Donnie Barrera remembers as a child riding around on patrol with an uncle who was the marshal of Thornville, Ohio, a tiny village in Perry County.
“I rode around with him when I was 5 or 6 years old,” Barrera recalls. “I knew then I wanted to be in law enforcement someday.”
In fact, two years after his 1978 graduation from Hillsboro High School, Barrera took the test to become a trooper with the Ohio State Highway Patrol. But then his grandfather died, and his services were needed at the family-owned egg selling business, which had been started by his grandfather and carried on by his father, Eddie, who passed away seven years ago.
“We were like a middle man,” said Barrera during an interview Wednesday. “We sold to plants that made pasteurized eggs” across nine states, as well as to local eateries.
“We traveled around the country buying and selling eggs,” said Barrera, a lifelong resident of Highland County.
When the egg business closed, his father started Barrera Market, a popular mini-mart that is now an Ameristop.
One of three children, with a brother and sister, Barrera, 53, grew up in New Market and attended the New Market school. He said he learned from his parents lessons about kindness.
For example, Barrera said his mother has told him stories about when she was a little girl and had a pet crow. She had found the bird with a broken wing, and nursed it back to health.
“She bottle fed it to raise it up,” said Barrera with a chuckle. “He was called ‘Stubby.’ That crow would steal windshield wiper blades when people would come in to buy eggs.” He said the crow could also catch coins in midair when people would flip them.
From New Market, Barrera moved on to high school in Hillsboro. He was a football player, both in high school and for Capital University, where an injury cut short his career after one year.
Over the years he worked for a variety of local businesses, including Landmark, Miller Mason Paving Company, and a Davon, Inc. company in Wilmington, where he worked his way up to sales manager for pre-cast products like septic tanks and road barriers. He also worked for a few months with Hillsboro’s water and sewer department.
He finally found the opportunity to follow his lifelong dream and began attending the Brown County Police Academy at night while working during the day, eventually becoming a special officer with the Hillsboro Police Department, and then being invited to join the Highland County Sheriff’s Office as a full-time road deputy in June of 1993.
For three years in the 1990s, he also worked in the summer part-time as a park ranger for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
“That’s where I grew my love for the lake,” said Barrera.
Over the years with the sheriff’s office, Barrera progressed to the rank of sergeant, and said he filled in as “acting sheriff” in the absence of the sheriff and chief deputy. He believes his 20-plus years as a road deputy give him an advantage that would serve him well as sheriff.
“As a road patrol officer, it’s the guys in the trenches who make a detective’s life a little easier,” said Barrera. “It’s the guys who are the first responders to a call, the traffic stop that leads to a forfeiture” and the building of a criminal case.
When his opponent, Richard Warner, received the appointment as sheriff from the local Republican Central Committee to replace Ron Ward after the committee interviewed both candidates, Barrera said he was “disappointed.” But he was not discouraged from his goal to seek the office anyway, even though the law required him to resign from the sheriff’s department to run for sheriff.
Campaign finance reports are not due until April 25, but Barrera acknowledged that his campaign’s contributions have been strong.
“People have been supportive,” said Barrera, adding, “I’ve been very blessed.”
Barrera’s black and white campaign signs are highly visible across most parts of the county, and numerous vehicles of various styles are decked out to promote his campaign.
Barrera said he has 1,500 small yard signs, and 160 of the 4x4 signs that were handmade.
“There are no signs left,” said Barrera.
A van fully covered in a professional, brightly colored “wrap” touting Barrera’s candidacy was a gift from his brother, said Barrera.
“His contribution was to have that thing wrapped,” said Barrera, who added that rumors he has heard that suggest an exorbitant cost for the van are off base. He said the vehicle is a 2003 work van with nearly 200,000 miles that his brother ended up with for free, and the “cheap wrap” cost “maybe $750.”
Barrera is aware of the negative tone that exists in some quarters in connection with the campaign, particularly with social media and website comments and accusations, including allegations that his opponent has fired some employees since being appointed sheriff back in December, which Warner denies.
