Can Sheriffs Endorse Candidates While in Uniform? This One Thinks He Can

Red background with a phone in the center displaying Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco on Instagram Live in his sheriff uniform and sitting in his car. Surrounding the phone are elements relating to Bianco and sherrifs, including a print that reads "IT'S TIME WE PUT A FELON IN THE WHITE HOUSE," an image of Trump saluting, a GUILTY stamp, an ULTRA MAGA button, a sheriff's badge and a MAGA hat.

The day after a New York jury found Donald Trump guilty of 34 felonies, on the opposite coast in California, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco filmed what he would later describe as an “impromptu” video in what appears to be his official sheriff car, a vehicle paid for by taxpayers. 

Wearing his Riverside County Sheriff’s Office uniform (also supported by local taxpayers), Bianco went viral on Instagram while he waited for a train to pass. In the video, the sheriff explains that he is generally pro-law enforcement — he criticized the California attorney general for “seemingly not caring about crime, and really being an embarrassment to law enforcement” and the California Legislature for “making it harder to put people in prison.” But, Bianco continued, he has decided to “change teams.”

“I think it’s time we put a felon in the White House,” he said, with a smirk to the camera. “Trump 2024, baby. Let’s save this country and make America great again.”

The speech has become meme-ified, including a $20 tee shirt reading, “It’s time to put a felon in the White House.” When some political commentators raised concerns — while the statement was dripping in sarcasm, it sounded an awful lot like he endorsed former President Donald Trump — Bianco doubled-down, saying in an interview that it was all meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Then he complained about “the misguided and [in]tolerant left” who were missing his point.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond (D), who is also running for governor, called for a state investigation, arguing that the video amounts to illegal electioneering in uniform. The sheriff said he was “talking to investigators” and has maintained that, while he may have courted controversy, he did not do anything illegal. 

He is probably right, at least to the extent that Bianco will not face consequences for his comments. Elected sheriffs have been such effective political pawns for the MAGA wing precisely because they are able to insert partisan messages into what ought to be a politically neutral job.

Bianco has been slowly building himself up as a MAGA voice in California amidst calls for him to run for governor on the GOP ticket.

While there are some state laws that prohibit sheriffs from electioneering in uniform, they focus on traditional political advertisements and are interpreted loosely in favor of elected sheriffs. (For instance, ex-Los Angeles sheriff Lee Baca — who was convicted of felony obstruction of justice — admitted to violating California state law on endorsements.) State officials have been reluctant to censure sheriffs for political activity, even when that activity includes the use of official equipment supported by taxpayers. And the federal Hatch Act does not prohibit sheriffs, who are partisan elected officials, from electioneering.

Such is the nature of the office. Sheriffs are permitted to use their office as a launchpad for other political goals, often tacitly endorsing candidates under the guise of neutral commentary on “crime.” In March, Trump appeared on stage with a row of Michigan sheriffs in uniform. Last year, Bianco attended a campaign event with Ron DeSantis, then still running for president, in which the Florida governor announced his proposed draconian immigration policies, which included killing alleged drug dealers on sight

While sheriffs are elected officials, their position as law enforcement gives their mere presence — uniform, badge and sidearm — more credibility. In fact, sheriffs are well-aware that their image can be used to manipulate public opinion and make them trusting talking heads. 

Pinal County, Arizona Sheriff Mark Lamb, for example, is running for Kyrsten Sinema’s open Senate seat as the GOP nominee. Since he is vastly outmatched by his Republican opponent Kari Lake in terms of fundraising, Lamb has used his public office and resources to present himself as a trusted candidate. He campaigns in his white hat and sheriff badge, always calling himself “sheriff,” alongside other members of his official staff (who have salaries paid for by taxpayers). 

Bianco has been slowly building himself up as a MAGA voice in California amidst calls for him to run for governor on the GOP ticket. (He said he was “looking into” running.) While Bianco’s chances at being elected governor are rather slim, it does give him the opportunity to use his platform to speak on broad political issues. 

The sheriff has long been critical of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) as well as a series of criminal legal system reforms that California voters have approved in the past few years. He recently appeared outside of the California State Capitol to speak in favor of a proposed law that would roll back key portions of Prop 47, a ballot referendum that redirected funding to violent crime by making many low-level crimes misdemeanors instead of felonies. (Bianco is fond of blaming Prop 47 for shoplifting — the law raised the amount to make shoplifting a felony to $950 — even though Texas, for example, doesn’t charge shoplifting as a felony until the shoplifting amount reaches $2,500.)

Since he first took office in 2018, Bianco has been the source of unending controversy. In addition to his ties with far-right groups, including the Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, and his seeming bottomless empathy for Riverside residents who want him t0 prosecute nonexistent voter fraud, he has also overseen a department responsible for dozens of jail deaths, leading to an investigation by the California attorney general’s office for potential civil rights violations.

In 2023, Bianco received an award (a bust of prominent Republican actor John Wayne) from the Claremont Institute, a far-right think tank based in Southern California that has focused on an intellectual case for the MAGA movement; the announcement cited Bianco’s “priorities of God, family, and service will provide meaningful guidance and direction as the Sheriff’s Office engages in an unprecedented change of culture to positively influence and engage our community.” 

Since 2020, Claremont has sought to recruit sheriffs as fellow soldiers in the culture war, particularly because sheriffs, like Bianco, are useful mouthpieces for MAGA. Bianco reflected this when he gave an interview about his viral Instagram video: “I can do anything that I want. There is only one sheriff’s uniform — and that’s mine.” Is this the kind of law enforcement that a democracy can tolerate?

Jessica Pishko is an independent journalist and lawyer who focuses on how the criminal justice system and law enforcement intersects with political power. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Pishko writes about the criminalization of elections and how sheriffs in particular have become a growing threat to democracy.