Early voting in the primary election begins from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, May 7, at the Jefferson County Courthouse. Election Day is May 22. Following is a look at some the county’s biggest races.
The two candidates for Jefferson County judge — former Jefferson County Judge Dutch King and Jefferson County Sheriff Gerald Robinson — don’t get along. Both are Democrats.
King said that during the 2012 campaign, Robinson called him on the phone and threatened him.
“He said he had people on the Road Department that I couldn’t touch, and if I did, he would see to it that I would never be elected to an office in Jefferson County again,” King said, adding that Robinson made the statement again to him at that year’s Rodeo Parade.
King said that before then, he did not know Robinson personally. Robinson denied making the statement to King and declined to comment further on the issue.
“It’s just not true,” Robinson said.
King is no stranger to politics, having served on the Pine Bluff City Council, as Pine Bluff mayor and two terms as county judge.
“I genuinely care about Pine Bluff and Jefferson County,” he said. “We want to serve everyone, because over the years there have been a lot of people who felt they have been neglected. They received no services from the Road Department. I made a promise and kept that promise as judge; we made major improvements, bought two used paving machines and paved a lot of roads. We fixed a lot of ditches and potholes. I have always enjoyed helping people, and voters of Pine Bluff need to take into consideration.”
King said he doesn’t consider himself a politician, but rather a public servant.
Addressing the county’s budget problems, King said that he has experience in helping to improve the county’s finances.
As Jefferson County has lost population — down from 77,435 in 2010 to 70,016 in 2016, according to the U.S. Census — the county’s coffers, which rely on tax dollars generated by residents, have dwindled to dangerous levels.
“When we took office in 2013, County General (fund) had $1.2 million,” King said. “When we left in 2016, it had over $2 million. The Road Department had $500,000 in 2013; when we left, it had $1.4 million.
“People did not want to stay within their budgets. There are lots of things a judge can’t do. We can’t make people spend money where they are supposed to. If you look at those numbers, it shows responsibility, and we did what we said we were going to do.”
Robinson has a different view, saying that King’s administration “balanced the budget off the back of the sheriff’s office,” an allegation King denied.
“The Quorum Court sets the budget, not the judge,” King said.
On the county’s population loss and subsequent tax fund decrease, King said that “we have as many people working in the courthouse as we did when we had 90,000 people in the county. I have always been in favor of, through attrition, people retiring or leaving their jobs, spread those responsibilities around to people you have there now instead of hiring new people. Put that money into the County General fund or pay raises for people after a certain period of time.”
Robinson has spent the last 12 years as Jefferson County sheriff and 30 years in county government. He said that his experience with crafting the sheriff’s budget, which is the largest in the county, gives him the know-how to deal with county finances.
“I have been around the budget for a long time,” Robinson said. “I was asked several years ago to run (for judge), but the reason I didn’t is because I felt there were so many things I needed to accomplish as sheriff, and I have been able to do those things. But I feel like my season is up as sheriff I feel like there is a need for some new blood.”
Robinson said the county cannot continue operating “as if it were 20 years ago. (During a budget crisis two years ago) I was instrumental in bringing elected officials together to solve the problem. We came together and made decisions that helped the county make it to the end of the year.
We won’t be able to stop the decline unless we can get jobs; that is the main issue. Until we do, then the county will have to make adjustments throughout the entire county, and we will look for ways to do that. One thing I would do is look for ways to save money to realign some of the departments. I am already looking at ways to trim sheriff’s budget.
Those things will continue we have a long road.”
Robinson also said he wants to “make a team of the county officials. The judge and sheriff have to have a good relationship being two top executives in the county. If you go to most counties, if they have a good relationship, that county is moving forward and doing well. It doesn’t matter to me who it is. It is going to take all of us working together.
On roads, Robinson said “we will continue to look at ways to be efficient. I can’t say we will pave every road or fix every road in the county. What I am going to do is tell you we will look at ways to prioritize roads and look at ways to maintain those roads in a way where they will last a little bit longer. I am going to reach out to some experts that can help us because this is what networking does. You can reach out and touch people. We have a great road crew.”
