Hot dang! We are going to have an old fashioned, knock ’em down sheriff’s race in Washington County this year. This county really hasn’t seen one of them in a while, not since the late Fred Phillips defeated then-Sheriff Ron England in 1994. Now that was a humdinger.
England, the Republican incumbent, had in prior elections turned back a couple of challenges from candidates who worked for the Johnson City Police Department. Then came Phillips, who had served as police chief in Johnson City before taking a job in Nashville as an assistant commissioner of the state’s Public Safety Department.
Phillips, who died in 2012, served as sheriff until he resigned in late 2002 to take a job as then-Gov. Phil Bredesen’s commissioner of safety. When Phillips went to Nashville, Ed Graybeal was appointed to serve as interim sheriff. A year later, he was elected to the job and has had little problem winning re-election.
It might not be so easy this year. Craig Ford, who announced last week he would challenge Graybeal in the May 6 Republican Primary, is the toughest opponent Graybeal has faced. Ford, who serves as Jonesborough’s public safety director and the town’s operations manager, had a little something to do with helping to defeat England.
Some of Ford’s knocks on Graybeal sound eerily similar to the criticisms that Phillips fired at England 20 years ago:
“There’s nepotism in the sheriff’s department.”
“It takes too long for deputies to respond to calls.”
“The sheriff is not returning phone calls.”
As being sheriff goes, Graybeal has had a pretty quiet career. The only controversy he has courted has come as a result of the jail. That was particularly the case in 2013, when five inmates died at the county’s Detention Center. Two of those deaths were ruled suicides, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation ruled no foul play was involved in the remaining three cases.
Still, there’s been talk. Talk on the streets of Jonesborough and talk on social media that something is wrong at the jail.
It’s easy, especially for sheriffs, to quickly wear out their welcome with voters. The longer you are in office, the more enemies you make. Long-serving incumbents also annoy the heck out of the politically ambitious who are waiting in the wings to run for that office.
There was some speculation early last year that Graybeal might not seek re-election, which would have made it easier for Ford and anyone else who covets the title of sheriff. Having an incumbent in the GOP primary is not an ideal situation.
I’m not a political oddsmaker, but if I were, I’d say put your money on Graybeal. It’s hard to unseat an incumbent, particularly in Washington County. Being an incumbent is like having home-field advantage in an NFL playoff game.
Ford’s candidacy, however, could be an anomaly — like the San Francisco 49ers upsetting of the Green Bay Packers on a bitterly frozen Lambeau Field.
We’ll find out for sure in May. In the meantime, saddle up, all you fans of old-timey county politics. It’s going to be a wild ride.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.