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Email: Ex-sheriff may not be bona fide' Republican

Brad Hicks • Apr 8, 2014 at 10:47 PM

Kent Harris said response to his intent to seek political office in the August Republican primary has been mostly positive, but the former Unicoi County sheriff said apparently not everyone wants to see him re-enter the political arena.

On Tuesday, Harris said he received an email from Tennessee Republican Party Executive Director Brent Leatherwood stating someone has challenged Harris’ status as a “bona fide Republican” and has alleged Harris’ conduct has been detrimental to the Republican party.

“Our bylaws require members of the SEC and those seeking seats on the State Executive Committee to support the Republican Party and Republican elected officials,” the email states.

On April 1, Harris filed a qualifying petition with the Washington County Election Commission to seek the Republican state executive committeeman post representing Tennessee’s 3rd Senate District, which is made up of Washington and Unicoi counties, as well as a portion of Carter County. The only other candidate to file paperwork to seek the post is Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe, who has served three terms on the committee.

According to its website, the Executive Committee operates as the governing body for the state party and is charged with establishing rules and measures to promote the party’s success. Each of Tennessee’s 33 Senate districts is represented by one committeeman and one committeewoman, and those elected to the committee serve four-year terms.

The committeeman post represents Harris’ first effort to get back into politics since he resigned as Unicoi County sheriff in March 2012, citing injuries suffered in an August 2010 fall from the roof of the Unicoi County Jail. In October 2011, he was charged with 10 felonies, and charged with an 11th felony in February 2012.

The former sheriff faced trial three times, with the first two trials ending with hung juries when unanimous verdicts could not be reached. Harris’ third trial ended in July when Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood granted a motion for acquittal made by Harris’ attorney. In August, District Attorney General Tony Clark announced his office would not pursue prosecution on the charges on which Harris had not yet been tried.

Harris, who said he was taken aback by the email, is unsure of the basis of the allegations referenced in the email. He said he contacted the Tennessee Republican party but had not heard back from its representatives.

“Somebody’s evidently behind it trying to knock me out of being a candidate for that volunteer position,” Harris said.

The email to Harris states Tennessee Code Annotated 2-13-104 requires candidates seeking a position on the State Executive Committee to be “bona fide Republicans,” with the ultimate authority residing with the state Republican Party chairman.

“From the way I’m reading the letter, he’s alleging that I’m not a Republican and I haven’t supported the Republican candidates, which is not true,” Harris said. “What he’s saying there is not true.”

According to the email, Harris may rebut the allegation by submitting a letter detailing his support of Republican principles, help that he has provided to Republican nominees, and support provided to the Republican party at any level. He was also asked to provide letters of support from elected Republicans who can vouch for his status as a party member.

Harris said his allegiance to the Republican party has never been in question. Aside from being elected three times as sheriff as a Republican candidate, Harris said he has served two different terms as chairman of the Unicoi County Republican party and served as vice-chair for one term. Harris also said he has voted in every Republican primary since 1992 and, over the years, has worked to support the campaigns of a number of Republican presidential, senatorial and congressional candidates.

Harris also said he is confident the matter will not impact his bid for the committeeman post.

“If I’m not a bona fide Republican, I don’t know who would be,” Harris said. “I think it would be pretty simple to show what my voting status, my party status, has been. I don’t know if I could have any more credentials of being a bona fide Republican, somebody who’s been chairman of the party, has supported every statewide and national Republican candidate for 22 years.”

Officials with the Tennessee Republican party could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

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