Democrats take aim at sheriff’s seat in Hunterdon

They didn’t get along, the 17-year veteran of the New Jersey State Police turned county sheriff, and the ex-special education teacher turned county secretary, turned law enforcement officer. But the incident that led to what is likely a permanent souring between the two Republicans occurred on the day that Hunterdon County Sheriff William Doyle was examining shotguns and Sheriff’s Officer Deborah Trout entered the room.

It was then another opposition was born.

A ragtag band at best in Hunterdon County, Democrats see an opportunity to compete here and win the office of sheriff, positioning their candidate as a reformer against reform-candidate-in-her-own-right Trout, on the heels of 12-year GOP helmsman Doyle.

Doyle beat challenger Bruce Cocuzza in the last election, but didn’t overwhelm him and now Cocuzza is again arguing that his own background as a captain with the New York City Police Department and as current police director in Lambertville qualifies him for the job. Trout, meanwhile, says her on-the-ground experience as a former officer and union rep in the sheriff’s department, and challenge of Doyle while he was in office make her better suited to lead Hunterdon law enforcement.

After the shotgun incident, Trout sued Hunterdon County and Doyle for harassment and last year forced the defendants to cough up $650,000. Now she wants Doyle’s job, and to that end squeaked out a victory in a four-way Republican primary.

Not surprisingly, "I’m not endorsing anyone in this campaign," says Doyle. "Both of these people are out there attacking me and saying what a lousy job I’m doing. Neither of them has a clue how to run this office."

With Doyle, 64, set to prematurely pack his bags, both Trout and Cocuzza agree the sheriff’s department is in tatters, and in separate conversations rack up a list of sheriff’s office embarrassments they say are the culmination of Doyle’s sleepwalk through a decade-plus.

By way of contrast, "I was a commanding officer under the renaissance of the Giuliani administration," says Cocuzza, 55, who wants to apply the same hard-nosed managerial style in sleepy Hunterdon, where the sheriff’s department numbers 50-strong.

As for Trout, also 55, who served as a sheriff’s officer for nine years before badly butting heads with Doyle and making a lateral move to the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office in 2003, "One of the first things I want to do is build up the morale of officers in the department, and I want to build up community service programs." She wants to put higher officers’ salaries up front.

Cocuzza, who switched parties about five years ago, says his background as a beat cop represents the equivalent of getting five PhD’s in humanities. "Who do you want to address a somewhat dysfunctional department here, where on one occasion an officer fired a gun and fled the scene before being charged with official misconduct?"

Both Trout and Cocuzza lament Doyle’s discontinuation of the K-9 unit, to which Doyle groans, "If I wanted to have a K-9 unit here I could have one in less than an hour. Cocuzza’s out there screaming about state grant money we could’ve qualified for to get a dog, vehicle and kennel. But the grant would have given us a bomb dog, not a narcotics dog. How many times are we going to need a bomb dog in Hunterdon?"

Rankled by Cocuzza, Doyle is bluntly dismissive of fellow party member Trout, whom he says is "not qualified to do this job."

Cramming bad feelings on top of bad feelings for years, they tell different versions of the incident that finally drove them irrevocably apart, when Doyle says he was checking weapons and Trout says he turned toward her.

"He pointed the shotgun at me and racked it," says Trout. "I almost pulled my gun out. You’re trained that way. I walked away shaking, and called the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office and asked them to please get me out of this department."

Doyle disputes Trout’s recollection, saying that while he was examining one of the guns with witnesses present, Trout entered the room and walked in front of him.

"She set me up with the shotgun," says Doyle. "I should have known better."

The court saw it differently and ruled in Trout’s favor. Now it’s Trout against Cocuzza, and this time, the voters will decide.

Democrats take aim at sheriff’s seat in Hunterdon