Marshall County Elections Heating Up Six Months Ahead Of Early Filing
Kentuckians thought they would get a break from the weight of political campaigns in 2021, but in one western Kentucky county, a surge of candidates are speeding out of the gates a year-and-a-half ahead of the 2022 election season. So far, they all represent one party.
The latest political announcement from Marshall County comes out of the sheriff’s office where the one-term incumbent, Sheriff Eddie McGuire (R), confirmed he’s not seeking re-election. He’s instead backing Captain Detective Matt Hilbrecht (R) who told WKMS News he’s ready to officially announce his candidacy.
Hilbrecht is a Marshall County native whose 22-year law enforcement career is entirely with the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). He started as a patrol officer and climbed the ranks over a 20-year span, retired, and then came back. He said his return to law enforcement and his run for sheriff are indicative of his concern for the legacy of leadership and safety for the community.
“I've got a new grandbaby now and I’m looking forward to, ‘What do I want law enforcement to look
like when I'm no longer in it, my grandson's growing up in this community,’” he said. “I want to provide that leadership, to grow up good law enforcement officers underneath us that are going to carry that torch in the future.”
Hilbrecht said his first priority is growing the agency in the number of officers, specifically in the detective division which is inundated with cases, and implement better, advanced equipment. He noted the MCSO has an active Facebook page, and he’d like to see the MCSO have its own app that might reach citizens who don’t do social media, or prefer other platforms. He also noted technology like drones would assist officers in more thoroughly documenting scenes of crime, search and rescue, and traffic accidents.
Increasing the base pay for officers and destigmatizing staff seeking mental health are also at the top of the list for Hilbrecht’s platform. He said the Marshall County Resiliency Center in Benton and he believes the monthly Bible study he initiated, led by MCSO Chaplain Trad York, have been beneficial for mental health. He’d also like to improve physical fitness among staff.
“I have sat behind that [detective’s] desk and put on 50 pounds myself, I'd like to see more of a physical fitness program started. You're gonna get a better service from a guy who's been taken care of physically, spiritually and emotionally,” he explained.
McGuire said while he believes he would be a strong candidate for reelection, it’s time to go.
“I feel like most of the things that I said I would do, I've completed. And I think by staying a second term, I would almost feel selfish by doing that when there's other people ready to go that could help take us to the next step. And I would rather go a little early than to stay too long.”
McGuire said he’s proud of the morale change accomplished during his tenure including “getting back to proactive policing” such as expanding the drug unit division by two K-9 units who are currently in training and providing a reliable fleet of patrol vehicles and a uniform that prioritizes bodily health over appearance. He said he’s most proud of growing the school resource officer program from five officers to 11 in a two-year time span, and improving the quality of mental health of the department, which he attributed to the chaplaincy program and access to the Resiliency Center.
McGuire said an uphill battle for whomever takes the reins is increasing officer pay for the MCSO. He said last time he checked the numbers, officers with the City of Benton Police Department were hired on as much as $2 per hour higher, and officers with the Calvert City Police Department were hired on as much as $3 per hour higher, covering smaller areas.
“When we take 24,000 calls a year with sometimes 14 and 15 road units, that wears on them when they could go somewhere else and maybe not have to take as many serious calls and then make more money on top of that,” he explained.
Regarding why he’s backing Hilbrecht, “[He’s] got the most experience of probably anybody that's at the sheriff's office right now, especially from an investigative standpoint. He's probably been in a leadership position longer than anybody at the department. And that's why I feel comfortable endorsing him. He's the one that can take this office to that next level.”
More Early Announcements
Marshall County District 2 Commissioner Kevin Spraggs (R) initiated the string of early announcements when he stepped forward to challenge two-term incumbent Marshall County Judge-Executive Kevin Neal (R). Spraggs is serving his first term as commissioner. Neal has not yet publicly announced his plans to seek reelection and did not respond to the inquiry from WKMS News.
That leaves the Marshall County District 2 Commissioner seat open, and two candidates announced they’re vying for the spot. Dustin Thompson (R) announced intent, and he will be contested by Marshall County Coroner Michael Gordon (R).
That announcement leaves the coroner seat up for grabs in the 2022 election cycle and so far, no one has announced a campaign for the position.
Shortly after Spraggs announced, Marshall County Chief Deputy Coroner Curt Curtner (R) announced he’s challenging incumbent, one-term District 1 Commissioner Justin Lamb (R) who plans to seek reelection. Curtner is also the former county emergency management director.
