When the Snohomish County Council appointed Patrick Murphy as sheriff in March, most members of the county Democratic Party's Central Committee considered him the favorite to win election as sheriff this fall.
Murphy was appointed to fill the term of Jim Scharf, who resigned to become Everett's police chief.
Most Democratic committee members considered the appointment a huge boost for Murphy's chances, giving him about eight months to establish himself in the job before the November election.
But a few committee members thought eight months might be just enough time for any new sheriff to run into political trouble.
They were right.
Four months after being appointed, Murphy is preparing to take a leave of absence to undergo surgery to correct jaw and shoulder problems, just as investigators probe his use of prescription drugs in the past several years.
And the door to the Snohomish County sheriff's office suddenly has swung wide open.
The biggest benefactor of Murphy's troubles appears to be his Democratic opponent, Fred Walser, who last week won the endorsement of the county's Democratic Party after Murphy withdrew his request for an endorsement.
But Republicans, who haven't held the position in more than 40 years, also are primed to capitalize on Murphy's troubles. The nation's conservative tide - which manifested itself in Snohomish County last fall when longtime Democratic Prosecutor Seth Dawson was beaten by Republican Jim Krider - doesn't hurt, either.
GOP hopes rest with two candidates who are members of the sheriff's office: Lt. Rick Bart, a longtime detective and investigations supervisor, and Bureau Chief Stan Boyes, a longtime patrol officer and administrator.
Last week Bart, Boyes and Walser all said they weren't interested in making the race political. In fact, each said he thought the office of sheriff should be made nonpartisan.
Murphy did not return phone calls.
But the race has become political. After reports surfaced about two inquiries - one in 1993, another begun two months ago - into Murphy's use of prescription drugs, he responded by accusing Walser of instigating the most recent inquiry.
Walser, who retired last week so he could campaign full time, coordinated 21 statewide drug task forces for the State Patrol. But he denied Murphy's accusations.
A week later, Walser said someone had posted a flier in the Snohomish County Courthouse that dredged up an old issue involving him and Murphy.
The situation goes back to 1993 when Pat Slack Jr., son of Pat Slack, a sheriff's detective at the time, was charged with reckless driving in an accident in Snohomish, while Murphy was that city's police chief.
As a favor to the senior Slack - a friend of his - Walser reviewed police reports on the incident. An expert in accident reconstruction, Walser determined Snohomish Police had made mistakes. However, he eventually backed off from some of his assertions after other experts contradicted him.
Pat Slack Jr. was convicted of negligent driving after the reckless-driving charge was dropped.
Walser said he was reprimanded by State Patrol supervisors for using his patrol title in signing the report he wrote about the accident. Although he did the work while off duty, he was docked six days of vacation, he said.
"I did what I thought was right - he was a young man accused of a crime he didn't commit," Walser said last week. "But I made a mistake in how I signed it. I admitted it, learned from it and moved on."
Walser, Boyes and Bart agree that morale within the sheriff's office needs to be improved.
The past year has been difficult for the department, which has faced the deaths of Sgt. Jim Kinard, shot in the line of duty in August, and Detective Rick Blake, who died in February after a long bout with leukemia.
The department also has had to deal with the departure of the popular Scharf, three internal investigations and now Murphy's troubles.
"It's not good right now," Boyes said. "I think the situation with Pat Murphy has got some people upset, angry and hurt."
In interviews, each of the three men talked about the need for establishing trust between the community and the sheriff's office, the department's need for leadership and direction, and ideas surrounding community policing.
Bart and Boyes talked about consolidating the positions of lieutenants and captains to lessen the hierarchy in the 173-officer department with an annual budget of nearly $19 million.
Bart, Boyes and Walser also discussed continuing the trend here and in other counties toward regionalization - combining resources with other law-enforcement agencies. Bart, the lead detective in the case of triple murderer Charles Campbell, proposed a major-crimes task force for the entire county.
Walser said he has the best statewide perspective on crime trends. He said he would work to combat fraud - especially fraud against the elderly - drug abuse, gangs and organized crime, which he said is beginning to thrive in Snohomish County.
Democratic leaders describe Walser as a strong manager with many contacts across the state and excellent knowledge of technology.
Bart said he wants control of the jail to shift to the sheriff's office, where it was until 20 years ago. He said such a move would allow for better coordination between jail staff members and deputies.
Bart thinks "paddy wagons" should be used to round up people at the sites of their arrests, thus freeing deputies from drives to the jail in Everett, where they usually face long waits to process suspects.
Boyes said he would like to open the sheriff's office to an outside auditor to help improve efficiency. He also said he'd use the office to influence legislation, particularly conservative measures in line with such laws as "three strikes" and "hard time for armed crime."
Boyes said he thinks voters will put partisan politics aside and elect the best person for the job. "When it comes down to it, people are electing the person, a leader and someone they think they can trust."