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Stark County Sheriff Corey Lee to face unexpected challenger on November ballot

Disillusioned with the lone candidate on this year’s ballot, 301 voters turned to a campaign for write-in candidate Fern Mosser. On Tuesday night, the surprise addition of Moser to the November ballot set the stage for a battle for the five-pointed star between two individuals with extensive law enforcement records.

Stark County Sheriff
A patrol vehicle from the Stark County Sheriff's Office is pictured.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press
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STARK COUNTY, N.D. — Disillusioned with the lone candidate on this year’s ballot, 301 voters turned to a campaign for write-in candidate Fern Mosser. On Tuesday night, the surprise results of the primary election results saw Moser make the November ballot and set the stage for a Stark County battle for the five-pointed star between two individuals with extensive law enforcement records.

Prior to Lee's assumption of command at the Stark County Sheriff's Office, Moser had been a deputy for several years.

Stark County Auditor Karen Richard explained that per North Dakota Century Code, write-in candidates for county office can make it on the ballot if they receive enough votes in the primary comparative to the total votes cast in a given race.

For Stark County Sheriff, 2,542 total votes were cast with Richard noting that aspiring candidate Moser needed to reach the goal post of 236 votes — he met that benchmark in by 65 votes, totaling 301. As incumbent, Lee received 2,195 votes.

The Incumbent

Stark County
Former Stark County Sheriff Clarence Tuhy, left, current Sheriff Corey Lee and County Commissioner Dean Franchuk.
James B. Miller / The Dickinson Press

Lee said he was humbled to have people’s continued support, and hopes that he can continue to serve Stark County through a second term as Sheriff.

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Addressing accomplishments under his administration, Lee noted that his department had successfully implemented every campaign promise he made. Lee further noted that there were changes that were needed after the previous administration left that took substantial time to address.

High turnover under the two prior administrations saw deputies, administrators and administrative personnel leaving the department frequently. Under Lee, he says that deputies and staff are thriving under a workplace culture he’s fostered.

“I think there were 26 people who left the department in some capacity between 2011 and 2015. From 2015 to 2019, I believe that number was 28. And so far under our administration, it's seven,” Lee said of his four year tenure.

Speaking about his forthcoming race against Moser, Lee spoke highly of the man but noted stark differences in approach.

“I like Fern as a person... I think Fern is a decent guy. When it comes to the job, I think you just have to look back four years,” Lee said. “Fern was a big part of that administration. And even the administration prior to that. He had his signature on a lot of what was happening then and the way it operated.”

Lee described the previous administration as stagnant and even regressive, noting a host of troubling allegations and controversies brought to the public's attention. He said that under his administration he has done his best to address many of the issues that plagued the previous administration.

“We made the change...I’m very proud of our guys,” Lee said.

One of the first changes Lee implemented was to create a definitive policy handbook, something lacking under the previous administration and which he described as “a recipe for disaster.”

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“That’ll get you sued in a heartbeat,” he said. “When you don’t have a definitive policy in place the guys don't know what the rules and regulations are, so to speak.”

When Lee took office he re-implemented a K-9 program at the Sheriff's Office. Today the department has three police dogs, and will soon be adding a fourth emotional support dog for use in schools. Lee said he was proud of the fact that the program has remained funded almost exclusively through donations.

Controversial on the national stage, Lee was the subject of some scorn for his stance at the height of the pandemic. He says he is proud of the way he handled the pandemic situation, despite drawing the heavy criticism for taking issue with Gov. Doug Burgum’s mask mandates.

“Much of what I was doing was being misconstrued. I wasn’t throwing my middle finger up to COVID and the experts. I was just saying that I’m not going to run around and cite or arrest people for not having a piece of cloth over their face. That was insanity to me,” he said.

Lee says it was an effort to comfort citizens that their civil liberties would be respected, with churches and businesses remaining open as they saw fit, he said.

Lee asked voters to consider what’s been done over the past three and a half years, to consider the changes and progress and to make their votes heard in November.

“I hope people can look back and see what we’ve accomplished professionally, the transparency we’ve offered and the community involvement. We’ve come a long way and we’ve got more to do,” he said. “I think we can remain progressive and innovative.”

The Challenger

“I want to be sheriff because I worked for Stark County part- and full-time for almost 20 years. Stark County has given me a lot to help my family. I think now I’d like to return that favor. I’d like to be the person that people know they can count on, and know that door is open if something’s up,” Moser said. “I mean, obviously you can’t solve everyone's problems, but that’s what we’re here for is to try to help protect you.”

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Moser was born in Kansas, and moved to Wibaux, Montana, near his mother’s hometown of Sentinel Butte after his parents divorced. After graduating high school and briefly working in the oil field, he enrolled at Dickinson State University and played football there.

“So in 1988, I came to Dickinson and I’ve never left,” he said.

For several years, Moser taught social studies at Beach High School, and worked as a Medora policeman in the summers. During that time he also helped coach basketball, football and track. He began his career with Stark County as a civil deputy in 2000, then worked his way up to chief deputy, before resigning in 2011 and working as a Billings County deputy for two and a half years.

Moser family
Fern's son Robert, left, wife Kim, Fern himself, and his daughter Kristen Moser.
Contributed / Fern Moser

Moser came back to Stark County after Terry Oestreich was elected sheriff in 2014 and was promoted to Major. By 2020, he had worked for the department long enough to draw a pension, and retired from law enforcement.

Today, Moser is a safety director for Winn Construction. He and his wife Kim have a daughter who lives in Colorado, and a son who’s studying to become a chiropractor.

When asked for his thoughts on the current administration, he had kind words for Lee and explained that he had to make a snap decision about running for the office.

“I’ll give Corey some credit, he’s done some good things as every sheriff does when they first come in. I was approached to run eight days before the primary… So we didn’t know if we’d make it (on the ballot),” Moser said, adding that he wasn’t interested in political mudslinging. “I won’t go down that road and make accusations unless I have something verifiable to back it up. I’m not that type of person… People came and asked me to run. They’re upset and they had some reasons. But I agreed that we would try it.”

Moser praised Lee for bringing back the K-9 program and adding a second school resource officer. Yet, he said he would like to see the department more involved in extracurricular activities throughout the community.

A prominent member of Oestreich’s administration, when asked about how he might govern in comparison to his former boss he was firm in his response.

“Each administrator runs their office as they see fit. Sheriff Oestreich seemed to run it one way, did I agree with everything? No. Did he agree with some of the suggestions? No,” he said. “You have to have an open mind and an open policy. And I’m not saying Sheriff Oestreich didn’t have that. But I’m just saying… We’re a little bit different as far as procedures and administration.”

Moser said he looks forward to speaking with the people of Stark County to identify their goals for the Sheriff's Office and said he had no desires to come in straight away and make changes, rather to see what works and what doesn't.

"I hope to sway (residents) to support me in this campaign and we'll wait until November 8 to see what people want," Moser said.

Jason O’Day is a University of Iowa graduate, with Bachelor’s Degrees in Journalism and Political Science. Before moving to Dickinson in September of 2021, he was a general news reporter at the Creston News Advertiser in rural southwest Iowa. He was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa. With a passion for the outdoors and his Catholic faith, he’s loving life on the Western Edge.
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