Public deserves a real campaign for Clark County sheriff

The job is one of our most important, but the race for Clark County sheriff is rarely truly competitive.

With a few exceptions, the battle for the top law enforcement office has felt more like a choreographed coronation than an actual campaign. In general, the candidate that locks up money from big contributors and — with the help of well-worn political channels — freezes out challengers and enjoys an enormous advantage. Important endorsements usually follow the money, and the results are predictable. By Election Day, it’s generally a race between a quarter horse and a herd of Shetland ponies.

Longtime locals will recall that it took a federal tax charge (without conviction) to end Sheriff Ralph Lamb’s nearly two-decade run. Sheriff John Moran was easily returned for a third term despite a feud with the press and a use-of-force scandal inside his department. That’s the way it’s been around these parts.

Will the 2014 race be different?

You would hope so. Important issues such as the best way to fund the hiring of additional officers and the department’s controversial use-of-force history are ripe for discussion and debate in a competitive campaign. You know, if one were actually to occur.

Citizens deserve to hear straight answers to their questions about law enforcement. In theory, a real campaign might give voters a chance to watch sheriff’s office suitors under rhetorical fire. We might see which can take the kind of scrutiny and heat generated in a competitive atmosphere. We might see one candidate throw a temper tantrum and another fail to appreciate basic economics and fiscal planning. We might even learn that a candidate’s work experience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

But only if that campaign gets real.

The reason we’re having this discussion at all is because Sheriff Doug Gillespie recently announced he has had enough and has decided not to run for a third term. He would have been a formidable favorite for re-election. Gillespie said it wasn’t a medical issue that induced him to bow out.

Although many elected officials expressed their shock and surprise, the fact is Gillespie is a lackluster campaigner. The department has buzzed for months that the sheriff was hinting around that he was thinking of calling it a day.

It’s also little secret that Gillespie favored his friend and Assistant Sheriff Joe Lombardo to replace him. Lombardo is officially undeclared. But sources say he weeks ago began speaking with campaign insiders about what it will take to get elected. Hopefully he’s seriously considering whether he really wants the 24-7 pressure that accompanies the duty.

Gillespie is in charge of the department, but no one should anoint his successor. If recent history is an accurate indicator, that process has already begun.

Former Sheriff Bill Young was popular with voters before he handed off to Gillespie and accepted a high-paid job with Station Casinos. In recent weeks Young hinted in the press about a possible comeback, but that seemed more about running interference for Gillespie’s unannounced replacement than mounting an energetic campaign.

So far, there are several announced candidates, including former Las Vegas Constable Bobby Gronauer, recently retired Assistant Sheriff Ted Moody, police veteran and repeat candidate Laurie Bisch. Expect more department veterans and maybe even a credible outsider to explore the possibility of a run for the office. I know a couple being courted as I write this.

The affable Gronauer probably has the most name recognition. But he belly flopped in his last election, losing to John Bonaventura, whose abject ineptitude has been widely chronicled in the Review-Journal.

Moody in August stepped out and criticized Gillespie’s decision to overrule Metro’s Use of Force Board in reinstating Officer Jacquar Roston. But the fact he followed by announcing his candidacy dilutes his righteous indignation.

At least Moody raised an important question. Perhaps all the candidates, favorites and underdogs alike, will follow.

A truly competitive sheriff’s race in which substantive issues are debated would be the best thing for this community.

But, really, what are the odds of that happening?

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.