Robinson said that his first priority, if elected, would be to bring the county’s elected officials together at a roundtable to discuss “the kind of shape we are in financially. We will talk about how to fix this, we will communicate, sit down together.”
Robinson also said that he would reach out to local executives, such as George Makris, CEO of Simmons Bank, for suggestions about how to better handle the city’s finances.
“Who better to reach out to than those who have made money consistently?” Robinson said.
RACE FOR SHERIFF
With current Jefferson County Sheriff Gerald Robinson stepping down after 12 years in office, three challengers, all familiar faces are seeking to replace him.
Former Jefferson County Deputy Larry Gragg, retired Arkansas State Police Special Agent Roger McLemore and current sheriff’s department Operations Commander Maj. Lafayette Woods Jr. are all on the ballot for the May 22 Democratic primary.
The winner of a likely runoff will face no Republican opposition in November.
A veteran of 11 years with the sheriff’s department and more than five years in Drew County, Gragg is making his second bid for the office. He ran unsuccessfully against Robinson in 2009.
“Things have changed,” said Gragg, whose duties at the sheriff’s department included working in criminal investigation, heading the warrants section for a period of time and overseeing the operations of the detention center.
“That time at the jail gave me the opportunity to learn about budgeting which gives me a major advantage,” he said. “You can’t understand how something works until you’ve been there and seen it.”
Gragg, who currently is an insurance agent said he is the best candidate because of “My experience and my wide background.”
“I will work hard with bulldog determination,” he said. “I’ve never run from work and build relationships.”
Gragg said he will treat all employees “equitable and fair and listen to their concerns.”
Asked about the current state of county finances, particularly the sheriff’s department which accounts for much of the annual budget, Gragg said if elected, “We’ve got to stop the bleeding. The wasteful spending will cease.”
He said he would restructure the department to ensure that the right people are in the right positions to do the job.
Gragg said he would also place a major emphasis on enforcing drug laws and cracking down on offenders.
“This is a drug hub and I had an early introduction to drugs when I worked in Drew County,” he said. “Drug dealers are going to know that we mean business. They’re not going to keep their vehicles or their residences. There’s a lot of money circulating because of the drug business.”
He said if elected, he will follow the KISS principle, Keep It Simple Stupid, driven by technology.
“I’m going to be all about the business of Jefferson County on a daily basis,” Gragg said. “I’m also going to hold the command staff accountable for their actions.”
The winner of the election, who will take office Jan. 1 will serve a four-year term, rather than a two-year term, thanks to a change in state law.
“As far as I’m concerned, nothing is going to change with that four-year term in the way I handle my responsibilities,” he said. “The only thing that is different is that it will mean less campaign expenditures.”
A 37 and-a-half year veteran of the state police, McLemore worked highway patrol for 20 years, most of that in Jefferson County, gave commercial driver’s license tests and was a troop service officer before being reassigned to the Criminal Investigation Division where he worked major crimes throughout Southeast Arkansas.
He is running for sheriff for the third time, having been beaten by Robinson twice.
“I thought about it and prayed about it and I’m running for fairness and integrity,” McLemore said. “I see stuff that shouldn’t happen and I want to correct that.”
One of those things, he said is a “lack of followup. I don’t think there’s enough of that. Criminal investigators could help but anybody that works there has got to be trained.”
McLemore said that Jefferson County has lost 10,000 people in 10 years and a part of the problem is we don’t have law and order and respect,” he said. “If we can get the trust of the people the crime rate will go down. This is not a white — black — red issue. Kids are leaving my town.”
Among other things, McLemore said he wanted to see two deputies patrolling across the river and two deputies on this side of the river on every shift.
“There should be deputies out on patrol and checking property,” he said. “I think the department is too brass heavy. I don’t think all those people should be sitting in the office. There’s nothing wrong with a sergeant working calls or a lieutenant working calls.”
