Lexington County voters will choose their first new sheriff in two generations next spring, in a race lacking the familiar name of James Metts.
As many as a dozen candidates – most of them better known in law enforcement circles than publicly – could emerge by the Jan. 12 deadline to enter the contest.
The end of Metts’ dominance during 42 years in office came with his retirement last week as he battles federal corruption charges.
His departure has several law enforcement officers – except interim Sheriff A. Lewis McCarty – considering the race.
“They’ll be coming out of the woodwork,” County Council chairman Johnny Jeffcoat of Irmo predicted.
Three candidates started campaigning even before Metts left, after it became clear the federal investigation that led to his indictment wounded him politically. That group includes West Columbia Police Chief Dennis Tyndall, former Columbia police officer Jim Crawford and Richland County deputy Justin Britt.
They were joined after Metts stepped aside by assistant Lexington police chief Jay Koon, who served on McCarty’s management team temporarily this fall.
And the race may attract current or former FBI and State Law Enforcement Division agents and other law enforcement officials as well, some political leaders say.
“There’s been months of anticipation, time for preparation,” veteran Batesburg-Leesville Police Chief Wallace Oswald said. “It’s time to go.”
But Metts’ abrupt departure occurred before some would-be candidates finished assessing support for a ballot some expected no sooner than late April.
“Now it’s a wind sprint instead of a marathon,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said.
Uncertainty over who will enter and who will opt out makes much speculation premature on the field that will emerge, some political leaders say.
“I know who I’m not (for), but I don’t know who I am (for),” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Red Bank Republican.
And the election of former Richland County deputy Margaret Fisher of Red Bank – a political unknown at the start of the race – as county coroner in July over others with deeper roots in county politics suggests that a fresh face could become sheriff, political leaders add.
“The same dynamic could happen in this race,” said Rep. Kenny Bingham, a Cayce Republican.
One unknown is whether McCarty – a well-respected former Metts aide – will endorse anyone in the contest.
McCarty will decide on that after it’s known who is running, spokesman Maj. John Allard said.
The next sheriff elected April 21 will serve until the end of 2016 – the remainder of Metts’ term.
He or she will inherit a nationally accredited department that Metts modernized as the 720-square-mile county evolved from small towns and farms to one that is now half-suburban.
The first challenge for the next sheriff will be erasing “the shadow hanging” over the 500-member department that the charges against Metts created, County Clerk of Court Beth Carrigg said.
“Someone has to come in and regain the trust of the community, to rebuild respect, ” she said.
Others say it’s Metts, not his department, who has the black eye.
“That is all on him,” said Oswald, who has held his post 34 years. “The sheriff’s department has a lot of good people doing a good job.”
The new sheriff will have to make a mark swiftly to ward of a new wave of challengers in 2016.
Meanwhile, Lott said he is looking forward to developing a stronger regional partnership in fighting crime with whomever wins the post.
Regardless of the outcome of the match, it’s unlikely anyone will be sheriff for a generation or longer as Metts was, some political leaders said.
“I don’t know if anyone is going to stay in office for an extended period,” Carrigg said.
She praised McCarty for “giving immediate stability” to law enforcement in taking over after Metts was indicted June 17.