The race to pick a Republican nominee for Cleveland County sheriff is down to a Moore versus Norman thingy.

And it comes to a head next Tuesday.

With the original slate of six GOP candidates cut in half, Republican voters will return to the polls Tuesday to choose between Joe Lester of Norman and Mark Hamm from Moore as their party’s nominee for sheriff.

The winner will face Democrat Rick Adkins in the Nov. 4 general election.

And while the July primary vote was close — only 106 votes separated Lester and Hamm — both men said they expected to be in a run-off election.

“I assumed that’s what would happen,” Hamm said. “With just 106 votes separating us, I believe all my hard work in the primary paid off. Most people weren’t expecting me to do as well as I did, but I think that support came from just going out and knocking on doors and telling people why I wanted to be sheriff.”

For Hamm, the campaign’s biggest issue is the county’s new detention facility.

“I believe the issue is the jail,” he said. “The commissioners are talking about building a new county jail, the biggest expense on the taxpayers of the county. I think we need to ask, if one is built, how is it going to be paid for and will it meet our needs for years to come?”

The next sheriff, he said, needs to have an understanding of the jail’s “basic day-to-day operations.”

“We need to make sure the facility that’s going to be built is going to be able to meet our needs for the next 25-plus years,” he said. “We need to make sure it’s user-friendly, built in a responsible way. Plus there are issues in having to transport inmates back and forth to court. I hope the new sheriff will have input as regards to those housing issues.”

Lester said the race isn’t so much about the new jail, but management of the sheriff’s office.

“The sheriff’s office is a $5.5 million budget,” he said. “It’s very important the citizens of Cleveland County pick someone as sheriff who has the educational and supervisory experience to operate the department.”

And to do that, he said, the sheriff needs experience.

“You don’t turn a big company over to someone who has no experience. If you owned a big company and you were on the board of directors, would you turn the helm of that company over to someone who had no experience in budgets, supervision or management?”

The sheriff, Lester said, “doesn’t need to be wearing cowboy boots, a hat and big belt buckle, and drive around on patrol” but instead “needs to be an administrator and have educated individuals around him or her who can do the job.”

Hamm said he agrees — to a point.

“I believe there is some wisdom in putting people around you that have a lot of life experiences and who you can pull from and make good decisions,” he said. “But I also believe that being younger, I’m going to have newer ideas. Plus, I have more experience as an employee of the Cleveland County sheriff’s office than my opponent.”

Additionally, Hamm said the next sheriff should look for “creative ways” of dealing with low-risk offenders.

“Obviously, someone who commits a heinous crime should be in jail,” be said. “But I’m all for ankle monitoring and for using work crews and having inmates work on county roads and doing community service.”

In a perfect world, he said the county would have a large enough facility to hold every inmate.

“But we don’t live in a perfect world and we have to be wise and careful about how we spend our money.”

Like Hamm, Lester said he, too, would look for alternative ways to sentence prisoners and ways to use inmate labor to save taxpayers’ money.

“The sheriff should have a role in alternative sentencing,” Lester said. “In fact, I believe we need to set up some form of assessment at the county jail level. We need to examine individuals who are incarcerated for, say, public drunk or DUI and examine them to see if there is a problem, if they might keep this habit.”

Low-risk inmates, he said, should work on road crews and even farm their own food.

“I think we could set up a farm where the inmates grow their own vegetables. Those could be processed and used to reduce the food cost to the taxpayer. And any left over could be sold to the county’s schools.”

The new sheriff, he said, “should think outside the box.”

“We need to consider issues and ask ourselves whether or not a person belongs in jail, or maybe, instead, a treatment center. The sheriff needs to be able to step outside the box.”

A 22 year veteran of the Tulsa Police Department, Lester spent 12 years as the director of public safety and the chief of the University of Oklahoma’s police force. He said his campaign would continue to build on his success from July.

“In the primary election we received the most votes,” he said. “We’re building on that and contacting more people. We’ve identified who it is we want to talk to and we’ve contacted those individuals and continue to reach out to them. We’re not going to stop campaigning until 7 p.m. next Tuesday night.”

Hamm, who spent 12 years with the Cleveland County’s sheriff’s office, said he worked his way up from a deputy at the detention center to the officer in charge of the sheriff’s K-9 unit. He left the sheriff’s office several years ago and currently works providing security for country singer Toby Keith. Hamm said he would continue to campaign “face to face.”

“My strategy has been the same: Just go out there and meet as many folks as I possibly can. It’s not rocket science, it’s just going out and meeting people and sharing why I want to be their sheriff.”

While polls will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, registered voters can cast their ballots earlier by taking advantage of the absentee-in-person voting at the Cleveland County Election Board, 122 S. Peters Ave. in Norman.

Absentee-in-person voting will be 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday.

Voters who become physically incapacitated after 5 p.m. Aug. 18 won’t have to miss the election, either.

Cleveland County Election Board secretary Paula Roberts said registered voters “who will be unable to go to the polls because they become incapacitated after 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 18, are permitted to vote on an emergency basis.”

“Physical incapacitation includes a variety of conditions,” she said, such as “injury, illness, childbirth, that prevent a person from voting in person at the polls on election day.”

People who think they might qualify should call the County Election Board office at 366-0120.

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