SHOSHONE • There might not be a more contested race in the Magic Valley than the race for sheriff in Lincoln County, where nearly one out of every 1,000 residents is running.
With a population of just under 5,300 people at last estimate, Lincoln County will nevertheless have five options during the Republican primary. George “JR” Gregory, Bill Irving, Cresley McConnell, Rene Rodriguez and Verlon Southwick are all looking to fill the void created by Sheriff Kevin Ellis, who will retire at the end of his current term.
The five men offer a wide array of experience and backgrounds that will give voters plenty of options. Gregory, Irving and Southwick have all been deputies in Lincoln County, while Rodriguez is a Shoshone Police sergeant with sheriff’s office experience in another county. But as one Lincoln County resident put it, they’ll all be up against McConnell, the county commissioner who has no law enforcement experience but more name recognition.
Whoever is elected will have to deal with issues the office always faces, like low pay for deputies and how to patrol the entire county at all times during the day and night.
Here’s a quick breakdown, in alphabetical order by last name, of each candidate and some of the top issues they’re talking about.
George “JR” Gregory
Gregory points to experience and leadership as some of his biggest strengths. He started in law enforcement in 2003, worked his way up to lieutenant in the Wendell Police Department and then resigned to help his ailing mother who lived in Shoshone. He then worked five years full-time and one year part-time with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, retiring as a sergeant in 2015; he’s currently a reserve deputy in Gooding and Jerome counties.
“I was a corporal, I was a lieutenant and I was a sergeant,” Gregory said during a meeting with the Times-News editorial board in April. “I’ve been in law enforcement for about 13 years, and there’s six years of being in administration. So I know I can handle the job.”
As a sergeant with Lincoln County, Gregory investigated the child pornography case tried in federal court that recently resulted in one of the harshest penalties ever in Idaho.
“I was the head investigator for that,” Gregory said. “I can teach someone how to write a warrant that can pass muster in the federal court system. They’re so particular, and you can lose your whole case because of it.”
Gregory also wants more training for his deputies and to reorganize shifts so there are two deputies working during peak times. He also wants to create a youth program withing the sheriff’s department.
Irving started his career in Gooding County, first as a detention deputy and then as a Gooding Police officer. He was a Lincoln County deputy from 2007 to 2013 and is currently working part-time as a police officer in Kimberly.
Irving said he’s been out of the loop since leaving the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office but senses trust and communication problems between the office and the residents of the county.
“I feel it’s time for a change, and the trust issues with the county and the sheriff’s office, that needs to be repaired,” Irving said during a March speech at the Lincoln Day event. “I believe if that’s repaired, everything else that needs to be fixed can actually be fixed as we go. But the trust and the communication is the biggest part that needs to be fixed.”
The role of the Lincoln County Sheriff is to lead by example and be a working sheriff, Irving said.
“(A sheriff) also has an open-door policy to the public for whatever their needs are.”
McConnell is a level-two reserve deputy, but other than that has no law enforcement experience. It’s not surprising then that while the other candidates say the sheriff needs to be a working sheriff who patrols and backs up his deputies, McConnell called the role of sheriff “an administrative position” that needs a “strong leader with skills in managing people and conflict resolution.”
As a sitting county commissioner, McConnell might be a step ahead of his opponents in managing the department’s budget and working with the county commissioners. But can it make up for him having no full-time law enforcement experience?
“In these small counties it probably does help to have a law enforcement background, because you’ve got to get out and help,” McConnell said during his meeting with the Times-News editorial board. “But one thing I’m big on is continuing education and training … and if elected sheriff, I will go through POST (peace officer standards and training) and at least get my basic certification.”
Sheriff Kevin Ellis endorsed Rodriguez, who started his law enforcement career with the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office and is now a patrol sergeant with the Shoshone Police Department.
“I think that Rodriguez would make a good sheriff,” Ellis said last month.
If elected, Rodriguez said he’d bring with him some of the effective policies implemented in Shoshone, like data-driven policing and 24-hour business checks all around the county. Business checks especially have helped police build a strong bond with citizens in Shoshone, Rodriguez said. He believes the same would be true across the county.
Rodriguez’s childhood as a migrant worker coming from south Texas to work sugar beet fields in the Magic Valley also gives him a unique outlook on life and law enforcement. It helps him connect not only with the county’s growing Hispanic population but with all hard-working county residents.
“I fully appreciate how hard our citizens work,” Rodriguez wrote in outlining his campaign. “I pledge to protect their families, homes and businesses.”
The son of former Lincoln County Sheriff Stephen Southwick was a reserve deputy for several years before deciding to go full-time in his father’s footsteps in 2009. That’s when he was hired on by Lincoln County, but he left the office in 2012 after “having his eyes opened” to things he thought should be done better in the office.
“I tried to push those changes as a deputy and those changes didn’t seem to happen,” Southwick said during an interview with the editorial board. “And I lost the joy of the job. It kind of disappeared as I came at odds with the administration.”
Southwick says the office seemed to have lost its desire to serve the public and sight of what was important for the county. Instilling in his deputies the desire to be a peace officer, and not just a ticket-writer or law-enforcer, would be one of Southwick’s top priorities.
“They don’t call it the Idaho law enforcement training academy,” Southwick said. “They call it the Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training. We’re peace officers; law enforcement is a part of that, but I think that’s been lost, just that helping people. Yeah, you do have to do law enforcement every once in a while, but peace officer is more important, especially in a small community like ours.”