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Jackson sheriff contenders gear up for second primary

The general election ballot for Jackson County Sheriff will finally be final next week when polls close on a second Republican primary July 15. Though the field of six Democrats came out with a clear winner, the three-person Republican race ended in a narrow victory for former Sylva Police Officer Curtis Lambert, who won by 41 votes, or 36 percent. 

After a recount, runner-up Jim Hodgins came out just one vote ahead of third-place candidate Mary Rock, and he lost no time in calling a second primary. The runner-up can call a second primary any time the winner nets less than 40 percent of the total vote.  

Both contenders have no doubt that they’re the best man for the job. 

“We’re very different in the fact that I’ve got law enforcement experience and education to which he has none, and I feel like those are very important in today’s world and today’s society,” Lambert said. “When you’re seeking a public office, you need to know what you’re getting into.”

But Hodgins doesn’t see his law enforcement-less resume as a detriment. Rather, he believes his 40-plus years in the logging business have given him a hard-working attitude and commitment to do right by county residents that will serve him well in office. 

“He’s got a little experience and I’ve got none, and it’s just 40 votes that separates us,” Hodgins said, “which tells you what voters think of Curtis.”

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Hodgins points to Lambert’s firing from the Sylva Police Department in March, which Town Manager Paige Roberson said was for “job performance reasons,” as a prime reason why Hodgins should win the race. Lambert has insisted he didn’t do anything wrong, but no specifics about the events leading up to the firing have come out. 

“We don’t need no secrets going into the office,” Hodgins said. “That’s what we’re trying to get voted out.”

Sheriff’s seats hopefuls had come out in droves this election cycle following the retirement of current sheriff Jimmy Ashe, who had caught some uncomfortable press in situations including using drug seizure funds to make donations to his children’s sports teams, riding around on a Harley Davidson motorcycle confiscated from a drug dealer and offending Latinos by setting up traffic stops that allegedly involved racial profiling.

At the time of his firing, Lambert called the firing “political” — a characterization the town manager flatly denied — and said he had done nothing wrong. He said last week that he has engaged an attorney and therefore can’t talk openly about his termination — yet.

“When the facts and the truth come out people will be able to see that I can lead the sheriff’s office in the direction it needs to be moved in, and it’s time to move on,” he said.  

The key for Republicans, though, will be to choose a candidate capable of beating Democratic contender Chip Hall, currently a chief sheriff’s deputy in Jackson County. In a field of six, Hall took 42 percent of the vote, coming in about 300 votes ahead of the runner up. 

“Let me put it this way,” Rock said. “I’m a Republican so I’d like to see a Republican win.”

And in the second primary, every vote will count. Turnout is usually pretty low in second primaries, especially in non-presidential years when only one office is on the ballot, as will be the case for Jackson County next week. In 2012, the first primary brought in 9,391 votes in Jackson County, while the second primary garnered only 1,029. The numbers were even lower in 2010, when the second primary included only one race in one party. Compared to 5,163 people casting ballots in the primary, only 620 voted in the runoff. 

“That was still a very low turnout with the federal election on the ballot, but you never can tell,” said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, Jackson County Election Director. “Sometimes local brings them out more than state or federal does. It does get harder when there’s only one office on the ballot.”

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