CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Republican candidates in the race for Bradley County sheriff, current Sheriff Jim Ruth and state Rep. Eric Watson, traded blows on experience, character and integrity in a Thursday debate hosted by the Kiwanis Club of Cleveland.
The debate, which turned heated at times, required a Kiwanis Club moderator to call for the candidates to use courtesy and abide by forum rules.
"In this campaign, my opponent's attacks on my administration [have] been very typical of attacks on an incumbent sheriff," Ruth said in his opening remarks. "When you have nothing to attack them on, you attack their chief deputy, you attack their supposedly bad morale, you attack things like that."
The county deserves fresh vision and new leadership, said Watson, who accused Ruth of running a top-heavy administration affected by political favoritism toward Chief Deputy Wayne Bird, a Florida law enforcement veteran.
"It's not a secret that his chief deputy is his campaign manager's brother: political payback bought by a politician," Watson said.
He said a local law enforcement officer who knows Bradley County is what the department needs for its chief deputy.
Ruth defended his choice of Bird, stating he does the job he hired him to do.
Watson also accused Ruth of running a dirty campaign, citing a complaint filed by Ruth with the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance that was recently ruled a "borderline abuse of process" and a "cheap-shot campaign gimmick" by ethics registry member Hank Fincher.
"I'm sick of dirty politics," said Watson. "I'm sick of it, my family's sick of it, we're all sick of it."
Ruth's complaint stated that Watson had been raising money for the planned sheriff's race by taking advantage of funding for his state representative campaign.
"He's used deceit in his operations, and deceit in my book is unethical any way you look at it," Ruth said.
He said he did not expect the complaint to be successful, but hoped it would shed light on Watson's behavior.
The ethics board that ruled against the complaint, which was submitted in January, refused to review supporting documents submitted by Ruth on March 6.
The documents were sent as a follow-up when he realized more evidence would be needed, Ruth said after the debate.
Regardless of whatever evidence was submitted, he expected the ethics board to show favoritism to a state representative and knew that Watson had "buddies" on the panel, Ruth said.
Watson and Ruth also sparred over whether legislation is needed to limit access to pseudoephedrine, a cold medicine that is used as a key ingredient in manufacturing meth.
Ruth supports such a measure, saying it would enable law enforcement to concentrate on imported meth products from Mexico but would hardly affect law-abiding citizens requiring the drug.
Watson said he opposed such a measure and instead desired to protect "the Constitution of the United States and the citizens of this Tennessee."
Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Contact him at email@example.com.