Marshall County District 3 Commissioner Monti Collins (R), also a one-term incumbent, has not yet publicly announced intent to seek reelection and so far, doesn’t face a challenger. He told WKMS News he’ll make an announcement closer to the state filing deadline.
Is It Too Early?
Dr. Drew Seib, Associate Professor of Political Science Department Chair with Murray State University, said it’s unusual for local election candidates to announce this far in advance: an entire year ahead of primaries and a year-and-a-half ahead of the election.
“That's a long, long time to campaign,” he said. “I think the big question is how much energy can people keep in this for that long period of time?”
Seib noted the majority of those who’ve announced at this point are Republican candidates, and said that’s not surprising considering Marshall County voted by an almost 70-30 margin in favor of former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election. It could also be indicative of some disputes within the party; Spraggs has openly challenged Neal’s policies and decisions a number of times over the last several years, and Curtner started talking about making a run for a fiscal court seat after he was suddenly terminated from his duties as emergency management director in Jan. 2020.
“There's some people who are interested in local politics, and they're getting involved. There's some disagreements in local politics, and how do you solve those disagreements if you're not part of the process?” Seib said. “You know, one of the great things about this is that there are a lot of Republicans that are running, and so that means there is going to be a discussion about what's going on, what the people of Marshall County want out of the people who represent them.”
Seib said local elections tend to draw a smaller voter turnout than national elections. He said the local elections tend to land around a 20% turnout, but predicts the turnout for 2022 could be nearer 40% with higher offices, such as a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs. He noted former Kentucky State Representative Charles Booker (D) of Louisville is publicly considering a run against incumbent U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R) who’s currently serving his second term.
Though, Seib said it’s wise for voters to take more interest in local elections because those are the officials whose decisions closely affect the daily lives of their constituents. It’s the judicial system that determines through discretion under the law how to manage civil and criminal cases in the local communities; and it’s management of issues like salt on the roads during winter events, availability of recycling, sidewalks and street lights.
Seib also predicts over the coming year as more people get vaccinated and COVID-19 restrictions lift, candidates will return to the classic door-knocking campaigns. He said that could be a good thing.
“Even if they maybe even don't see eye-to-eye, there's something very personal about what goes on there, that interpersonal interaction that will drive people to actually take the time to go vote or even take the time to have a conversation about what's going on,” he said. “When you're online, you're much more likely to take the approach of, ‘You don't know what you're talking about,’ and start going on the attack. But whenever two people come face-to-face, they're much more likely to have a conversation about things. And one that's much more respectful of both individuals.”
It’s Not A Party Tactic
Sam Mabry, currently serving as the chairman of the Marshall County Republican Party, said it wasn’t the party’s idea for a number of candidates to enter the race this far in advance. He said most of the Republican candidates who’ve come out so far told the local party leadership they planned to do so ahead of time, but not all. Regarding who they’ll support, Mabry said the party will stay out of it until the front-runners are chosen through the primary elections process.
Mabry said he’s not surprised the majority of the candidates publicly announcing so far are Republican, noting the Republican party gained steam in Marshall County around the time former President Donald Trump was first elected to office. The most recent statistical data from Kentucky’s State Board of Elections voter registration statistics, the Republican party in Marshall County (10,714) comes in just more than 3,000 registered voters behind the Democratic party (13,839) of the total 26,363 registered voters in Marshall County. Around the same time in 2017, the Marshall County Republican Party was behind by nearly 8,000 registered voters of the 25,556 total registered voters.
Mabry said there are others within the party who’ve expressed interest in one of the many other offices on the 2022 ballot who are either still undecided or lack desire to publicly announce this far ahead. In the meantime, he said the party hopes to see a large turnout with fresh faces during the June 19 local party elections and reorganization meeting. He said it’s time for younger leadership within the ranks to take the party into the next election cycle.
Susanna French, currently serving as chair of the Marshall County Democratic Party, said while there’s nothing wrong with announcing this far in advance, “it’s very unusual.” She said in her experience, when announcements are made early in the game it’s to dissuade others from running for that office, and could be indicative of “jockeying for the position within the party structure.”
But she also warned it’s a strategy that could backfire because “you’re just putting a target on your back” allowing for opponents to lie quietly in the sidelines watching for missteps.
French noted there are several incumbent, Democratic elected officials who are up for reelection in 2022, and said there are many others who’ve been quietly reaching out to learn more about how to file for candidacy and consulting the party for a potential run. Regarding when the public might learn of these potential candidates, French said closer to November when candidate filing begins.