cruiser in Fort Sumner. Denny, who faces a write-in opponent in the general election, would be New Mexico’s first female sheriff since the 1960s if she wins. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)
FORT SUMNER – Mylessa Denny has much in common with her neighbors in this eastern New Mexico ranching community of about 1,250.
The De Baca County sheriff’s deputy identifies herself as a church-going Christian, and speaks proudly of her son, 14, and daughter, 17, who were both away at Baptist church camp last week.
A 39-year-old U.S. Army veteran, Denny won the Democratic nomination for De Baca County sheriff by defeating her boss, Sheriff Dennis Cleaver, by a vote of 227 to 171 in the June 3 primary.
If Denny defeats a write-in opponent in November, she would become the first woman elected sheriff in New Mexico in nearly five decades, according to the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association. No Republicans are in the race.
De Baca County sheriff’s deputy Mylessa Denny, left, speaks with her partner, Christi Scovel, during lunch at the Dariland restaurant in Fort Sumner. Denny, who is openly gay, won the Democratic primary for sheriff. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)
Denny is also openly gay. She lives with her partner of five years and their two children in a modest home in the Pecos River Valley, just south of Fort Sumner.
Denny said her decision to run for sheriff had nothing to do with making history or proving a point. “I don’t have an agenda,” Denny said Wednesday, seated in a booth beside her partner, Christi Scovel, at the Dariland restaurant on N.M. 84 in Fort Sumner.
“I am openly gay, which is kind of odd for a small town,” she said. “I believe you should run on how well you can do the job and not the fact that you are male, female or gay.”
Denny said she and her family were accepted “with open arms” by the De Baca County community after they moved here from Austin in 2011 seeking better schools for their children. “I’d like to think that people accepted us here because of who we were and what we stood for, not because of anything else,” said Scovel, a compliance officer at the De Baca Family Practice Clinic.
The community’s welcome included the congregation at the First Baptist Church in Fort Sumner, where the family attends regularly, the couple said. “Religion has always been important to us,” Scovel said.
Denny commuted for two years to her job as an officer with the Clovis Police Department before Cleaver hired her as a De Baca County sheriff’s deputy in January 2013.
Cleaver treated his new deputy fairly, Denny said, and never considered her sexual orientation a factor in her employment.
Denny announced her candidacy for sheriff this year, promising better training and education for deputies, technology upgrades and, most important, better relations between the community and the sheriff’s office.
“I feel like I’m a good cop,” she said. “I feel like I’m a fair cop and I feel like that’s what our community needs.”
Mylessa Denny, a De Baca County sheriff’s deputy, displays a pair of hair barrettes given to her by a local resident. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)
One of Denny’s co-workers, Chief Deputy Kurt Griego, filed Thursday as a write-in candidate for sheriff in the Nov. 4 general election. A lifelong De Baca County resident, Griego told the De Baca County News that Denny lacks the law enforcement experience and a knowledge of the county needed to serve as an effective sheriff.
“It’s a big jump without an understanding of the county, the people and the demands of a limited budget,” Griego told the News. “I know the people, their situations and their families.”
Griego, who has been a De Baca County deputy since 2008, said he chose not to run in the Democratic primary out of loyalty to Cleaver, the News reported. Griego asked the Journal to provide him with written questions by email when a reporter visited the sheriff’s office on Wednesday. Griego had not responded to the questions by Friday.
The sheriff, who oversees six deputies, will earn about $40,000 a year when a pay raise takes effect in January. Deputies investigated one homicide in 2013, along with methamphetamine trafficking, burglaries, drunken driving and other crimes.
Several Fort Sumner residents said they view the sheriff’s race as a contest between a candidate with deep roots in the community and a newcomer with a fresh approach to law enforcement.
“I’m impressed with Ms. Denny,” said Dan Craig, manager of the Valero Self Serve in Fort Sumner. “To me, she’s a lot more fair-minded than a lot of people who have lived here a long time.”
Too often, law enforcement officers in this tight-knit community tend to pre-judge people based on their family and personal histories, Craig said. “They treat everybody by their histories rather than by circumstances,” he said.
Denny said many county residents believe a “good-old-boy system” in De Baca County results in unequal enforcement of the law. “They don’t feel like they get equal treatment because of where they live, or maybe their socio-economic status, or even mistakes they’ve made in their past,” Denny said.
Chris Bedaw, left, stands beside his mother, Audra Campbell, outside a Family Dollar in Fort Sumner where he works. Mylessa Denny, a De Baca County sheriff’s deputy, helps Bedaw study for his GED and supervised his probation after he was charged with felony crimes. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)
Chris Bedaw, 23, credits Denny with keeping him out of jail after he was charged last year with felony crimes for providing liquor to minors. A judge agreed to sentence Bedaw to probation after Denny agreed to supervise Bedaw.
Denny tutors Bedaw twice a week in preparation for a GED exam next month and has encouraged him in his plans to join the U.S. Navy, which requires completion of a GED, he said.
Denny “put herself on the line to help my son,” said Bedaw’s mother, Audra Campbell. “She just 100 percent went out there for him. She has a huge heart.”
A native of rural Arkansas, Denny served nine years in the Army’s Military Intelligence Corps., including a yearlong tour in Afghanistan in 2001-02, reaching the rank of platoon sergeant.
She received an honorable medical discharge in 2003 after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon. She received a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Texas State University in 2007.
New Mexico last had a female sheriff in 1966 when Hidalgo County voters elected Doris McCarty to fill the post vacated by her husband, Charles LeRoy McCarty, who had served two terms as sheriff and was ineligible to run again.
Doris McCarty named her husband chief deputy and ran on the slogan, “He’ll catch the crooks, I’ll keep the books,” the Journal reported at the time. She stepped down after a single two-year term because her husband was eligible to run again.
Jack Levick, executive director of the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association, said he expects that more females will run for sheriff as a growing number of women enter law enforcement. He did not know how many female sheriff’s deputies there are in New Mexico.
Mylessa Denny, the Democratic nominee for De Baca County sheriff, chats with Tina Cruz while standing in line at the Dariland restaurant in Fort Sumner. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)
In the Taos County sheriff’s race earlier this month, Betty Martinez-Gonzales made a strong second-place showing in the June 3 Democratic primary, drawing 26 percent of the vote in an eight-way contest.
Denny’s sexual orientation did not emerge as an issue in the De Baca County primary, several residents said.
“The openly gay thing wasn’t an issue in the election whatsoever,” said Scot Stinnett, publisher of the De Baca County News. “Nobody made a big play on family values or anything like that. It really was basically ignored.”
Unknown is whether the issue will weigh more heavily in the general election, Stinnett said. “When you throw Republican voters into the mix, that obviously changes the way things go.”
Milton Hawthorn, 51, said he hopes county residents won’t factor Denny’s sexual orientation into their voting decision. “It’s 2014,” Hawthorn said. “It shouldn’t matter what your sexual preference is. It should be about the person you are, the person who works the hardest.”
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