TELLURIDE – Among two contested local races taking place during this fall’s general election, the one for San Miguel County Coroner may come down to a simple metaphor: warhorse versus racehorse.
In this case Libertarian candidate Bob Dempsey, the incumbent, represents the warhorse candidate whose long experience in the position has left him invulnerable to upset since he took over the job 29 years ago.
Democrat Emil Sante, on the other hand, is the racehorse attempting to win the sprint to the finish buoyed by medical experience and a fresh perspective.
In a county without polling that traditionally likes its incumbents, who will emerge as the victor as mail-in ballots begin making their way into the hands of the electorate this week is still anyone’s guess.
Asked why Dempsey, with nearly three decade on the job investigating death scenes and determining the cause and manner of deaths unattended by a physician, filling out death certificates, identifying the deceased and notifying next of kin, even wants to sign on for another four years, the answer was simple.
“I like it, it’s part of my life, I’m devoted to it,” said Dempsey, who today earns $33,100 a year (set by state statute) in return for the part-time job that requires him to be on call around the clock and available to travel from Telluride to the county’s far western reaches at the Utah border.
“I know it and I find it fabulously interesting.”
True, he doesn’t have the medical background of Sante, who is Chief Paramedic for the Telluride Fire Protection District and has made his medical expertise the lynchpin of his campaign, but the coroner’s job is strictly investigative, said Dempsey, allowing that a medical background is helpful, but not necessary – the way the investigative skills learned as a detective might also be helpful.
At the end of the day, “I’ve never seen a dead person who needs a doctor,” Dempsey, a Colorado Coroners Association-certified Medical Legal Death Investigator, continued in his characteristically frank manner.
For that reason Dempsey feels strongly that Sante’s time would be better spent treating the living and hopes the voters will take that into consideration when making their choice.
“He’s really good at treating the sick and injured, but for him to have to go somewhere and waste his time with a dead person doesn’t make sense,” he said. “To take him away from [the living] is a disservice.”
While Dempsey has been skeptical that Sante’s obligations to the T.F.P.D. and his other winter job as a Telluride Ski Resort ski patroller would leave him little time to attend to coroner’s matters, Sante believes that it is precisely because of those other obligations that the job makes perfect sense.
“I’m there all the time,” said Sante, noting that as a first responder he may well be the first person at the scene of a fatal accident or medical event anyway.
“It was an obvious role to slip into,” he said.
To Dempsey’s point about potential over commitment, Sante noted that he has already resigned his position flying aboard medical evacuation flights, and will give the coroner’s job priority when and if conflicts occur, if elected.
“It becomes my top priority until the case is closed,” he said. “With my employers I’ve made sure that when we do have a death I’ll go and take care of the coroner’s work until it’s done.”
Sante sees his medical background as more than just helpful to the coroner’s job, but integral to it in the sense that he can often deduce the cause of a person’s demise without an autopsy – which he speculated could help save the county autopsy costs in the end.
“Definitely with my background I will be able to answer questions, be clearer in investigations” and find answers in a clearer, more expedient manner.
“My intent is to up the game,” said Sante, and “To bring a higher level of professional service to the office.”