It was arguably one of the most heated campaigns in Saline County in many years, but incumbent Bruce Pennington won a decided victory Tuesday in the Republican Party's preferential primary election.
Pennington is now the party's nominee and will face Democratic challenger Rodney Goshien Sr. in the Nov. 6 general election.
On Tuesay, Pennington, 61, soundly defeated James Ward by receiving 64.81 percentage of the total votes to 35.19 percent for Ward. Of the 10,287 ballots cast, 6,667 votes were for Pennington and 3,620 for Ward.
"I want to thank the voters," Pennington told The Saline Courier today. "I appreciate the vote of the people and for their support. I think my 40 years of experience played a major role in the win."
As of press time, Ward did not return multiple phone messages left on his cell phone. He also left the Saline County Clerk's Office shortly before 32 of the 34 precincts were reported, after promising a Courier reporter that he would make comments about the election.
This is the second time that Pennington has defeated Ward as the two faced off in 2008. This was the first term for Pennington, who won previously as a Democratic candidate and narrowly defeated Ward by garnering a 51.27 percent margin. In 2008 the final tallies showed Pennington with 22,310 votes over Ward's 21,204 votes.
Though the previous race in 2008 was considered a "clean" campaign by both parties, the 2012 campaign took the opposite route by some in the two candidates' camps. The Benton Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, while announcing its support for Pennington on May 18, questioned Ward's "demeanor." The Benton FOP also said that Ward associated with "ex-law enforcement officers found to be not fit for duty" and said that Ward had a "lack of training and experience, and past publicly reported incidents of threats and intimidation as a means of political influence."
"We are concerned that James Ward would not be the cooperative or capable partner to work with on future matters," the Benton FOP said in a statement. "We are concerned that past progress would be eroded or completely undone. It is our belief that Bruce Pennington is the best candidate for the position of Sheriff of Saline County and the most qualified person to provide public safety to our families and the citizens we serve."
Ward said in his 2012 campaign announcement that the people of Saline County questioned a "lack of ethics" in the current administration of the Saline County Sheriff's Office. He said it is "a problem that permeates our society, including every facet of government."
On his campaign material and Facebook.com page, Ward used controversial figures to downgrade the sheriff's office, but did not list where the figures came from to validate the claims. On Ward's Facebook page, he said, "My opponent has a misguided thought of what the job of sheriff really is." He made the comment in response to an advertisement in The Saline Courier that said Ward had "only one hour of firing range experience."
Ward also said on his Facebook page that "while my opponent has only posted hatred toward me, reasons why I should not be sheriff and false claims, my page has offered fact based evidence as to what problems exist and what my plans are to fix these issues." However, a look at Sheriff Pennington's Facebook page shows that all the campaign rhetoric was made by people other than Pennington.
On the local social media site www.mysaline.com, there was so much controversy and heated discussions that site owner Shelli Russell banned at least four members for discussions concerning the sheriff's race. Russell also noted that changes would come in the future to the social media site in light of events concerning the political discussions.
Pennington told the Courier today that he believes the mud-slinging tactics in the campaign did affect the race for sheriff.
"I think it had a lot to do with it," he said. "But I truly wish (Ward) well and I'm certainly not mad at him."
The sheriff also had words for Ward's campaign supporters, partially in reaction to a photo post and comment on www.mysaline.com that attacked Pennington's stepdaughter. That photo has since been removed by the moderator and the comment was edited.
"As a candidate, they can say all they want about me. I'm open game, but don't attack someone's family. That's just wrong," Pennington said. "I've been doing this for 40 years, so I'm thick-skinned. It's just wrong to attack someone's family."
In 2010, and again campaigning as a Democrat, Pennington defeated Rep. E.J. Harris with 54.42 percent of the votes. Out of the 34,521 votes in 2010, Pennington tallied 18,785 to 15,736 for Harris.
It was June 6, 2011, when Pennington officially switched to the Republican Party. Pennington cited economic problems in the country and the Democrat Party's ideals or plans toward correcting the issues as a major reason for leaving. He said then that the Democratic Party has taken on such matters as "runaway federal spending that is bankrupting our country," taxes, abortion, the right to bear arms provided by the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution, gun control laws and the definition of marriage.
He said the federal government is "spending money our children and grandchildren have yet to earn," that Democrats in Washington, D.C., are "sacrificing the lives of future generations for the sake of my generation," and that children "not born yet will be saddled with a debt to pay by the Democratic leadership in Washington (D.C.)."
"My conscience told me that this is not right and that by aligning myself with the Democratic party, I was giving such uncontrolled spending a silent support," Pennington said. "I don't believe that new taxes are always the best way to solve our country's problems. The problem in Washington is not that taxes are too low ... it is that spending is too high."
Pennington said in a speech at the Saline County Republican Headquarters in Downtown Benton in 2011 that it wasn't his ideals that changed, but rather that the ideals of the Democrat Party changed.
"When I was growing up, everybody was a Democrat," he said. "There were conservative and liberal Democrats, but it was the only political party there was in Arkansas. People once joked that the Republicans in Arkansas held their meetings in a phone booth and had room left over."
Pennington added, "The sheriff's duties are not political. It doesn't matter if someone is a Republican or Democrat when you are trying to save a life or make an arrest. Because of my early life exposure to politics, I ran as a Democrat. Political party labels didn't seem to matter because being a sheriff is about good service to the people. As time has progressed, I have learned that which party you belong to is a matter of conscience. By (previously) putting that 'D' behind my name, I was aligning myself with political positions I don't believe in."
As for the future of the Saline County Sheriff's Office, Pennington said he will continue to update the staff with technology, training and much more.
"We are going to continue to upgrade constantly and build our department into the next century," he said. "Technology continues to grow and so will we. We are going to continue to serve and protect the citizens."
Ward is the owner of C.O.P. Security in Benton.
Before being elected Saline County Sheriff in 2008, Pennington was a retired sergeant with the Arkansas State Police and served as a patrol sergeant with the Saline County Sheriff's Office for seven years. He was also selected as the 2011 Outstanding Sheriff of the Year by the Arkansas State Fraternal Order of Police.