“It stopped just short of a fistfight.”
That was one of the statements overheard following the debate between Sheriff Jim Ruth and state Rep. Eric Watson as they both vie for the office of Bradley County sheriff.
The debate, which was held at the Mountain View Inn, was hosted by the Kiwanis Club of Cleveland. It took less than three minutes before the first verbal punch was thrown before a crowd of at least 100 people.
Ruth was positioned at the right-side podium to which he had brought what appeared to be one sheet of paper with notes.
Watson stood on the left and placed a notebook on the podium he was using.
Ruth won the coin toss and elected to go second, allowing Watson to make the opening statement.
The format allowed for a two-minute answer from the candidate, a 90-second response and then a 30-second rebuttal.
Watson referred to his service in the state House of Representatives and how he has risen through its ranks serving on both state and national boards and conferences concerning law enforcement.
Watson also noted his various training in law enforcement.
“I am running for sheriff because I know the business of the office can be run more efficiently and effectively with new leadership and a new vision,” Watson said.
“I believe it is time for a new generation of leadership to step forward with new ideas and new energy.”
Ruth took his opportunity to note what he feels marks a successful four years at the helm of county law enforcement.
“What I said I was going to do in 2010 we have done,” Ruth said. “We have a much more unified and professional Sheriff’s Office than ever before, and I know this because I’ve been in law enforcement in this county for 41 years now.”
He said the main focus since he has been in office has been crime prevention, safe streets, safe neighborhoods and safe schools.
“I think we’ve done a good job at that,” Ruth said.
“We’ve met all the challenges that have been thrown at us — snowstorms, ice storms, tornadoes, homicides, burglaries, crimes against persons — and we’ve met those well. Our solvability rates are some of the best in the state.”
Ruth then struck the first verbal blow at his opponent.
“My opponent’s attacks on my administration are typical of attacks on an incumbent sheriff,” Ruth said. “When you have nothing to attack them on, you attack the chief deputy, you attack supposedly bad morale and things like that.
“The real issues of this campaign are character and integrity,” he continued. “I think after 41 years here I’ve proven my character and integrity.”
He said voters should check Watson’s claims about his work and education record.
“I think you’ll find out he’s embellished and been deceitful about all that stuff on those sites,” Ruth said. “It’s time to be truthful and a sheriff needs to be truthful in everything he does.”
The candidates then proceeded to answer questions and respond to various issues during a 45-minute time frame:
Issue — Why are you running?
WATSON: “I have a love for law enforcement in this county.
“According to TBI records, the crime rate has risen 7.7 percent in the last three years.
“Someone told me as I walked in here they quit checking on my grandfather two years ago. We’re going to fix that. The deputies aren’t going to leave the files at the senior citizens’ center not being checked.
“The D.A.R.E. [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] program has been taken out of the schools. No drug program has been taught in the last three years.
“We have to put stability back into the department for our employees at the sheriff’s department. You’ve had four patrol captains in the last 36 months. You’ve had three CID captains in the last three years.
“You cannot run a business like that. You have to bring stability back. You’ve got to know those officers and somebody’s going to take care of them.
“We’re going to put more officers on the street.”
RUTH: “We have the right people in the right positions at this time. They are the most educated and most qualified people we’ve come up with.
“It’s taken three years to get where we are now. It’s true.
“As far as the senior citizens’ registry, ask the people who does that if they’ve been doing it or not.
“They may have left some paperwork somewhere, but that don’t mean anything.
“We have qualified people and they’re doing the job. Saying they’re not is wrong.”
WATSON: “If you had a burglary at your house, wouldn’t you want to know where your paperwork is and the evidence?
“I promise you our administration won’t leave paperwork laying around anywhere. I promise you we’ll know where it’s at as your sheriff.”
Issue — What is the reason for people to vote for you?
RUTH: “The things we’ve done in the last three years such as our police training officer program. They are trained to respond to people in the community and help them with their problem and follow through, and it creates better public relations with people.
“We started a new intelligence policing program that has helped us to work smarter and get the right information out to the right businesses at the right time.
“We’ve created a Sheriff’s Targeted Area Response team. It focuses on areas of the county where crime pops up. So far, they’ve been very successful.
“We are keeping up with the increased population in the area with no additional deputies.
“We have SROs in every school and the D.A.R.E. program is outdated. Most across the country have done away with it.
“We have a program called ‘Together Achieving Goals.’ The teachers love it for a lot of reasons. It doesn’t take up a lot of time — they need to teach the children during the day. It’s working well. To say we’re not interested in our kids is a lie.”
WATSON: “Go ask the fifth-grade teachers if a drug program has been taught in their schools for the last three years.
“75 percent of the schools in the nation use the D.A.R.E. program — even Cleveland and surrounding counties; 43 countries around the world use the D.A.R.E. program.
“The D.A.R.E. program doesn’t cost the citizens a dime, because the criminals paid for it through the drug fund.
RUTH: “The program we have in the schools is working well and they love it. It’s a lot less expensive than the D.A.R.E. program.
“The D.A.R.E. program is outdated and some say kids that go to the D.A.R.E. program are very likely to try drugs and get hooked on drugs.”
Issue — Prescriptions for pseudoephedrine:
WATSON: “We must reject the idea that every time a law is broken, society is guilty rather than the lawbreakers.
“It’s the same mentality the feds have when every time there is a school shooting. They want to take all the guns away.
“Now there is less than 1 percent of Tennesseans abusing meth. Let’s make it harder on the law-abiding citizens when it comes to Benadryl, Claritin and Sudafed.
“It will force you to go to your doctor for an appointment and have a $100 co-pay.
“Let’s make it hard on the criminals and leave law-abiding citizens alone.”
RUTH: “The state is No. 2 in meth labs. Pseudoephedrine being prescription-only would help solve the problem.
