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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Rep. Mark Hall speaks at Westwood Baptist Church in Cleveland, Tenn. on Thursday, October 14, 2021. Tennessee Department of Transportation commissioner Clay Bright visited to celebrate the beginning of work on SR-60 improvement project.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee state Sen. Mike Bell's announcement that he won't seek re-election next year to the seat he's held since 2010 has prompted one GOP hopeful to declare his bid for the multi-county Senate seat.

"I feel that it is time for me to continue working for the people I represent by serving them in a higher capacity," Rep. Mark Hall of Cleveland said in an announcement posted on Facebook. "I am humbled and honored to share with you my intention to run for Tennessee State Senator, District 9.

"In doing this, I hope to continue to serve and provide strong representation, to not only the people of Cleveland and Bradley County, but to the entire area of Southeast Tennessee," added Hall, a U.S. Marine veteran and barbershop owner who served as a Bradley County commissioner for more than a dozen years before winning election to House District 24 in 2018.

The GOP primary contest to replace Bell, R-Riceville, in the district, which includes Polk, McMinn, Meigs and Monroe counties, could get crowded.

Among those giving consideration to running is former Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson, a former Cleveland state representative who served eight years in the lower chamber, including several years as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee before his 2014 election as sheriff.

"I would never run against Mike Bell," Watson said Tuesday in a Times Free Press telephone interview. "He's done a good job, and he's got a good base. I feel like I still have a good base. I'm just keeping my options open. Right now, it's just way too soon."

Still, Watson plans to form an exploratory committee with members from all five counties. And he also said he's not deterred by the controversies that plagued him when he was sheriff. That included his indictments in 2017 on a dozen felony charges related to forging titles on automobiles he bought in Florida and sold in Tennessee, the Times Free Press reported at the time.

But the charges were dropped by a special prosecutor after Watson paid taxes on the cars, the Times Free Press reported. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, meanwhile, failed to find any wrongdoing on other issues after a 17-month probe. And the Tennessee comptroller's office cleared the sheriff's department of allegations about financial misdeeds.

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Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Mike Bell, R-Riceville, listens as fellow GOP colleagues speak during a Senate Republican Caucus meeting April 5, 2021.

"Everything they threw against me was dismissed and thrown out in court," Watson said. "I had grand jury members who basically said they were lied to. This wouldn't even have been an issue if the Department of Revenue had come to talk to me. They didn't."

Watson chalked up the entire uproar to politics. "It was just trying to embarrass me and cost me votes," said Watson, who lost his 2018 re-election as sheriff in the GOP primary to a former top aide who challenged him.

"I think that stuff helps me because I had multiple agencies looking into false allegations, and I came out clean on everything," Watson added.

Also weighing a bid for Bell's seat is Adam Lowe, a former Bradley County commissioner who once ran unsuccessfully for House District 22 in 2013 to replace Watson as Watson ran for sheriff . In a statement to the Times Free Press on Tuesday, Lowe said he and his wife are like many parents in the district.

"We are raising kids and working in a post-pandemic environment. The challenges will persist in the coming years," Lowe said. "We will need good leaders, much like Mike Bell is, to face those challenges. I am exploring the opportunity to serve. I will speak with the other candidates to determine if I am best suited to address the issues of education, economics, and responsible government that are to come."

Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, who represents House District 22 — which includes a portion of Bradley County as well as all of Meigs and Polk counties — said in a telephone interview that he has no interest in running for the Senate. Howell is House Transportation Committee chairman.

Further complicating matters is that the composition of Senate District 9 (along with many other legislative districts) could change as a result of 2022 redistricting by the General Assembly.

There's been explosive population growth in Middle Tennessee and some other areas. But some regions of the state, including Northeast Tennessee, have lost population. That's expected to shift a number of state Senate, state House and Congressional district boundaries.

Hall announced his bid Monday after Bell announced he was stepping down at the end of his term in November 2022.

Bell, who lives in McMinn County, served four years in the House before his 2010 election to the Senate.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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