“I’ve not been in Richard’s shoes,” said Barrera. “But I know that some who resigned felt there was an ultimatum.”
Barrera said he has not made any promises of jobs.
“There’s nobody that’s got a job promised if I get elected,” he said. “My main focus is to get elected, then I’ll worry about it.”
Although this is his first run for office, Barrera is regarded as a natural campaigner, quick to approach people in a crowd and skilled at working a room.
“That’s just Donnie Barrera,” he said. “I like people. That’s just me. I don’t know where it came from. My dad was not that way. Maybe my mom, a little more. It’s how I educated myself. I think everything you learn in life is self-educational, and your ability to deal with people is a big asset in law enforcement.”
With no Democratic candidate running for sheriff, Barrera hopes Democrats take advantage of Ohio’s primary election laws that permit members of one party to vote in another party’s primary, although it results in a change of voter registration to the party of the primary where a voter casts a ballot.
“I feel I do have a lot of Democrats” behind him, “just because they know me and the person I am.”
Barrera and his wife, Jacquie, are the parents of three children, a daughter from Barrera’s first marriage, and Jacquie’s sons from a previous marriage. They have four grandchildren. The Barreras attend Good News Gathering church, where “we consider ourselves members.”
Barrera said his mother played piano years ago for the New Market Baptist Church, which he sometimes attended as a child, and he was baptized years ago by Tom Stoops, minister of the Marshall Church of Christ.
If elected sheriff, Barrera said taking on the drug fight more aggressively is crucial, and requires “better trained officers.” He said many training programs are available that have not been utilized.
“Three thousand dollars in the budget for training is not enough,” said Barrera. He said there are grants available for training and fighting the drug problem, and “another big issue is drug treatment for people incarcerated.” He said there is no long-term drug treatment facility in the region, which should be addressed.
“The scope of the drug problem in Highland County has clearly surpassed the boundaries of any one person or agency,” said Barrera. He said the keys to combating the problem are to “streamline coordination between local, state and federal law enforcement,” and to use “grant monies, drug forfeiture monies, and reorganization of the present schedule to minimize cost to the county,” as well as using “officers who are well-trained and have the drive, desire, ambition and initiative to fight this war on drug abuse.”
Barrera said he would form a drug abuse task force or “special forces” team dedicated to “hunting down dealers,” share resources with other agencies, better promote and make use of the tip hotline, and “initiate training and involvement with an information-sharing database to track down drug-related crimes, overdoses, deaths, hospital admission” and more.
“The database allows law enforcement intelligence officers and drug investigators to identify patterns, and crack down on drug dealers and drug rings,” said Barrera.
Barrera said he would also make sure that DARE funds are devoted solely to that outreach effort to keep students off drugs, saying, “We have one of the best DARE officers in the state of Ohio.”
Among Barrera’s honors and awards are Highland County OVI Award in 2001, Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association Distinguished Service Award in 1998 and Lifesaving Recognition Award from Ohio Division of Parks and Recreation in 1998, and Ohio Distinguished Law Enforcement Community Service Award in 2013.
When naming Barrera a recipient of the latter award, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said, “Respect within the community is widespread for Sgt. Donald E. Barrera of the Highland County Sheriff’s Office, and it’s easy to see why. On and off the job, he is seen as an individual who is quick to volunteer, offer an encouraging word, and treat others with respect.”
Barrera is a member of the Republican Club and Republican Century Club, a board member for the Highland County Society for Children and Adults, and is affiliated with the Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association, Highland County Farm Bureau, Ohio Bee Keepers Association, Hillsboro Masonic Lodge, National Rifle Association, Harley Davidson Club, Hillsboro Rotary Club, Amvets Post 61 and Hillsboro Eagles. He is an investigator for the Highland County coroner’s office.
More about Donnie Barrera’s background, accomplishments and awards can be found on his campaign website at www.barreraforsheriff.com.