Johnson County police chief steps up as Democratic challenger to Sheriff Calvin Hayden

Prairie Village’s police chief announced a bid for Johnson County sheriff on Wednesday, as local Democrats hope for a path to take over the office following the controversial leadership of Sheriff Calvin Hayden.

Byron Roberson, who worked his way through the ranks in Prairie Village to become the department’s first Black police chief in 2021, has filed to run for sheriff as a Democrat. He’s challenging Hayden, a conservative Republican who has said he plans to seek a third term, and who so far has one primary opponent, Doug Bedford, a former Johnson County undersheriff and former Navy SEAL.

It would be Hayden’s first challenge from a Democrat in the county since being elected in 2016, in the state’s most populous county that has become dramatically more blue over the past decade. Hayden, who has spent 28 years in the sheriff’s office, previously served as a county commissioner. He ran unopposed in 2020.

Next year’s election is the first chance for Johnson County voters to weigh in on Hayden’s leadership, following his long-running investigation into the 2020 election that has made him an ally to election deniers who have advanced baseless allegations of fraud. His investigation has produced no criminal charges. He continues to appear at hard-right gatherings promoting the inquiry.

“I believe that the sheriff of the county should be concentrating on making the community safer. And unfortunately, the sheriff is spending more time chasing conspiracies, finding a way to get soundbites on CNN and collaborating with people that just aren’t moving the county in the right direction,” Roberson told The Star on Wednesday.

Hayden did not immediately return The Star’s request for comment Wednesday.

Before becoming a police officer, Roberson served eight years in the U.S. Marines Corps Reserve, including on year of active duty during Desert Storm. In the Prairie Village Police Department, he started off as a patrol officer, moving his way up to a detective, field training officer, division commander, deputy chief and chief.

“I really do love this county that I work in,” he said. “I believe our county deserves a top notch professional organization within the sheriff’s office. It is a top notch organization of great men and women, but the leadership is lacking. It’s a location that needs leadership.”

An increasingly blue JoCo

Roberson said as sheriff, he would work to have stronger collaboration between the sheriff’s office and municipal police departments, arguing that is missing today. Another priority, he said, is improving mental health training, including crisis intervention and deescalation techniques, as law enforcement answers a growing number of such calls.

And he feels a Democrat has a shot at winning the seat long held by Republicans.

“A Democrat absolutely could win, even if it’s not me. But I plan on it being me,” he said.

Cole Robinson, executive director of the Johnson County Democratic Party and a Prairie Village City Councilman, said the party has made it a priority to have candidates up for the seat since Hayden ran uncontested in 2020.

“This type of extremism has only really emerged since the last election,” he said.

Despite running unopposed, a sizable number of voters cast write-in ballots for sheriff in 2020. There were 21,129 such votes, or 7.5%, with voters writing in everyone from Patrick Mahomes to Frank Zappa and Snoop Dogg, according to election records.

Once a GOP-stronghold, Johnson County now has a reliable Democratic majority, solidified when the county voted for President Joe Biden in 2020, after narrowly backing former president Donald Trump in 2016. Last year, the county provided crucial votes in reelecting Gov. Laura Kelly. And Johnson County Chairman Mike Kelly, a Democrat, defeated conservative Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara.

In this fall’s local elections, Democrats swept the majority of their races, winning all of their seats on the Johnson County Community College Board of Trustees and on the county’s largest school boards.

“Look at what’s been happening in Johnson County in the past several years,” Robinson said. “The political conditions in Johnson County would have to say a Democrat is a favorite.”

Hard-right record

Hayden has conducted an election investigation for more than two years without making specific allegations or offering evidence of fraud. The sheriff sent Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe one election intimidation case but Howe declined to prosecute citing a lack of evidence.

Earlier this month, Hayden gave a speech in which he said the election investigation won’t end “until I know our elections are safe. And I don’t know that right now.”

He spoke at the Determined Patriotism Conference in Kansas City, Kansas, – a self-described gathering of influencers in the “America First movement.” Other listed speakers included Michael Flynn, who was forced out as Trump’s first national security advisor, and Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow and a promoter of baseless allegations about the 2020 election.

Robinson criticized Hayden for his remarks at the event, which included calling some members of the Johnson County commission “communists.” He also referred to the cropping up of apartments across Johnson County as “socialism,” saying, some “want our children to live in apartments so they can control where they live, where they go, where they work and what they do.”

Johnson County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara, a conservative, previously cast the election investigation as a “minor subheading” in the Sheriff Department’s work.

“There was a complaint made. He is following through with it. It’s an investigation that is open, and we have to allow it to continue and follow through with it,” O’Hara said in a previous interview.

She said she supports Hayden and that, “He’s a great leader.”

Hayden has not officially filed to run for reelection, according to election office records. Bedford, the other Republican in the race so far, worked in the sheriff’s office from 1997 to 2021.

Includes reporting by The Star’s Jonathan Shorman.