Members of the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office wear gray uniforms, the color of concrete.

It’s a palate that clashes with the election season, for there are only two hues in the Democratic Party primary for county sheriff: black and white.

It’s not exactly fair to say incumbent Adan Mendoza and challenger David Webb are polar opposites, but their approach and demeanor suggest two men whose only real common thread are the duds they want to wear to work. Everything else … very different.

For that reason, and maybe a few others, the race for sheriff may be the most interesting primary on the local docket. And, oh, by the way, the primary is the race for sheriff — no one from the Republican Party, the party of law and order, is seeking the office. The winner on June 7 gets the job next year.

Here’s Mendoza: 49 years old, serious as a heart attack, blessed with a titanium jawline that probably could repel a punch or three. Having served as Santa Fe County’s sheriff the past 31/2 years, more than two of them in the teeth of the pandemic, looks as if he’s seen it all — or too much.

Here’s Webb: 36 on his driver’s license; looks closer to 26 in person. He’s gregarious, quick to grin. Started on the road to becoming a cop before he was a teenager. Now a lieutenant in the Santa Fe Police Department, his résumé says he’s been a quick learner and a quicker riser. Like many in his generation, loves numbers, data, new approaches. It’s what he says he’ll bring to the sheriff’s office if elected.

Mendoza: Unflinchingly defends his record, especially the growth of a budget that has risen to $18 million. Enforced Santa Fe County’s policy on mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations; a move that cost the sheriff’s office some deputies, and Mendoza some support.

“Look, I care about people,” the sheriff said Wednesday night after a polite if lightly attended forum hosted by the League of Women Voters and The New Mexican. “But the fact of the matter is, some of the choices I have to make are for public safety and the community, and sometimes it doesn’t benefit the deputies, it really doesn’t. I care about them, but as deputies and the sheriff, we have the same goal and the same oath, and that is to protect the community. So that’s the priority. And sometimes, they don’t like the decisions.”

Webb: His campaign has trumpeted his endorsement by the Santa Fe County Deputies Association, which earlier this year voted no confidence in Mendoza. The head of the union, Eddie Webb, is a cousin. Draw your own conclusions. As for mandatory vaccinations, the challenger said during the forum he believed there could have been other ways, including mandatory testing, that could have kept the public safe and some deputies employed.

Mendoza: Look at the record — more money for deputies’ salaries; more money for equipment; key initiatives, key policy changes.

Webb: Will push for community policing — not just mouthing the words but actually getting onto the streets and roads of a vast county.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, both say they aren’t politicians and dislike politics, but … c’mon. It’s an elected office.

In Santa Fe.

In Santa Fe-area law enforcement.

Few industries in America, but particularly here, are peppered with the kind of internecine rivalries, deep friendships, blood feuds and unbreakable bonds that you find behind the usually closed doors of a cop shop. The men and women who wear badges in this town, regardless of employer … they know each other. Naturally, perhaps, that’s true for the two men running for sheriff. Many years ago, both Webb and Mendoza were detectives together in the sheriff’s office.

Now, they find themselves again at the same table — politely, but warily, talking about the office both badly want to hold. So far, neither man is willing to let loose and turn this into a mud bath. But there are weeks to go and an election to win. Beneath the surface, you can almost feel the bubbles of a pot beginning to boil.

Webb: “I don’t say ill things about people. It’s not how I was raised. It’s not my style. I just look at the public to hear me out, and if you think I’m the better candidate for this, to change it for the better and to have an effect on the community, then vote for me. Let me build your trust and then just watch me do it. But I’m going to seek your input while I’m going through this. Checks and balances here. That’s what I’m looking for.”

Mendoza: “You’ll never find me saying anything negative about my opponent. I don’t run that kind of campaign. I stand on my two feet — what I’ve done, what I’ve accomplished, what I’m gonna do.”

Concrete has never looked so compelling.

Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.

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