On the subject of legislation of Mariana for medical use, McLemore said “I have no problem if the doctor says a person should use it but for people that just smoke it no. If it’s regulated I’m OK with it.”
He also said that if elected, one of his priorities would be to ensure that people who work the jail who trusted that he “would not fire them just for not filling out a report. Firing is the last thing on my mind. I want to be fair to all the employees and work with them and my door will be open and they can call me at any time.”
Much has been said recently about the idea of arming school teachers as a way to cut down on school shooting but McLemore said “I don’t like it. We need to keep guns away from kids.”
If elected, he said he would work with the Pine Bluff city government and law enforcement and assist them any way he could.’
“If many people are involved, it can have a big effect on everybody,” McLemore said.
He said he “wanted to bring trust back to the sheriff’s department. I want to teach the young officers what’s right. There’s time to work and there’s time to play but the most important thing is that they are able to go home alive.”
As the operations commander and public spokesman for the sheriff’s department, Woods is the hand-picked choice of Robinson to replace him at the top.
He has been on the job since 2004 and worked uniform patrol until being reassigned to the Tri-County Drug Task Force and loaned to the Drug Enforcement Administration where he worked undercover narcotics. He said he almost went to work for the DEA full time before Robinson talked him out of it and he has been with the department ever since.
“It’s been a bittersweet career,” Woods said. “I am following a higher power and the Lord put me in this place at this time. This is the next step in my career because there is no where else to go.”
Asked about the county’s budget and the lack of funds available, Woods said “we’ve got challenges in public safety and recruitment because there’s not a lot of money. We’re trying to recruit qualified people who want to make a career and not just have a job.”
To that end, Woods said he frequently attends career fairs and Southeast Arkansas College and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the department also offers internships which will pay students and allow them to receive college credit at the same time.
He said that in 2015, the department’s budget was cut “but we were still expected to do the same job. We know the challenges because no matter what, we’re expected to provide the same level of services.”
Woods said that Jefferson County is one of the largest counties in the state and the demand for services is great “but we don’t control the price of gas.”
If elected, he said his first priority will be to evaluate the command staff and ensure that “people are the most effective and most needed.”
“Second, I want to make sure the department has all the resources and tools we need to make the job easier,” We do a good job but there’s always room for improvement.’
Another plan is to reactivate the junior deputy program which he said “has gone downhill for the last couple of years. We want to try to reach kids in grade school and get them excited about a career in law enforcement. We already do a program for kids with the Sheriff’s Fun Day every year but we can reach out in other ways as well.”
With his number of years in drug investigations, Woods said he would “vigorously go after those that sell drugs,” including the unauthorized use of prescription drugs.
“We’ve got to learn to do more with less,” Woods said.
Two political newcomers will square off in the May 22 Democratic primary for Jefferson County Tax Collector.
Leslie Mitchell, who currently works as a case coordinator in the prosecuting attorney’s office, and Tony Washington, who has worked for the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office as a senior public affairs liaison and is currently serving as the Government Relations Liaison for the University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical, are each seeking to replace Jefferson County Tax Collector Stephanie Stanton, who is retiring.
Mitchell said when Stanton first talked about retiring, she (Stanton) approached her about seeking the office. Mitchell said she initially said no, but when Stanton officially announced her plans, she decided to go for it.
“I think by then I was ready and prepared for the idea of taking on the job,” she said.
Washington said he never planned on running for office, preferring instead to try and help other people get elected. He worked on several prior campaigns, including serving as the campaign manager for 11th-West Judicial candidate Alex Guynn in 2016, as the Arkansas political director for President Obama’s first campaign, as 4th Congressional District outreach director for the coordinated campaign, and as a regional field organizer for the Democratic (Party) Coordinated Campaign.
“I decided it was my turn,” Washington said. “I could be in the community and serve as a role model for kids.”
Mitchell, who has received the endorsement of Stanton, worked in the tax collector’s office for more than seven years before accepting the offer of Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter for a position in his office.
