Republican Primary candidates for sheriff: Lee Tramel and Tom Spangler

Last summer, Lee Tramel needed 53 pages to list the donors who’d ponied up $173,215 for his campaign for sheriff, much of it in four-figure contributions. The Knox County Sheriff’s Office administrative chief has raised a ton of money since then, and by the time the Jan. 31 disclosure deadline rolls around, he may have to wheel his next financial report into the courthouse on a dolly.

Money and influential supporters he’s got.

He’ll probably have more than $300,000 to run a campaign that will be decided in the May 1 Republican Primary and enjoys strong support from Knoxville’s business community – particularly from real estate developers, attorneys and others who do business with Knox County government.

But if Tramel feels the need for an armed guard when he takes his dough to the bank, he may have to ask his opponent to lend him some deputies.

Tom Spangler, the longtime KCSO chief deputy who was with the department for more than 30 years until he retired in 2009, will likely have a more-than-adequate war chest, too, although it’s unlikely to match Tramel’s stash.

What he does have is the unwavering support of local law enforcement, both active and retired, despite the endorsement of sitting Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones, or maybe because of it (deputies were not impressed when Jones told a reporter that Tramel had “… ridden around in the car with me daily for the past seven years. He has seen my vision of the sheriff’s office …”).

This isn’t the first time deputies have defied a sheriff at election time, but Spangler – who did almost every job in the department during his tenure there, including starting an aviation unit before going to the Blount County Sheriff’s Office to serve as training director for two years – is widely considered a cop’s cop.

Twenty four of the 67 signatures on Spangler’s nomination petition belong to current or retired deputies, plus a retired Knoxville Police Department officer, a retired state trooper and at least six spouses. Privately, these officers dismiss Tramel as a slick-talking political operative whose first official job at KCSO was serving process, but whose real assignment was raising money for former Sheriff Tim Hutchison.

A prominent Tramel supporter said that a good cop doesn’t necessarily equal a good sheriff, and said Spangler doesn’t understand the addiction issues that are major drivers of 21st Century crime.

“He’s got a ‘Round ’em up, lock ’em up,’ very old-school way of looking at things. Lee is a refreshing breath of progressive thought when it came to policing. We’ve got to be on the forefront on how to address the issues (of opioid addiction).”

A prominent Spangler supporter calls that assessment hot air, and dismisses Tramel’s perceived reliance on fund-raising, citing his failed run for a county commission seat in 2008 when he outspent all his opponents and finished third in a four-candidate primary.

“Remember Gov. Jake Butcher? Neither do I.”

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Written by Betty Bean