In York County, the three candidates for sheriff are pointing to the pasts of one another – and defending their own – in a race that all agree has gotten unseemly.

And in the Cumberland County sheriff race, supporters of the challenger are spending at least $100,000 to attack the incumbent in radio ads and mailers about security lapses at the jail and sex between inmates. Others are anonymously circulating negative stories about the challenger’s police career.

The two Democratic primary races for county sheriff in southern Maine are getting unusually intense and negative in the final days before the June 10 primary elections. It’s a sign of the high stakes in each race: With no Republicans running in either county and no hints of a last-minute independent challenger, the primary winners will likely be uncontested in the November general election and get the job for the next four years.

None of the candidates wants to be accused of mudslinging, so the negative campaigning is being carried out by supporters, often on the Internet, or through off-the-record suggestions to reporters.

Retiring York County Sheriff Maurice Ouellette said he has been disappointed by the tone of the campaign there, especially because voters are choosing candidates for a law enforcement post, not a political one.

“You look at the three candidates, their credentials, abilities and education, and then you vote for who you want. You don’t start doing this garbage like a bunch of high school kids on the Internet. I think it’s childish,” Ouellette said. He said it’s demeaning to the office of the sheriff and “that’s what I object to.”

The intensity of the Cumberland County race may have led to a financial record for a sheriff primary in Maine.

A political action committee called Citizens for a Safe Cumberland County declared last week that it has so far spent $100,000 on mailers and radio attack ads suggesting the county jail is not secure under the leadership of Sheriff Kevin Joyce. Any spending by a PAC is unusual, if not unprecedented, in a sheriff primary in Maine.

The ads focus on two incidents in the past two years in which male and female inmates in the maximum-security wing of the county jail got out of their cellblocks and into a maximum-security area for the opposite gender, where they had sex. The mailing features newspaper accounts of the incidents, and has paragraphs describing the two incidents set off with “XXX” in pink.

Joyce’s challenger, retired state Trooper Michael Edes, has said he did not know about the ads and mailers beforehand and has asked that the ads be pulled. However, they were paid for and arranged by people who Edes acknowledged are longtime friends, including Portland-based businessman Michael Liberty. Liberty, once known as a controversial developer in southern Maine and now more active outside the state, is an officer in Brentwood Financial LLC, the Orlando, Florida, company that donated the $100,000.

Edes also has apparently been the target of some behind-the-scenes negative politics, although it’s not clear who is responsible.

Old news reports about Edes being accused of excessive force while working as a state trooper in 1986 have been circulated anonymously. Edes was indicted, suspended without pay and tried for assault in 1987 after witnesses said he punched a drunken-driving suspect at a hospital in Skowhegan. He testified during trial that he defended himself. He was found innocent.

The three-way York County sheriff race hasn’t featured any high-priced attack ads, but has been unusually negative, nonetheless. Ouellette’s retirement has left the seat open for a new sheriff for the first time in eight years.

Dana Lajoie, the South Berwick police chief, and Paul Main, a former sheriff’s deputy, have criticized William King Jr., the current chief deputy of the sheriff’s department and the closest thing to an incumbent in the race, by saying the jail is poorly managed and that King has to take responsibility for it. King has faulted Main and Lajoie for have little or no experience running a jail or a countywide law enforcement organization.

The behind-the-scenes focus on candidates’ pasts started with accounts of King’s personal use of his government car when working for the U.S. Justice Department nine years ago in Atlanta. King was suspended for it, which he says reflected the high profile and high standards of his assignment investigating official corruption.

A former employee criticized King in television reports at the time, and the reports are compiled in a video that has been circulated during this campaign by the opposition. King was later transferred to a position in New York City and retired in 2008 after 20 years with the Justice Department.

“It may not be a perfectly stellar career, but I’m perfect for this job” in York County, he said. “I have the qualifications, education and experience.”

Outgoing Sheriff Ouellette, who is supporting King in the race, said he was aware of the incident when he chose King as chief deputy.

Lajoie, meanwhile, has worked for 33 years as an officer for the town of South Berwick, the last 28 as chief. But some controversy earlier in his career also has resurfaced during the campaign.

In 1992, a private investigator working for the town investigated 29 complaints against Lajoie’s officers, including some involving claims of harassment and use of excessive force. A citizens committee recommended terminating Lajoie for being unresponsive to residents’ complaints. Instead the town manager suspended him for two weeks and ordered him to improve his leadership.

Lajoie says the department’s problems were the result of a “few bad eggs.” He fought the suspension, sued the town and says a portion of his lost pay was eventually restored.

“I proved they were out for a witch hunt,” he said. “I’m proud to have established a very positive career with the community. … I feel vindicated.”

In another incident that has been recounted on Internet bulletin boards during the campaign, Lajoie was targeted in a sexual harassment lawsuit in 1997.

A former administrative assistant accused Lajoie of making sexually inappropriate comments, and when she rebuffed him, he allegedly accused her of poor work performance. A federal judge rejected the former employee’s claim, siding with the town and Lajoie in a summary judgment without a trial. The judge said in part that the woman had not notified the town about the issue until just before she quit.

“Summary judgment tells me there’s not enough evidence or facts to move forward,” Lajoie said.

Main, the third candidate, has been criticized for allegedly misleading voters. He has been out of law enforcement since 1999, but that’s not clear from his campaign literature. Detractors say his literature lists specialties such as search-and-rescue instructor as if they are current positions, even though he held them in the 1980s and 1990s.

Main defends his leaflets as presenting a list of his accomplishments, and said they are not meant to mislead.

One of Main’s supporters has been posting the Atlanta story about King repeatedly on campaign social media sites. Main insisted it was done without his knowledge, but also said people have a right to know about such issues.

Main conceded that the notion of politicking to get the county’s top law enforcement job seems contradictory.

“It goes against all the tenets you learn in the profession,” he said. “You stay aloof from all the political things when you’re a police officer.”

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @Mainehenchman

John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

[email protected]