CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- State Rep. Eric Watson told an enthusiastic crowd Friday that he's hoping to move to a different elected office in 2014 -- that of Bradley County sheriff.
Watson told an overflow crowd at his annual lawmaker luncheon that he will not seek re-election to the District 22 seat he has held since 2006. Instead, he said, he intends to challenge incumbent Jim Ruth in the May Republican primary.
"I'm proud of my accomplishments in Nashville, but I will not seek another term," Watson told an audience of supporters that included state House and Senate colleagues, other elected officials and prominent Bradley County Republicans.
"More and more, I've realized we have problems closer to home -- problems that cannot be properly addressed from Nashville," he said in a 20-minute speech interrupted more than a dozen times by applause.
Crime in Bradley County has gone up since 2010 even though it's down elsewhere in the state, he said, while the number of county arrests and drug seizures is down. That hurts families as well as the community's economic development efforts, he said.
"Communities can't grow if citizens feel unsafe in their homes or worry about the welfare of their families," he said. "Now, more than ever, Bradley County needs a strong, energized sheriff who has earned the trust of his deputies and will focus on moving our sheriff's office forward. It is time to provide a stable work environment for those employees, while providing a consistent high level of service to our community."
Ruth did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
Ruth's department has been marked by turmoil and turnover. A longtime captain recently pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence after a 20-year-old woman said in June that he helped get rid of stolen goods in exchange for sex. Another longtime deputy was placed on administrative leave last month while under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Leadership has been shaken up. Around 70 officers have left or been fired, and some have sued the department.
Watson served in the Bradley County Sheriff's Office for 12 years and left as a captain in 2011. He is a state-certified private investigator and handgun instructor and a graduate of the TBI State Academy, where he was class president; the Tennessee Sheriffs School and the U.S. Marshal Service Academy. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Andersonville Theological Seminary and is active in civic affairs and his church.
In his speech, Watson criticized the current administration. He said Ruth has added a dozen supervisors and now has one supervisor for every three employees. He called that an expensive misuse of resources and promised to have "more officers on the street than supervisors in the office."
"Our sheriff's office will make effective use of resources and will fiscally be responsible and represent the community in the professional manner that they deserve," he said.
Watson said he would restructure officer training, including offering Cleveland State classes at the sheriff's office and raise their pay without a tax increase.
One of his biggest applause lines came when he promised to draw his command staff from local officers and "not go two states away to find them." That was a dig at Chief Deputy Wayne Bird, who came from Florida and is widely perceived to be the real power in the department.
He promised to reinstate or create new programs such as Smart Start for young drivers, a volunteer group to check on seniors regularly and a crime victims assistance program.
Watson's was the first big campaign event in the 2014 campaign season and prominent Republicans -- elected officials and civilians -- turned out in strength to dine shoulder to shoulder on chicken and ham. State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who represents part of Bradley County, was there along with Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah. State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, sent an endorsement that was read aloud by former state senator Dewayne Bunch, who was emcee. Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland spoke in place of U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, the advertised guest of honor, who remained in Washington, D.C., during the partial federal government shutdown.
The prospect of an open House seat likely will pump even more heat into what should be an already lively election season.
Besides the four-year county elections, judges, district attorneys and public defenders, elected on an eight-year cycle, are up next year.
Circuit Court Judge Carroll Ross has said he won't seek reelection. So has District Attorney Steve Bebb, who's the subject of ongoing state House and Senate investigations.
Republican Steve Crump, who lost to Bebb in 2006, is the only person who has filed campaign documents for the district attorney slot.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress or 423-757-6406.