“I believe the difference between us is that I could step in that office today and start today,” Mitchell said. “I could sit down at one of the desks where the ladies collect taxes and know what to do.”
She said when Hunter offered her a position in 2016, it gave her the opportunity to “do something different” after working in the tax collector’s office for more than seven years.
Washington said he has talked with Stanton, who received top marks from the Association of Arkansas Counties for the job she has done, and wants to continue that tradition.
“I believe the people of Jefferson County deserve the best customer service that can get,” he said.
As for as changing the way the office operates, Mitchell said one of the things she would like to do is to set up kiosks at the local revenue offices, much the same way that the county assessor’s office does, making it easier for county residents to pay taxes and buy car licenses.
“People have to come up here to pay their taxes and then go back to the revenue office to get their licenses renewed,” Mitchell said, adding that paying taxes “is not a fun subject.”
Washington said that “the biggest issue is getting people to pay their taxes and I would go see them if they were delinquent.”
“We’re still operating the county like it was 20 years ago,” he said. “A lot of changes can be made to make the office run better.”
Both Mitchell and Washington said a change in state law that will allow county officials who are elected this year to serve four-year terms instead of two will be beneficial because it means they will have more time to be in the office and not having to worry about running every two years and the campaigning that goes with that.
Washington received a degree from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 2001 and is also a licensed real estate agent. He is married to Mae Washington, and they have one son.
Mitchell received an associate’s degree from Southeast Arkansas College in 2002. She is married to Jason Mitchell, and they have two children.
The winner of the primary will not face Republican opposition in the November general election.
Jefferson County Coroner Chad Kelley, who has held the office for 10 years, will face former Deputy Coroner Christian Westbrook in the May 22 Democratic primary.
Westbrook left the coroner’s office under a cloud in 2013 amid allegations of fraud but said he was cleared when an Arkansas State Police Investigation said there was no merit to the allegations.
“This campaign is not political,” Westbrook said. “I don’t care to get into dirty politics. My number one priority is to see that all families are taken care of and given the utmost, best care as possible.”
Kelley, a Pine Bluff native, said he became interested in the job when former Coroner Havis Hester came to Watson Chapel Junior High School and presented a program on the office.
“I was totally enthralled about everything he said, the stories he told and how he helped families,” Kelley said. “I was 16 and went and talked to Havis and Holly (Watkins-Sperry, who at the time was Chief Deputy Coroner and later became Coroner when Hester retired) and they talked me into coming and help run the office. I saw that as my opportunity to get my foot in the door and learn about the office.”
After receiving an associate’s degree from Southeast Arkansas College in 1998, Kelley became a deputy coroner and office manager under Watkins-Sperry for eight years before she made the decision to retire; she encouraged Kelley to run for the office.
“I’ve been doing it ever since,” Kelley said. “I’m running on the job I have done and the way I’ve taken care of families. I try to treat all of them the same way I would want my family to be treated. The hardest part of this job is to knock on a door and tell a family that their son or their daughter or their husband or their wife is not coming home again. It’s something they will never get over.”
Kelley said he has received extensive training for the position, which has included a certificate from the St. Louis University School of Medicine in forensic and environmental technology, training in medical-legal death investigation, child death investigations and others.
“All the training and experience I’ve gained over the past 18 years truly makes me the best candidate,” Kelley said.
Like Kelley, Westbrook, who served as chief deputy coroner for four years and worked in the office for eight years, said he has received extensive training including medical-legal death investigation, homicide investigation, crime scene investigation, SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and others.
If elected, he said one of the things he wants to do is to talk to students about the job.
“There hasn’t been much interaction between the office and the public schools, but once each month, I would like to set up programs and go talk about things like the opioid epidemic and prescription drugs and accidental deaths, things like that,” he said.
“I want to target youth because currently the interaction with them is broken.”
A native of Washington, D.C., Westbrook said he came to Pine Bluff to attend college, and “I loved the south so I decided to stay. Not everybody is capable or has the ability to understand what has to be said to a family and to give them comfort.”