Clay Whittle announced his re-election campaign Wednesday morning to put an end to gossip that he wasn't going to seek another term as the top law enforcement officer in Columbia County.
"There have been a few rumors out there that I was not considering running for re-election," Whittle said from the steps of the Columbia County Justice Center. "Let me put those to rest today. I'm not ready to give this job up. I am going to run for re-election."
Whittle said he doesn't know of anyone who may oppose him in next year's race. He said he has heard a lot of talk about him planning to step down, which prompted him to come forward with his re-election plans.
"The question was asked so many times by different people, it became obvious that someone's out there spreading the rumor that I was not considering a run for the next term," he said. "My supporters urged me to come forward early and say that this is strictly a rumor. It's not true."
At least one opponent has come forward to campaign against Whittle on the Republican ballot. Lewis Blanchard said he is gathering support. He plans to officially announce his candidacy in January.
Blanchard, former public safety director for the Columbia County Board of Education and current president of Executive Marketing Services, said he also heard rumors, but that he didn't believe Whittle would resign. He said he didn't base his decision to run on whether or not the sheriff sought another term of office but to bring more fiscal responsibility to the department.
"I feel I'm a strong leader with not just law enforcement experience, but proven business experience as well," Blanchard said.
Primaries for the sheriff's race will be next July, and elections are in November 2004. Candidate qualifying will start in April.
"I know it's early. I know the actual campaign isn't until next year, but we felt like we wanted to stand up with Clay and let people know how dedicated we are to seeing that Clay Whittle is re-elected," said Jim Whitehead, former chairman of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, who moderated Whittle's event Wednesday.
In addition to Whitehead, several past and present Columbia County legislators and officials turned out to support the sheriff's re-election bid.
"We have one of the lowest crime rates in the state of Georgia," Whittle said. "Way below the average. In fact, less than half of the national average and the state average."
Despite the lower numbers on certain crimes, Blanchard said burglaries and robberies rose by more than 50 percent. He said he believes there are still plenty of ways to improve law enforcement in the county.
"I believe there is a lot of opportunity for us to raise the bar, and for us to make sure that we're doing everything we can for proper crime protection and crime reduction," he said. "At the same time, I want to make sure our tax dollars are being spent the right way."
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