Explosive Hastings turnout key to sheriff-elect's victory
OSWEGO — A massive local push from Don Hilton’s hometown of Hastings helped the Oswego County Sheriff-elect win one of the tightest elections of the year and ultimately emerge victorious in his quest to serve as the county’s top cop.
Hilton, a 58-year-old lifelong Oswego County resident and veteran of numerous local and Onondaga County law enforcement agencies, won Tuesday’s general election for sheriff, a race in which he was unopposed and garnered more than 99 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results.
Speaking in Hastings from an election night party — the fourth he’d attended that evening — Hilton told The Palladium-Times on Tuesday that he was glad the grueling campaign was over.
“I can’t wait to get started,” Hilton told The Palladium-Times.
His hometown was a fitting place to end the campaign, as Hilton owes a lot of credit to those who knocked on doors, made phone calls and otherwise played a part in generating massive voter turnout for the Republican Primary in September.
Just shy of 550 people voted for Hilton in Hastings for that primary, more than the total by which he beat his electoral opponent, longtime Undersheriff Gene Sullivan according to the Oswego County Board of Elections. In all, more ballots were cast in the town of Hastings than in the city of Fulton.
With more than 8,000 total ballots cast by GOP voters in the race for sheriff, Hilton narrowly defeated Sullivan by a count of 4,006 to 3,837. The 227 voters who either had a void ballot or left the line blank was more than the final margin of victory.
When Hilton also won the tight contest for the Conservative Party nomination 171-135, also against Sullivan, Hilton’s path to victory was all but ensured.
“It was pretty humbling to have that many people come out,” said Hilton. “Not only that, but there was a lot of help financially too. The donations that came in from friends, coworkers and people I’ve never met who just wanted change.”
Hastings turnout represented the most votes Hilton got from any municipality in the primary, just 82 votes shy of equaling the total votes he received from the cities of Oswego and Fulton combined.
Sullivan, who lives in the Fulton area, carried the city of Fulton along with the towns of Granby and Volney by more than 100 votes each in the Republican Primary. Other than those three communities and the towns of Hastings and nearby Constantia that Hilton won by 100-plus votes, the remaining 19 Oswego County municipalities were tightly split between the two candidates and they finished within 100 votes of each other in all 19.
The primary came down to absentee ballots with Hilton holding a roughly 250-vote lead after the election. While Sullivan was able to close the gap slightly, Hilton was ultimately declared the winner by a razor-thin 169-vote margin.
He attended “every event we could find” on the campaign trail and after the election, Hilton praised his volunteer group for their tireless support throughout election season.
“We were certainly knocking on doors and I had a team of volunteers out there doing everything they could,” said Hilton. “Family and friends, and a lot of people I didn’t know came out and rallied behind our cause. It was unbelievable the help we got.”
There was a time when Hilton’s path to the sheriff’s office was looking like a long shot.
After announcing his campaign in April and vying for the Oswego County Republican Committee backing against Sullivan and Oswego’s Phil Cady in May, the committee ultimately backed Sullivan following two rounds of voting.
Weighing his options, Hilton decided he would “take the decision to the voters” and struck out on his own to collect signatures for the primary while the GOP Committee helped Sullivan collect his signatures.
The confidence to continue his campaign resulted in narrow victories in both the GOP and Conservative Party primaries for Hilton and running on those lines in Tuesday’s general election, Hilton amassed more than 30,000 votes. There was no Democratic Party opponent.
The sheriff-elect has a long resume filled with law enforcement experience.
Hilton spent more than 20 years with the Syracuse Police Department (SPD), holding numerous roles and presently works as an investigator at the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office. Hilton’s bonafides are also burnished by time spent as a SWAT team supervisor and federal drug intelligence officer.
Growing up in Hastings and attending Paul V. Moore High School in Central Square, Hilton graduated in 1980 and earned a degree in public justice from SUNY Oswego. Soon after, he began working for the Oswego County Sheriff’s Office as a corrections officer before joining SPD.
Looking to the future, Hilton said some appointments needed to be made in short order after he takes office.
“There’s positions to be filled that I need to appoint,” Hilton said. “I believe there are some people in command positions that are planning on retiring. It appears there will be a need for some pretty quick promotions in the department to keep things running.”
While Hilton said he has a good idea of who his undersheriff choice would be, he was not ready to identify that individual as of Thursday.
Hilton told The Palladium-Times recently that he would continue to work at the Onondaga County DA’s Office until December to help wrap up a few initiatives related to an officer-involved shooting team and school safety initiative.
Among Hilton’s top priorities after taking office is to help reduce the population of the often at-capacity Oswego County Correctional Facility, which consistently needs to house out inmates due to lack of space.
“I will work with (District Attorney) Greg Oakes and (First Assistant District Attorney) Mark Moody to try to cut down the jail population,” said Hilton. “There could be some alternatives to incarceration.”
Presenting more treatment options at the jail could help control the jail population and address the opioid epidemic plaguing the country and county, he added.
“I’m definitely keen on a drug treatment program in the jail and alcohol treatment programs in the jail,” said Hilton. “We have a habit right now of housing people and providing no services, and that is detrimental to our community, to the people themselves, the victims of crime and drug abuse in this county. It’s not a way to do business and we will be addressing that.”
For those who may be wary of funding avenues for such a lofty goal, Hilton expressed willingness to work within his department’s budget to prioritize the initiative or seek grant opportunities.
“I’m not even in office yet and I’m working on that. We’ll establish some relationships to help secure funding,” Hilton said.
There’s also a need for a centralized arraignment court in Oswego County, according to Hilton, and further cooperation between the sheriff’s department and local volunteer fire departments, emergency medical services and E911 for school safety trainings and initiatives.
Hilton will be sworn in as Oswego County Sheriff in January, the county’s first new sheriff since Reuel Todd took office 20 years ago. Todd announced he would not seek re-election in March.