Berkeley County has a new sheriff for 16 weeks and nine candidates, at least, edging for the job after that.
“Just about everybody I know is running,” said Duane Lewis, a Santee Cooper Law Enforcement deputy chief. He was first in line when filing opened at noon at the Berkeley County Voter Registration and Elections office. It was the first day to register and hand over a $3,942 check to run.
Candidate speculation began after longtime Sheriff Wayne DeWitt resigned Feb. 4. The following day, DeWitt was indicted on misdemeanor charges of drunken driving, leaving the scene of a crash and failing to stop for blue lights stemming from his Dec. 28 arrest that was captured on video.
C.W. “Butch” Henerey was sworn in Friday at the courthouse by Circuit Judge Markley Dennis to fill the seat until the special election.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of people who had desires (to be sheriff) and would not have run against DeWitt for two reasons,” said Berkeley County Republican Party State Executive Committeeman Terry Hardesty. “For some of them, it’s a great deal of respect for DeWitt and for others, the knowledge that they weren’t probably going to take out an incumbent.”
Berkeley Election Commissioner Adam Hammons said he is “100 percent sure we will have 10 or 11 candidates” when filing closes. The field could go as high as 16, he said.
Filing to run, in addition to Lewis, were: North Charleston Police Lt. Brian Adams; Charleston County Aviation Authority police officer Jerry Merrithew; Moncks Corner Police Chief Chad Caldwell; retired Berkeley County Sheriff’s Maj. Ricky Driggers; Berkeley County Sheriff’s Lt. Will Rogers; retired state Highway Patrol Trooper Marty Housand; retired SLED agent Calvitt “Chab” Clarke; and Charleston County Sheriff’s Lt. Danny Isgett.
Several others have said publicly they plan to run and the county is accepting candidates until March 2.
Having such a large field gives voters the opportunity to pick a good candidate, Hardesty said.
Dorchester County Sheriff L.C. Knight, a longtime friend of Henerey’s, agreed.
“I think it’s wonderful that the people have a good choice,” he said. “When I’m running, I don’t want that many running against me, but the people will really have a choice. That’s what it’s all about.”
The position may be so sought after because it is seen as one of power, officials said.
“There is a long tradition in South Carolina, and in other states, of the sheriff being one of the top jobs in the county,” said Scott Buchanan, executive director of The Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics. “For those who are politically ambitious, it is a position that usually draws a great deal of interest. If they can stay out of legal trouble, historically, sheriffs stay around for quite a bit of time.”
DeWitt served as the county’s top cop for 20 years.
“I think we have a lot of talented law enforcement officers that understand this seat comes open infrequently,” said Berkeley County Republican Party Chairman Josh Whitley.
All of the candidates so far are running as Republicans.
It will be hard for candidates to distinguish themselves with such a large field, said Ray Nash, a former Dorchester County sheriff who was one of 16 Republican candidates in the 2013 First Congressional District race won by Mark Sanford.
“I just think people just aren’t disciplined enough, by and large, to invest the time it takes to properly vet candidates when there’s such a huge field,” he said. “If you go to a forum, and you’ve got 16 candidates, even if you give each one of them 5 minutes, that’s like an hour and a half, and five minutes really isn’t enough time to get into the meat and potatoes of what it means to be sheriff and why one person might be more qualified than another one.”
In addition, he said, all of the candidates are qualified from a law enforcement perspective, and many have similar backgrounds, so it will be difficult to distinguish themselves to voters.
“Most police professionals don’t consider themselves to be politicians,” Nash said. “They think that’s a dirty word. They see themselves as being professional law men that are in it to help the community.... They see the political aspect of it as being a necessary evil under the best of circumstances, but the truth of the matter is, though, when you announce that you are a candidate, you are by definition, a politician, for better or for worse.”
Several candidate forums are planned in April, officials said. The primary is scheduled for April 21. A run-off, which is likely if so many candidates stay in the race, will be held May 5. The first-place finisher has to get above 50 percent to avoid a runoff. The special election will be June 9.
Interim Sheriff Henerey, a former chief deputy who retired from the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office last year, said at his ceremony his priority is preparing a budget for the next sheriff.
“I assure you we will do our best to have this office ready to turn over to whomever the citizens of this county elect as their sheriff,” he said.
He has promised Gov. Nikki Haley that he will not run for the special election and “the Sheriff’s Office will not get involved in the process at all,” he said.
At the same time, he said he is glad to see such a large field of qualified candidates running for the post.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.