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Former Unicoi County sheriff, jail supervisor among those gathering paperwork for 2018 county elections

Zach Vance and Becky Campbell • Dec 16, 2017 at 12:19 AM

A former Unicoi County sheriff, the Town of Jonesborough’s public safety director and a Washington County Detention Center jail administrator have joined a growing list of possible candidates for office in Washington County’s 2018 election.

As of Wednesday, 34 people picked up nominating petitions to run for 19 different county offices, according to Washington County Election Commission records.

With the County Commission’s representation set to shrink from 25 to 15 seats when the county implements a redistricting plan, only the 12th District (southeast Johnson City) and the 14th District (Sulphur Springs) have yet to have a single candidate pick up qualifying paperwork.

For the newly structured 2nd District, covering most of the southern tip of the county, former Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris has at least picked up paperwork to challenge incumbent Todd Hensley, but Harris said he’s not quite decided whether he will actually run.

“We still have time to decide for sure how far we’re gonna through with it, but I'm talking to a couple other people that may be interested in running and I may end up supporting them,” Harris said.

Also serving five terms on the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen, Harris believes Washington County is spending, and at times giving away, too much of its taxpayer funding.

“Personally, I'm not all for building these brand-new elaborate buildings ... I think it’s about maintenance and taking care of things. I think they've let a lot of buildings fall into disrepair, when they should have taken care of them,” Harris said.

“I think instead of spending all this money on building these buildings, they should have taken care of our teachers. They should have given them raises and brought their pay up to what Johnson City has. That way we keep all these quality teachers and don't lose them.”

While serving as sheriff, Harris was indicted on several felony charges, related allegations of official misconduct and tampering with evidence. Prosecutors dropped the charges against him after two mistrials and one trial dismissal.

Another candidate with a law enforcement background is Jonesborough Director of Public Safety Craig Ford, who picked up paperwork to represent the 3rd District (Jonesborough and some surrounding areas) on the Washington County Commission.

Ford challenged Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal in the 2014 election and lost by a meager 12 votes, which he did not contest.

Although Ford told the Johnson City Press after the 2014 election that he would not rule out a run for sheriff in 2018, it appears he’s settled on contending for the County Commission. So far, Issac Moore is Ford’s only challenger.

Since Circuit Court Clerk Karen Guinn announced last month she would not seek a fifth term, two candidates already expressed interest in filling her role, including Washington County Detention Center administrator Brenda Downes and Guinn’s deputy clerk, Michele Walsh.

Downes, 47, is a native of Roanoke, Virginia, but has been in East Tennessee since 1988. She graduated from East Tennessee State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. After graduation, Downes began her law enforcement career at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office as a jailer when the jail was located in downtown Jonesborough. She was named jail administrator with the rank of major in 1999.

Downes has worked for three sheriffs, with two county attorneys, led the Detention Center through continued state certification and federal inspections and was named Jail Administrator of the Year for the state in 2015. She has been with the sheriff’s office 24 years.

Walsh, 44, is a lifelong resident of Washington County. Walsh started her career at the Washington County Circuit Court Clerk’s office in 1989, working for Don Squibb as a part-time clerk filing documents.

She continued her career in the clerk’s office in various assignments, including General Sessions Court, Law Court, Criminal Court and most recently Circuit Court. She had a brief time away from the clerk’s office when she worked for Seeley and Wheeler law firm and Jonesborough Elementary School. She returned to the clerk’s office earlier this year. She’s been with the office for a total of 22 years.

The county primaries will be held May 1 and the general election is scheduled for Aug. 2.

All nominating petitions require at least 25 signatures, and must be returned to the Election Commission by Feb. 15. 

Other candidates who’ve picked up nominating petitions include:

• Joe Grandy for mayor;

• Steven Light and Pat Wolfe for the 1st District (Fall Branch);

• Kent Harris and Todd Hensley for the 2nd District (Limestone, Embreeville, South Central);

• Isaac Moore and Craig Ford for the 3rd District (Jonesborough);

• Danny Edens for the 4th District (Lamar, Telford);

• Bryan Davenport and John Daniel for the 5th District (Gray);

• Trevor Knight and Greg Matherly for the 6th District (Oak Grove);

• Larry England for the 7th District (north Johnson City);

• Robbie McGuire and Donald Feathers for the 8th District (Princeton, Watauga);

• Lee Chase and Richard Johnson for the 9th District (northeast Johnson City);

• Phillip Carriger, Sam Phillips and Carla McLain for the 10th District (central Johnson City);

• Joshua Culbert and Jodi Jones for the 11th District (east Johnson City);

• Gary McAllister for the 13th District (southwest Johnson City);

• Mike Ford, Rick Storey and Logan Burleson for the 15th District (Sulphur Springs);

• Michele Walsh and Brenda Downes for circuit court clerk;

• Kathy Storey for county court clerk;

• Teresa Bowman and Michael Hartman for register of deeds;

• Ed Graybeal for sheriff; and 

• Judy Harris and David Tomita for trustee

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