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Sheriffs candidates square off in debate
I-Sheriffs Debate Johnson mug

The men vying to be Dawson County's first new sheriff in 20 years squared off in a heated debate last week before a standing room only crowd of at least a few undecided voters.

Supporters for Jeff Johnson wore their navy blue campaign shirts while Tony Wooten's camp donned T-shirts with the hashtag #RootinforWooten.

The candidates answered prepared questions on their stances on a variety of topics ranging from private property rights, the utilization of no-knock warrants and policies on high speed chases, to the department's preparedness in the wake of a tragedy like the one earlier this month in Dallas and plans for the sheriff's office once elected.

It was a question about officer endorsement of candidates that turned the otherwise docile forum into a full-fledged debate.

"I understand that young officers can be swayed. And often times when you dangle a golden carrot in front of someone, they're going to be tempted to take it," Johnson said in response to Wooten's reference to 18 officers who publically supported him through a paid advertisement in the paper.

Wooten returned fire saying he was defending the nearly 18 officers who took out a public advertisement to endorse his campaign for sheriff.

"None of those officers have been promised a single thing. The officers that have commented in there talked about how I've been there for them, how I've mentored them, how I've worked with them, how I've been on the scenes with them. That's important," he said.

A question on qualifications also drew heated response from the candidates.

Johnson has nearly 24 years of law enforcement experience, including the last seven as commander of the Dawson County Detention Center and stints in Hall County, while Wooten's entire 17-year career has been with Dawson County Sheriff' Office, where he climbed the ranks and over the years commanded five of the department's six divisions.

"My opponent will get up here and tell you he's commanded every division. Ask him personally how long he's commanded. Ask him what the extent of his experience in law enforcement is," Johnson said. "I think what you'll find out is he's been a school resource officer. But if we're going to be open, be transparent with our public, let's be honest with our public. Let's tell them the truth."

Wooten has also served as Sheriff Billy Carlisle's public information officer and official spokesman.

"To say I've simply been a school resource officer is foolish. I'm been the assistant commander, patrol commander. I've been the assistant commander of CID, CID commander," he said. "I was in charge of your courthouse, your warrants. I get moved because I get results. I'm not apologizing for those results."

Johnson said he knows how important experience is.

"If you're looking for a doctor, you're probably going to look for an experienced doctor. Dawson County has changed ... times are changing and we have to change. We need make sure we are putting the right foot forward," he said.

Wooten said he is passionate about Dawson County.

"When you look to elect somebody, let's not look at what someone has done the last two years. I love what's in our policy at the sheriff's office on promotion," he said. "It says the best indication of future behavior is past. You have to have past and to me, I have the past."

Early voting is underway through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Dawson County Elections Office and then on Election Day, Tuesday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the county's three precincts.