After rising through the ranks for 33 years, winning awards and becoming the first female major in the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio, Charmaine McGuffey was ousted in 2017, she said.
She said she was fired for being a lesbian and for calling attention to the use of excessive force against inmates. Her boss at the time, Sheriff Jim Neil, said she refused to accept a demotion after an internal affairs investigation concluded that she had created a hostile work environment, according to court records.
Now, Ms. McGuffey, 63, is poised to return to the office, this time as the elected sheriff after defeating Sheriff Neil in a Democratic primary in April and a Republican challenger in the general election on Tuesday.
Ms. McGuffey said she was not motivated by a desire for revenge against the sheriff.
“I decided that I can do a better job than him and I need to be back in that office so that I can finish the job I started, which is to bring true criminal-justice reform to the system,” she said on Saturday. “No person who knows what it’s like to go through the ordeal, the odyssey that I’ve been through, would ever just do this for revenge.”
Ms. McGuffey will assume control of an 800-person staff that oversees an average of 1,500 inmates in Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati. During her campaign, she described herself as a progressive who would focus on “rehabilitative, rather than punitive strategies” to reduce recidivism.
Sheriff Neil declined to comment through a spokesman.
After he lost in the primary, he endorsed the Republican challenger, Bruce Hoffbauer, a former Hamilton County deputy sheriff and Cincinnati police relief commander. Sheriff Neil called Ms. McGuffey a political activist who would turn the city and county into another Chicago, Portland or Seattle.
“You must decide whether you want someone like Charmaine McGuffey, who would use the office of sheriff to be a political activist, pushing an anti-law enforcement agenda, or Bruce Hoffbauer, a tried and true law enforcement leader dedicated to public safety,” he wrote in an opinion piece in The Cincinnati Enquirer in August.
On Tuesday, Ms. McGuffey won 52 percent of the nearly 405,000 votes cast in the sheriff’s race in Hamilton, a Democratic-leaning county where Joseph R. Biden Jr. won 57 percent of the vote, unofficial results show.
Her victory was the culmination of a bitter campaign and an unresolved federal lawsuit that she filed in May 2018 against Sheriff Neil and the county.
She said he used a biased internal affairs investigation of her to fire her. In a 108-page memo, investigators said she “used bullying techniques such as belittling, cursing, yelling and screaming” to intimidate officers.
The memo said that Ms. McGuffey made comments such as “you should be fired” and “you are incompetent.” Investigators also accused her of being dishonest during the investigation.
In her lawsuit, Ms. McGuffey said the allegations were unfounded and “a false pretext” for discriminating against her “because of her gender, her failure to conform to traditional female stereotypes, her sexual orientation and her open criticism of H.C.S.D.’s excessive use of force against inmates.”
Ms. McGuffey was promoted to major of court and jail services in 2013, becoming the first woman to hold that rank in the history of the Sheriff’s Office. During her tenure, Ms. McGuffey led a series of improvements at the jail, according to her lawsuit.
She said the only time she was disciplined was in 2010, when police officers stopped her and her friends as they walked out of a gay bar in Covington, Ky. She said they wrote her a citation after she accused them of bothering them because they were gay. The citations were dismissed but the Sheriff’s Office suspended her for “conduct unbecoming.”
As a major, Ms. McGuffey said that she was treated differently from her male counterparts, who were able to choose subordinate captains and had multiple administrative assistants.
She said that she was excluded from command staff meetings and berated in front of her colleagues, and that she was told not to let The Cincinnati Enquirer publish a story about her upcoming wedding to her partner because “it could be used against her,” according to her lawsuit.
The lawsuit also said she “repeatedly raised concerns regarding multiple serious use of force incidents to the sheriff.” Ms. McGuffey’s concerns were ignored, she said in an interview. Sheriff Neil denied the allegations, according to court records.
Ms. McGuffey said tensions grew after she saw a recording of a deputy throwing a 62-year-old inmate into a jail cell. The inmate sustained a concussion and a broken hip, and needed 12 staples to close a wound in his head, she said.
She showed the tape to Sheriff Neil and internal affairs officers, she said, and told them the deputy needed to be suspended and face criminal charges.
Soon after, in January 2017, an internal complaint was filed against her “alleging a hostile work environment” and the internal affairs division opened an investigation, questioning 30 employees.
She was fired six months later. Ms. McGuffey said she was devastated.
“I literally just couldn’t bear to leave the house,” she said. “It was awful. I couldn’t eat.”
In August 2018 she was working out in her backyard when she got a call from a Democratic operative in the county who asked her if she would consider running against Sheriff Neil in the primary.
“I’m actually very energized by the prospect of getting into that uniform and making things happen,” she said. “There are so many good men and women in that department who are wearing that uniform and they’re doing it for the right reason.”