Knox County voters have most competitive sheriff’s race in a decade

A Lucas Brooks map breaking down the 2018 voting in the Knox County Sheriff’s race.

This article was written by Lucas Brooks of Tennessee Lookout

For Knox County voters, the Republican options for sheriff should be pretty familiar. Former Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones is running against incumbent Tom Spangler in the May 3 primary for his old job. Although Jones was term-limited out of office in 2018, the limit specifies two consecutive terms, meaning he only had to sit out a term before running again.

Both candidates share similar professional backgrounds and work experience, with both having worked in the Knox County Sheriff’s Office for decades before taking the top job. Spangler began as a corrections officer before moving up the ranks over the years, eventually becoming the chief deputy in the late 2000s. He retired briefly before taking up a training position with the Blount County Sheriff’s Office, from which he resigned to run for sheriff. 

The county commission appointed Jones sheriff in 2007 after the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that several county officeholders, including then-sheriff Tim Hutchinson, violated the county charter’s policy on term limits. Jones appointed Hutchinson to be his chief deputy, before his own appointment was ruled illegal. He was eventually re-appointed to the role in 2008 before running and winning the job in his own right in 2010.

Policywise, there is little  to differentiate the two candidates. Both want to raise the salaries of the sheriff’s office in order to attract more officers and encourage retention. Jones has decried the poor retention of officers under Spangler, who argues that police departments across the country are having a difficult time recruiting personnel.

Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler (Photo: Knox County Sheriff’s Department)

Under Spangler’s leadership, the office struggled to compete with the higher salaries offered by the sheriff’s offices of neighboring counties and private companies. Jones has made a sticking point of the low number of officers assigned to the county schools system, which Spangler blames on the coronavirus pandemic. In addition,  Jones cites low officer morale as a problem under Spangler. 

Jones’ main campaign point is that he will bring leadership that the department is sorely lacking while Spangler argues that Jones does not understand the current state of policing. Spangler has the support of the sheriffs of Blount, Loudon, and Monroe counties as well as former District 2 U.S. Rep.  Jimmy Duncan.

Both candidates support the controversial 287(g) immigration program, which allows local law enforcement agencies to partner with the federal government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) in order to detain undocumented immigrants on behalf of the federal government. 287(g) programs across the country have come under fire for racially profiling Latinos and resulting in the unlawful detainment of both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. Jones launched Knox County’s program and Spangler signed an agreement with ICE to extend the program indefinitely. Both candidates pledge to continue the agreement if they are elected.

This race is largely a rehashing of the 2018 one  that saw Spangler trounce Lee Tramel, a longtime ally of Jones and employee of the sheriff’s office. 

Former Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones. (Photo: Re-elect Jimmy “J.J.” Jones Facebook page)

Insiders viewed Tramel as stand-in for Jones and assumed he  would continue many of Jones’ policies if elected. At the time, there were rumors that Tramel would appoint Jones chief deputy like Jones had done for Hutchinson years earlier. 

However, Tramel lost to Spangler by nearly 30 percentage points. Spangler did well throughout the county, but his weakest areas were in West Knoxville and West Knox County. This race is not based around the same issues as four years ago, so it remains to be seen if that pattern holds true. 

 Both candidates have proven to be electoral powerhouses. No matter who wins on May 3rd, this race is shaping up to be Knox County’s most competitive sheriff primary in more than a decade.

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Published on April 26, 2022.