The incumbent sheriff, Jack Owens, had just created a vacancy by the most dramatic means imaginable: He had committed suicide, blowing out his brains with a handgun in a parked car.
Owens, who had been a dramatic innovator — most notably by personally leading “jump-and-grab” drug raids within the city limits of Memphis — had been considered a shoo-in for reelection that year (“One Good Term Deserves Another,” would have been his slogan) and a contender for the office of Memphis mayor in 1991.
Though various irregularities in the Sheriff’s department were subsequently pinpointed as possible causes of Owen’s mental discontent, the full and complete reasons for his suicide remain unknown. But the manner of his leaving office focused everybody’s attention on the question of a successor.
A large field of well-known public figures — including former sheriffs and politicians like then city councilman and current Circuit Court clerk Jimmy Moore — competed for the job, which was ultimately won by A.C. Gilless, who had been Owens’ deputy. Gilless would encounter scandal during his three terms and would retire under a cloud, embodying in his own way a position that is part law-enforcement and part old-style politics.
When Gilless’ successor, Mark Luttrell, announced last week that he would be seeking the office of Shelby County mayor this year, he professed confidently, “Eight years ago, Sheriff’s Department was a mess. The Sheriff’s Department is no longer a mess.” Now, opined Lutrell, the department required only “maintenance” to stay on the high side.
Be that the case or not (especially at a time when “functional consolidation” is the watchword), contenders for the job will shortly be lining up for the nearest thing to a full-scale donnybrook since that hotly contested, multi-candidate race in 1990.
Candidates for sheriff, a constitutional position, were expected to meet state certification requirements relating to law enforcement background as of last week. Among those who did so and are expected to file by the February 18 deadline are a sizeable number of former contenders,
One is Randy Wade, a former deputy who ran for sheriff as a Democrat in 2002 and who in recent years has been right-hand man locally for 9th District congressman Steve Cohen. Word is that Wade will announce by the end of next week.
Another Democrat running (and already announced) is Reginald French, well known as a longtime aide to former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and the Democratic nominee in 2006, when he gave Luttrell something of a run for his money.
Yet another likely candidate is Bartlett alderman Bobby Simmons, who as a sheriff’s deputy had been one of Luttrell’s opponents in the 2002 GOP primary.
And current chief deputy Bill Oldham, a former interim police director, has also pulled a petition to run for sheriff as a Republican.
Others who have pulled a petition include: Floyd Bonner, Bennie Cobb, James Coleman, Larry Hill, and Elton Richard Hymon (Democrats); William S. Cash, Dale Lane, and Ernest Lunati (Republicans); and Erick Snyder (independent).