Steve Lawson unseats incumbent Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson

Steve Lawson, left, and his wife, Connie, lead supporters on a victory march toward the Bradley County Courthouse after he defeated incumbent Sheriff Eric Watson on Tuesday, May 1, 2018, in Cleveland, Tenn.

There's a new Bradley County sheriff coming to town.

Challenger Steve Lawson defeated incumbent Eric Watson in the Republican primary Tuesday night. With no Democrat in the race, Lawson will take office Sept. 1.

The sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the county and operates the jail. The pay is $93,495.

Watson trailed by about 1,000 votes throughout the evening and finally called Lawson around 9:30 p.m. to concede.

Vote totals

Democratic PrimaryNo candidateRepublican PrimaryLawson: 8,179Watson: 7,004These are complete but unofficial until certified by the Bradley County Election Commission.

photo Eric Watson, left, and Steve Lawson

"He just called and said congratulations," Lawson said Tuesday night as supporters clamored around him at the Museum Center at Five Points in Cleveland.

For himself, Lawson said, "I'm humbled by the vote, humbled by the support. I really want to serve the people of this county and I'll never let them down."

Watson did not respond to a Times Free Press request for comment.

Lawson promised to bring integrity and trust back to an office tarnished by nearly two years' worth of criminal investigations, financial probes and a 12-count felony indictment against Watson.

Watson was a longtime sheriff's office employee who was fired in 2011 for falsifying time sheets. He ran for and was elected to the Tennessee House in 2006, but stepped down and defeated Republican sheriff Jim Ruth in the 2014 elections.

Watson hired Lawson, with more than 20 years in law enforcement and then serving as chief of the 10th Judicial District Drug Task Force, to run the criminal investigations division.

During that time, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported the department's arrest and crime-solving rates climbed sharply.

Last week, Watson said in a campaign announcement the department in 2017 had the most arrests and highest crime-solving rate in Bradley County history. He cited 12 percent growth in drug-related arrests and said the sheriff's office ranked fourth statewide for burglaries solved and seventh for total offenses cleared.

Lawson countered that all those successes took place under his leadership as captain of criminal investigations.

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A podium is set up at the front of the room at the Cleveland Country Club as people mingle during Eric Watson's election night party on Tuesday, May 1, 2018 in Cleveland, Tenn. Watson, the incumbent, would concede the race to challenger Steve Lawson.

He resigned from that position in January and announced his candidacy. He vowed to be a full-time sheriff and avoid conflicts of interest.

That was a reference to a series of controversies and scandals involving Watson, from allegations of improper use of county credit cards and money to using his influence to help get a woman friend out of jail and to support his wife's job as a bail bonding agent. Under his leadership, the sheriff's office has been sued more than two dozen times, for causes ranging from excessive force to inmate deaths. He was indicted last year on 12 felony charges related to forging titles on automobiles he bought in Florida and sold in Tennessee.

However, those charges were dropped after he paid taxes on the cars. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation failed to find any wrongdoing after investigating Watson for 17 months, and the Tennessee Comptroller's Office also cleared the department of financial misdeeds.

Lawson won endorsements from the Cleveland police chief, the Fraternal Order of Police and the four living prior sheriffs.

Watson campaigned on public safety, more officers on the streets and faith-based programs in the jail that he said helped inmates turn their lives around.

That claim, though, caused him trouble when it was discovered he had taken men serving felony sentences out of the jail, in civilian clothes and unshackled, to a church service and a July 4 fireworks show.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at or 423-757-6416.