Campaigning for sheriff

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera chats with Keene police Sgt. Thaddeus “T.J.” Derendal outside Keene’s Ward 2 polling place at the Keene Recreation Center Tuesday morning. Rivera won a fourth term over Earl Nelson.

Cheshire County’s Democratic sheriff has won a fourth term in office, prevailing over a frequent challenger in a race that contained echoes of the national debate over immigration policy.

Sheriff Eliezer “Eli” Rivera of Keene beat Earl D. Nelson, R-Marlborough, by about a 58 percent to 42 percent margin. The final vote tally was 17,954 to 12,980.

Libertarian Aria DiMezzo of Keene garnered 747 votes, or about 2.4 percent.

“I’m thankful that the people spoke, and they have put their faith back in me to return for another two years,” Rivera said late Tuesday night.

This year was the fourth time Rivera and Nelson faced off over the sheriff’s badge. Rivera was first elected sheriff in 2012, beating Nelson by the closest of margins — 55 votes out of more than 37,000 cast.

Rivera succeeded Richard A. Foote, a Republican who had served since 1999. Rivera is the first Democratic sheriff in Cheshire County since the position became elected in 1879, according to research he has done on the office’s history.

The Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office serves court papers, provides court security, takes inmates to and from court and is the primary law-enforcement agency in two area towns that contract with it, Gilsum and Sullivan.

Nelson challenged Rivera unsuccessfully in 2014 and 2016.

During this year’s campaign, Nelson criticized Rivera for his stated policy of limiting cooperation with federal immigration-enforcement authorities. The policy, which Rivera announced in March 2017, says the sheriff’s office will not assist U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in immigration raids or detain people at the agency’s request without a valid public-safety rationale.

In practice, such issues rarely come up in Cheshire County — Rivera said he has interacted with just a handful of undocumented people as sheriff, and ICE has not asked his office for assistance. Even so, Rivera said he wants anyone — including undocumented immigrants — to feel safe talking to sheriff’s deputies.

Nelson claimed Rivera’s policy of not honoring detention requests could interfere with the operations of another legitimate law-enforcement entity and ignores federal law. Rivera rejected those charges. The federal regulation on ICE detention requests has some ambiguity as to whether other agencies must honor them, but a 2014 federal appeals court decision found that agencies could choose to ignore the requests.

On Tuesday, Rivera said he believes voters “saw beyond that” one issue.

“People know that I am more than just a single-issue person, that I am engaged in the community in all different ways, and my goal is to treat everyone with compassion,” he said.

Tuesday’s nearly 16-point victory would be the widest to date for Rivera, who won re-election in 2014 and 2016 by margins of about 2 percent and 4 percent, respectively. Rivera said he had expected to win again by a similar margin.

A veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Reserve, Rivera spent 20 years as a Keene police officer, retiring as a lieutenant in 2012.

He has been a member of several local organizations, including Keene Kiwanis, the Keene Lions Club and the Keene Elks, and volunteers with Team Rubicon, a national disaster-response organization.

Rivera has stressed community involvement when it comes to addressing the opioid crisis.

“I’ve been very involved with local coalitions and forums and conversations with organizations throughout the county … about how law enforcement can help, what the limitations of law enforcement are,” he said last month.

On Tuesday, he said he hoped to continue those efforts.

Nelson has nearly 40 years of experience in law enforcement, including stints as police chief in Chesterfield, Dublin, Lyndeborough, Marlborough and Roxbury. He works as the commandant of the N.H. Corrections Officer Academy in Concord.

“As part of the campaign that I ran, some serious issues were addressed and debated, and the voters have spoken," Nelson said in a phone message Wednesday morning. "And I’m comfortable with that.”

Nelson won in Jaffrey, Richmond, Rindge, Stoddard and Troy. Rivera won the county's other 18 communities, including his hometown of Keene by a 6,360 to 2,652 margin.

This article has been updated to include a comment from Earl Nelson and final vote tallies.

Correction: Eli Rivera won in Harrisville. This was incorrect in a previous version of this article, due to the clerk's office providing an incorrect initial vote tally for Rivera.