VANDERBURGH COUNTY, Ind. (WEHT)- Months after a contentious Democratic primary that left the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office fractured between camps favoring Maj. Jason Ashworth and Lt. Noah Robinson, Robinson says the healing process has begun with the office “coalescing” behind him as he prepares for November’s ballot battle against an outsider, Republican Jeff Hales.

Hales, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary and largely opted against campaigning during the primaries, came into the race three years after retiring in 2019 following a career in the military and law enforcement. Hales says he simply wants to be sheriff to make decisions that “aren’t politically based,” but rather focused on the community and the Sheriff’s office staff.

Though Vanderburgh County has voted for a Republican nominee in every presidential and gubernatorial election since Barack Obama won the county and the Hoosier State in 2008, the county has not elected a Republican sheriff since Jim DeGroot decades ago.

The county also has a recent track record of electing active Sheriff’s office staff, including incumbent and term-limited Sheriff Dave Wedding, who was elected twice as a Democrat before switching parties in 2020.

Despite the recent track record, Hales says it could be time for a change, adding that some within the Sheriff’s office believe there needs to be an outsider approach at the top of the office.

Robinson, who comes with the support of Evansville Police Chief Billy Bolin and Assistant Chief Phil Smith, says he’s proud of the reputation the Sheriff’s Office has in the community and says they’ve found a series of sheriffs who can be “progressive while maintaining the culture of the agency.”

On the issues

But what’s on the ballot this November? Both Hales and Robinson say violent crime is a top concern. Robinson says he believes in, and will advocate for, the 2nd Amendment- but will not defend people who use or purchase guns illegally, as well as those who violate state and federal gun laws. Robinson also says he aims to nominate deputies to the ATF Gun Task Force.

Hales, meanwhile, says he wants to hear ideas come from the community before committing to any idea or plan. Hales said he’s heard suggestions for installing a “lockbox” in schools where teachers can reach for a gun in the event of a school shooting and his campaign website also mentions plans for a crime prevention unit.

Jail expansion

Whoever wins this November will inherit plans left behind by Sheriff Wedding to expand the Vanderburgh County Jail– a key concern for much of Sheriff Wedding’s time in office but Hales and Robinson disagree on whether or not those plans are necessary.

Hales says the county will need to decide if it’s worth putting money into a jail that’s not big enough or spending so much money on an expansion that “it takes everything from its citizens,” before admitting that he finds it to be “one of the tougher issues” facing the office. Hales was coy on what other plans he’d have to limit jail overcrowding- again saying that the community will need to canvass ideas.

Robinson, meanwhile, says there’s an “urgent need” for the jail to expand and that county leaders are on board with that basic understanding.

Room for common ground?

Despite the differences between Hales and Robinson and the growing rift nationwide between their two parties, there is one thing they do agree on. They both say Vanderburgh County has been very supportive of law enforcement through the years. Hales admits things could always be better but there’s a good relationship between law enforcement and the community at large.

Robinson says he feels gratified when he’s out to lunch and gets thanked for his service, saying he appreciates the appreciation he receives.