“We could concentrate more time on the Mexican meth that’s coming into this country.
“As far as the burden on people, statistics show only 1 in 20 use allergy and cold medicines.
“Oregon has actually enacted that law and they don’t have the problem with meth anymore.
“That’s the only way you’re going to stop it. Every sheriff I know across the state is for it. [The argument] will not wash, it being such a burden on elderly people. They go to the doctor three or four times a year anyway.”
WATSON: “It’s not just Sudafed. It’s like 21 different medicines. I’m sure each one of us have used one of those 21 medicines.
“If you ever go prescription-only, you’re going to have to get search warrants for abusers’ medical records due to the HIPA laws. It will slow down investigations.
“It’s about making it harder for the criminals. That’s what we’re doing; 80 percent of meth is made outside the state; 20 percent is made locally and we’re still going to make it harder on law-abiding citizens.”
Issue — Ethics complaint filed by Ruth:
RUTH: “I knew they would not rule in my favor. That’s fine, the information got out there anyway.
“It’s not ethical to do what Mr. Watson’s done — taking money from the state [campaign] and county [campaign] even after he announced. He’s taken from people who donated to the state and also the county at the same time so he could get more money than the maximum amount allowed to do with the county.
“He’s used deceit in his operations doing that. Deceit, in my book, is unethical anyway you look at it.”
WATSON: “He’s the sheriff. Arrest me today if I’ve violated the law. He’s the highest authority figure in this county. Take me to jail. I can take my own peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.
“The ethics committee called [Ruth’s complaint] a borderline abuse of power.
“I have two documents. He says I was dishonorably discharged. The POST [Peace Officers Standards and Training] Commission says no such thing existed in Tennessee. The ethics commission basically said he lied.
“Every one of their articles in the paper has been an attack on me and my family. I’m sick of it. The people of Bradley County are sick of dirty politics. Run on what you’ve done for the last four years and stick to your record.
“I’ve excelled since I left the Sheriff’s Office. Graduate of the TBI school. Been cleared on nine different background checks — TBI, Highway Patrol, Secret Service — the list goes on. I’m proud of what God’s given me in my life.”
RUTH: “Most people in the county know why Mr. Watson left the Sheriff’s Office. He had been warned several times about cheating on his time sheet. The last time he was warned, he was told he couldn’t count comp time when he takes vacation, because he’s a regular officer.
“He tried again and he got caught lying and cheating on his time sheet. When the chief deputy and the man in charge of human resources terminated him, out of good graces I let him resign. Saying anything other than that is false.”
WATSON: “That’s lie three. Go to the human resources officer at the Bradley County Courthouse.
“He has paid his chief deputy, four captains, eight lieutenants overtime pay. Salaried-exempt employees. We have verification and a copy of it.
“I’ll be happy to give copies of that payroll signed by him that gave them overtime pay, including his chief deputy, who makes $73,000 on your dime.”
RUTH: “As far as I know, no ranking officer or captain and lieutenant or above has been paid overtime. If they have, I’ll find out why. They are not due overtime as a ranking officer.”
Issue — Closing statements:
RUTH: “We’ve done a good job in the Sheriff’s Office in protecting our citizens and making our community safe.
“We’ve developed new programs and new ideals. New programs such our Police Training Officer Program to enable them to be more effective in working with people in the community with their problems and help with public relations.
“We’ve developed intelligence-led policing which helps us to work smarter.
“We’ve developed the STAR team who works on areas where crime crops up. We had a rash of burglaries on the south end awhile back and we sent them down there. They were effective in solving the burglaries and solving the burglary ring.
“We will continue to handle all the challenges that come at us, and promote crime-prevention efforts and neighborhood watches.
“We’ll continue school resource officers and senior citizen checks and we’ve been doing them regardless of what Mr. Watson says.
“We have the best school resource program in the state. It’s one of the top five. We have one in every county school and not many can say that.
“I don’t see how my opponent can improve on what we’ve been doing, the programs we’ve started and the progress we’ve made.
“We had a 22 percent burglary solvability rate in 2012.
“We’ve been effective and I need four more years to bring some of these programs we’ve started and some of the things we’re doing, and the progress we’re making, to fruition.”
WATSON: “There are many differences in policy between my opponent and I, especially when it comes to ability to manage a large department. There are well over 200 officers and staff that so desperately needs leadership.
“The other difference between my opponent and I can be seen in the way we have approached this campaign.
“My opponent and his advisers have chose to attack me at every opportunity with outrageous untruths, which was proven again [Wednesday].
“I made up my mind months ago to keep it on the high road and make it a campaign of positive ideas and a new direction for Bradley County.
“I believe it’s time to have a sheriff of Bradley County that’s not going to complain about all the negative aspects of the job.
“I believe this department has the resources and the personnel to get the job done, but only if these resources and personnel are utilized in the most effective and efficient way possible.
“On the very first day as sheriff, I will start my day early, early, early and determine how the personnel are utilized, and will make changes to ensure any well-paid positions in the current administration will be truly necessary in mine.
“Everyone, regardless of who they support for sheriff, should have a necessary job to do and they should do it well.
“I will also review the department’s policy and procedures and make whatever necessary changes to ensure the department operates at a peak efficiency.
“I appreciate the long career [Ruth] has had in law enforcement, but years of service alone does not make the person a good leader.
“I am absolutely certain now is the time for change at the top of the Sheriff’s Office if it is to serve us well.
“I have the experience, background, education and training to lead this office to new heights and professionalism. I also have the energy and spirit to truly lead and make tough decision that affect the lives and property of our citizens.
“Make no mistake. I will make the final decisions and not leave it to outside advisers.
“I will be a sheriff you will be very proud of and able to reach, call and talk to.”