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'Our ideas came out,' Griffin says of upset win

Lowell Griffin talks about his primary election win over Sheriff Charlie McDonald.

Lowell Griffin was in workout clothes, hoping to get to the gym on Wednesday, when a television news crew asked for an on-camera interview. The newly elected sheriff of Henderson County agreed to the sit-down — and scrambled to change into an orange plaid shirt.

Having pulled off a surprising upset on primary election day, Griffin was quickly learning that he was in demand. His phone buzzed over and over. County commissioners called. So did gleeful supporters. And the press wanted to know how he had defeated Charlie McDonald, the incumbent who seemed to have cultivated a broad base of support even if he had some liabilities, with 59 percent of the vote.
“I think our ideas came out,” Griffin said. “I think there was some issues that Sheriff McDonald was facing. I think between the issues and our ideas, different things attracted different voters to us. We had the training facility.”
And there was the lingering pain in the close-knit Mills River community over the murder of Tommy Bryson.
“You of course had the issue, and I did not make that a part of our campaign platform, but you had the tragedy that occurred in Mills River,” he said.
Specific grievances propelled voters in Mills River and Saluda. But Griffin regards those as just two factors among many.
“I had some ideas that I think are solid for the county, assigning supervisors to different areas of the county,” he said. “The bodycams became a huge issue. We’ve got the high turnover rate currently at the sheriff’s office. There were issues and ideas and I think different things appealed to different demographics.”
Although Griffin gained support from those who opposed McDonald’s training center as an unnecessary waste of money, the sheriff-elect also talks a lot about the need for training. His idea for a facility would serve a broader base — all first responders — but could be outdoors with shell structures mimicking a village, such as the Redstone Arsenal, where he’s trained, in Huntsville, Alabama.
“If we can spend far less and probably provide better training for our fire, EMS and rescue services, we’ve got to back up and really take a look at this and not rush headlong into something.”
A veteran investigator himself, Griffin says he refuses to second-guess McDonald’s tactical decisions in the hunt for Phillip Michael Stroupe and the missing Tommy Bryson.
“That is an issue between the family, the people of that community and Sheriff McDonald and his people,” he said. “I still to this day am not going to make that any type of issue. That’s not an issue that I need to approach.”
As McDonald noted, Mills River Fire Chief Rick Livingston was an outspoken critic of the manhunt.
“Chief Livingston is a supporter of mine but he’s a member of that community. I wasn’t directly involved with that,” Griffin said.
Will he drop the department’s participation in ICE’s 287-G program?
“The first thing I’m going to do is meet with the federal partners and I want to understand everything there is to know about 287-G,” he said. “I’m not going to make a blind decision. Until I know everything about 287-G I don’t want to make any type of statement. I do understand the significance to the economy that our Latino population makes. There’s a lot of businesses that rely on these folks that are looking for a better way of life and they contribute majorly to the economy in Henderson County. I don’t want to use it as a punitive measure to intimidate any segment of our population.”
How soon might voters expect to see sheriff’s deputies wearing bodycams?
“First of all, we’ve got to come up with funding,” he said. “Whether it’s done in phases, whether I get the funding to put them on all our officers, there’s some variables. That is something I’m going to fight to implement as soon as I can. We’ve still got to look at the financial aspect so I really can’t say how quickly we can do that.”
Every election since a young upstart named George Erwin upset the incumbent sheriff, Ab Jackson, has in some way involved a Ridge candidate trying to get the job back —Tim Griffin, Michael Brown, now, Lowell Griffin. The Ridge has always delivered 40-some percent. This time, the Ridge carried Griffin to a landslide victory. He won 23 of 35 precincts and overwhelmed McDonald in the apple country — winning Bat Cave with 71 percent of the vote, Edneyville (where his younger brother is fire chief) with 78 percent, North Blue Ridge with 75 percent, Clear Creek with 71 percent. Did the Ridge regain the office after 24 years?
“No, I don’t think that the sheriff’s office belongs to anybody but the people of this county and I am not here to serve any agenda other than serving the people of Henderson County,” Griffin said.