KINGMAN - The meeting room at Golden Corral could not hold the audience who was there to hear from five people who want to become the next sheriff of Mohave County. Those candidates provided a lively discussion at Wednesday's monthly meeting of the Mohave Republican Forum.
They might not agree on everything, but to a person they believe taking care of the deputies, who are among the lowest paid in the state, is the most important issue.
"This is a big job in a big county with lots of special interests and special challenges," said newly elected forum president Laurie Voss Barthlow, who took the forum's reins from Richard Basinger in December.
With the filing deadline still five months away, the number of candidates for the office could expand even more as Sheriff Jim McCabe has announced he will retire at the end of the year after more than 30 years with the department.
Those candidates are, in alphabetical order, Joe Archie, John Gillette, Cori Merryman, John Plough and Doug Schuster. Candidate Ed Jones did not attend the forum. Archie, Gillette, Merryman and Schuster have law enforcement experience. Plough is a Navy veteran and self-employed.
The former rodeo competitor and self-described "old cowboy" joined the military during the Vietnam War era, where he began his lengthy career in law enforcement. After leaving the military, he became a Tucson Police officer, where he did everything from patrolling the streets to flying a helicopter. He moved on to the Lake Havasu City Police Department, where he rose through the ranks over his 25 years there and headed up virtually every department.
Archie was a member of SWAT, and worked narcotics and the boats division. He also handled what the next sheriff will be entrusted with most.
"The most important" job he had, said Archie, was working the department's budget during the Great Recession, when $5 million - fully a third of the department's revenues - had to be cut.
Archie also founded and taught at the Western Arizona Law Enforcement Academy in Lake Havasu City, the Military Police Transition Program and an academy for dispatchers.
He also oversaw the jail in Lake Havasu City, which is a big task for the sheriff since the Mohave County jail takes up more than 50 percent of the department's roughly $22 million budget.
Gillette is a retired Army sergeant major and police officer from Illinois who recently moved to the Kingman area.
He said he had no plans on running for sheriff until a neighbor had a bad experience with the sheriff's office. He said a "couple of groups," which he did not name, asked him to run. Gillette was not shy with his assessment of the department. "Morale, pay, the budget, it's a complete mess from top to bottom," he said.
Gillette said current leadership does not have deputies' backs. As for experience, Gillette said he is certified to teach classes and is a subject matter expert in weapons. His priority, however, is working the budget so deputies get what they need in terms of salary and equipment.
"I am a Christian constitutional conservative Republican," said Merryman, who resigned in 2014 after eight years with the sheriff's office. She was the first person in the county to announce her candidacy.
Merryman touted her experience handling 600 accounts with her husband at their rifle manufacturing company headquartered in Lake Havasu City with a plant in the Phoenix area.
She said the sheriff's office suffers from low morale and an "unacceptably low" number of deputies on the streets.
There are 86 sworn officers in the department, which is 30 percent less than what is needed.
Plough might be the only candidate to date with zero law enforcement experience, but he kept the overflow audience laughing throughout the evening.
"I don't have the training or experience," said the self-employed salesman. "I sound like the least qualified candidate, and these are good candidates, but I have an iron backbone."
He believes the problems inside Mohave County are caused by an "out of control" federal government. He said sheriffs can attend the FBI law enforcement academy, which he would do if elected.
Schuster retired from the Mohave County Sheriff's office last May after a 25-year career, the last 19 spent in a supervisory capacity, most in the sheriff's boating safety division, where he won state and national officer of the year awards in his career.
"I'm in this for you. I'm in this for the long haul," he said.