Craig Ford kicked off his official campaign for Sheriff of Washington County at the Jonesborough Visitors Center Thursday morning. (Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
Craig Ford wasted no time sending sparks of criticism flying Thursday during his announcement to run for Washington County sheriff, but later in the day his claims were met with a calm, albeit firm response, from Sheriff Ed Graybeal.
Although it’s been common knowledge for weeks that Ford planned to challenge Graybeal, he made the official campaign announcement Thursday and came out of the gate swinging.
Ford, who serves as town operations manager for Jonesborough and as the executive officer for the town’s police, fire and communications departments, will challenge Graybeal in the Republican primary May 6.
Ford’s announcement speech at the Jonesborough Visitors Center to more than 160 supporters pledged to “restore trust” to the sheriff’s office and eliminate “lengthy response times and unanswered phone calls.”
He also said the sheriff’s office’s “current leadership’s performance is unacceptable,” citing five inmate deaths at the jail last year, slow response times, numerous TBI investigations, high employee turnover, nepotism and chronic leadership absenteeism.
Graybeal fired back when he heard Ford’s claims.
“In regards to what was said today, there is absolutely no merit to these accusations. I’m disappointed that an opponent would attack the integrity of a hard working department like the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. It’s an excellent law enforcement agency. I’m proud of the service we provide. As long as I’ve been sheriff, this department has never been investigated by (the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation).”
Graybeal said he’s made it a department standard to always involve the TBI when there is an internal situation — such as the inmate deaths — so there’s no room for the appearance of impropriety. The sheriff also said the criminal investigation division conducts a parallel investigation on those incidents as well.
Ford is no stranger to the sheriff’s office. He worked there in the 1980s and 1990s under two sheriffs — Ron England and Fred Phillips — prior to being named the first public safety director for Jonesborough in 1999.
During his speech Thursday, Ford used phrases like “new sheriff,” “prepared to protect” and “professionally trained” to define his reasons for running.
“There is too much falling through the cracks in Washington County law enforcement,” he said. “Homes need to be better protected. Tennessee has an outrageous number of meth labs, and Washington County has an unacceptable percentage of that share. Meth and illegal pills are getting into the hands of too many of our youth.”
Ford said there is “rampant nepotism” and high absenteeism in the sheriff’s office that he intends to eliminate if elected. Ford didn’t specify who he meant when he talked about nepotism, but one of the likely subjects would be Graybeal’s son, Lt. Eddie Graybeal Jr., who is a patrol platoon leader at the sheriff’s office. When asked about the nepotism issue, Graybeal said it’s something that exists in many offices, and not just the sheriff’s office, but he was adamant that he removed himself from any promotion procedures involving his son.
Ford also attacked the fiscal management of the sheriff’s office.
“I am prepared to protect Washington County because I have the leadership and management experience to run this department properly. I am prepared to protect your tax dollars,” he said.
When he worked at the sheriff’s office, Ford said he wrote many grants to fund the hiring of new officers, implement substance abuse treatment in the jail and hire the county’s first two school resource officers, which saved the county thousands of dollars.
“Our current sheriff neglected the school resource officer program until it became a crisis,” Ford said in a direct attack on the incumbent candidate. “What’s more, he didn’t even bother to request a grant that would have saved the taxpayers of Washington County $500,000.”
He said other agencies did apply for the grant and received the award.
Graybeal said by the time that grant was available, everything was already in place to hire school resource officers and he did not want to delay that process. Also, he said, money from federal grants are only provided for a specified time period.
“In three years that would have run out,” and the county would have to pay for those officers. All the equipment for the school resource officers came from the department’s drug fund which is money seized during drug investigations.
Ford, however, said there’s things that need to be fixed in the sheriff’s office and he believes he’s the man to do it.
“I am running to restore trust,” Ford said. “We may not be able to fix Washington, D.C., but we can fix Washington County and make it an even better, safer community; the place we all want to live and raise our families.”
He also sent a message to employees at the sheriff’s office who “dutifully show up to work every day — I will too, and help is on the way.” Ford said in his campaign speech he has knowledge of “chronic leadership absenteeism,” in the department.
Graybeal said there’s “no merit” to that claim and that he’s only had one vacation in the 10 years he’s been sheriff. He also said he doesn’t plan on running a negative campaign.
“Most of the guys and gals here will tell you I’m not a negative person, but I will take up for this department. I will stand firm on the men and women of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department cause they are the very best,”
Ford began his emergency services career as a volunteer with the Johnson City/Washington County Rescue Squad in the early 1980s, then started working at the sheriff’s office in 1985 until 1991. At that point Ford went to work as an officer at the Jonesborough Police Department until 1994 when newly-elected sheriff Fred Phillips appointed him to chief deputy, then later was named assistant to the sheriff until he resigned in 1999.
Some of Ford’s supporters who were at the announcement Thursday included District Attorney General Tony Clark, Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks and two former Johnson City police chiefs, Ron Street and John Lowry.
Like other candidates in the upcoming election, Ford has launched part of his campaign through social media. His Facebook profile is facebook.com/craigfordforsheriff.
Ford lives in Jonesborough with his wife, Benita, and their son, Aaron.