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It’s two years out, but candidates for the 1998 Davidson County sheriff’s race are already testing the waters. xxxIncumbent Sheriff Gayle Ray has been in the trenches since 1994, but she recently reemerged to say that she had met her campaign pledge to investigate whether the sheriff’s department should be abolished. The department, she stated, will stay. And she’ll run again.

So might former Metro Council member Jerry Austin, an insurance salesman who dabbles in used cars and who worked for former Sheriff Fate Thomas for two years.

“I think it’s a really important office to the taxpayers,” says Austin, who served in the Council for 12 years before losing last year to Janis Sontany.

Austin has had some more recent experience with the sheriff’s office. After one of his relatives was arrested, he expressed frequent concerns to officials about how the jail was operating and about the treatment of inmates at Metro Jail.

“I’m certainly not going to be critical of the sheriff who’s in there now. I just think I could cut [the budget] and save the taxpayers some money,” says Austin.

Another name that has surfaced in the sheriff’s race is former Metro Council member Gary Odom, who now serves in the state House. Odom was also mentioned for sheriff in 1994. He has a law enforcement degree from East Tennessee State University and a master’s in criminal justice from Eastern Kentucky University.

“I enjoy my work with the state. I’m running for re-election to the Legislature right now. I haven’t even thought about any other office or any other election,” says Odom, who was an oft-mentioned mayoral candidate two years ago.

As an undergraduate, Odom served an internship at the Chattanooga Police Department. He later worked as an investigator in the state attorney general’s office.

In 1994, Ray came out of nowhere to score an upset over Sheriff Hank Hillin. Her campaign was extraordinarily well-orchestrated, in part, by political organizer/attorney Harlan Dodson, and she got a strong boost on election day, when very few voters went to the polls. She won with 60 percent of the vote.

Ray’s victory was an historic event in Davidson County politics. Ray—a mother, a wife, and a former Metro Council member who represented a Green Hills district—is the only female sheriff currently serving in Tennessee. Other women have served as sheriff in Tennessee, but none has held the office in recent years.

When Ray ran her campaign, she talked about the possibility of eliminating the department. She said she thought the Sheriff’s Department and the Metro Police Department had overlapping duties. With her master’s degree in business administration from Belmont University, she argued, she could figure out how to eliminate those overlaps and merge the departments.

Shortly after her election, Ray appointed a seven-member panel to decide if the merger was feasible. Dodson chaired the panel. A few weeks ago, the panel said elimination wasn’t a good idea because the sheriff’s office is constitutionally mandated. Eliminating it would require a change in the Tennessee Constitution, an action the Legislature isn’t likely to take.

That announcement, and Ray’s decision to run again, has stirred up potential opponents such as Austin. Some of these opponents say there’s something suspicious about Dodson being both a political supporter of Ray and the chairman of the panel that recommended that the sheriff’s department continue.

Meanwhile, Hillin has also been busy. A former FBI agent, Hillin can be a confusing figure. On the one hand, he was seen as the man who ran Fate Thomas out of office and promised to chase the dark forces out of Nashville politics. On the other hand, he was chided in his losing race against Ray for his own form of patronage. His chief deputy was his son.

Nonetheless, Hillin did create programs to educate inmates and to help them quit smoking. Meanwhile, he had a horrible working relationship with the Bredesen administration.

Hillin has begun a letter-writing campaign charging that Ray is spending too much money on the office. Hillin says his last budget was $16.4 million and that the city had 446 employees when he left office. Ray’s current budget is $36 million, and she has 650 employees.

Ray says the $16.4 million is wrong, and Hillin himself admits that the number does not include about $8 million in employee benefits that Ray includes in her current budget.

Ray defends her budget, saying, “The number of inmates since I took office has gone up 60 percent. The budget has gone up 48 percent. We are doing a lot more work. The [per inmate] per diem when I took office was $59 a day. It is now $53 a day.”

Hillin’s letters also blast Ray as being somehow responsible for the death of a sheriff’s deputy who was shot and killed while serving a warrant. Ray’s defenders, and others, say the letters are just low blows. (One of Hillin’s letters ran in the Nashville Scene last week.)

All of which poses the question: Is Hillin preparing for another race?

“Two years is a lifetime in politics,” he says, declining to elaborate.

Hillin does, however, sing the praises of Austin, who was helpful to Hillin when he was sheriff.

“He was always supportive and really one of the nicest guys around there,” Hillin says. “He’s like I am. He’s concerned about the direction the city’s going.”

Another big question is whether Austin will get, or seek, the support of Thomas. “Naturally, anyone who’s going to run for office would want his help,” Austin says. “He is a friend of mine and, of course, gave me a job in 1981 when I needed a job.”

Thomas, a salesman at the Bob Frensley auto dealership, says he hasn’t talked to Austin about his campaign. What’s more, he says he isn’t prepared to get involved at this point. “I imagine several people are talking about [the race],” Thomas says. “But that ain’t a priority right now.”

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