Local Politics

Wilson sheriff upset in racially charged election

Posted May 5, 2010 5:15 p.m. EDT
Updated May 5, 2010 6:57 p.m. EDT

— More than a dozen area sheriffs faced opposition in Tuesday's primary, but Wilson County Sheriff Wayne Gay was the only one to lose his election.

Challenger Calvin Woodard, 38, handily defeated Gay, one of the state's longest-serving sheriffs, by a 62 to 38 percent margin.

"I was just totally shocked, but I was very proud and very honored," said Woodard, a State Bureau of Investigation agent and a former Wilson County deputy.

Because no Republican has filed for the general election, the Democratic primary was the de facto election for sheriff. State law precludes Gay from running as a write-in candidate in November.

Gay, 63, blamed race for his defeat. He has been in office for 28 years.

"I think the black community realized they had an opportunity to elect a black sheriff, and I think they took advantage of it," said Gay, who is white. "Ninety-eight percent of them voted based on race. They didn't vote based on qualifications."

Woodard discounted the race issue, saying he ran a grassroots campaign focused on change.

"My supporters are diverse. It doesn't make any difference on race (or) economic status," he said. "It was definitely based on who the people wanted to be their candidate for sheriff. There was no race issue."

Woodard won 16 of the county's 24 precincts. Five precincts topped 30 percent voter turnout, and the county posted a 24 percent turnout overall.

Statewide, only 14 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the primary.

"It's going to be a definite change, but it's going to be a positive change – a real positive one," Woodward said.

Wilson County residents offered a range of opinions Wednesday on the outgoing sheriff.

"It's time for a change. There are a lot of things that have been covered up in Wilson," Mattie Robinson said.

"Whenever somebody needs (Gay), he's there to help them. He gets the job done," Jerry Brown said.

"When it's your season, it's your season, and no one can stop that," Robert Joyner said.

Gay said he doesn't know what he will do after November, but he noted that he believes the recent campaign has created a racial divide in the county that will be hard to heal.

"There is absolutely no question there has been an impact on the community. He's going to have to bridge a lot of gaps," he said.