The number of candidates aiming to become Jacksonville’s next sheriff has risen to six with the arrival of Ken Jefferson two Republicans and three other Democrats in the 2023 race to lead the department.
This is the 64-year-old retired police officer’s third run for the top cop spot, his announcement coming just days after he left News4Jax as a crime and safety analyst after 11 years old.
Jefferson wants to succeed the man who defeated him in the 2015 election, Sheriff Mike Williams, whose term is now limited. Calling himself a ‘servant leader,’ Jefferson said he was making his third offer for all Jacksonville residents, many he met before deciding to run again, urging him to do so to help gather the city.
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“I’m a person of resilience, and I believe the community is calling for new transformational leadership at the sheriff’s office and I can bring that,” Jefferson said. “…I want to serve in this city. Law enforcement has been my life’s work and I want to continue, but I want to continue in a position where I can make a big difference in this community for all.”
Jefferson enters the race as a Democrat, months after the other five candidates began their campaigns. The two Republicans are Chief of Investigations TK Waters and retired Chief of Special Events Mathew Nemeth. The other three Democrats are retired Deputy Chief Lakesha Burton, former Duval County School Police Deputy Chief Wayne Clark and former Detective Tony Cummings.
Grew up in a tough part of town
Originally from Jacksonville, Jefferson is one of seven children. The family lost their home to foreclosure when he was in sixth grade, briefly living in a station wagon with the occasional bologna sandwich for dinner, he recalls. They eventually moved to public housing in Washington Heights, now called Calloway Cove.
Jefferson said he had wanted to be a police officer since fifth grade when a friendly officer came to his class and convinced him “it was the passion in me.” Living in Washington Heights, he said he was bullied and saw people being stabbed and attacked.
“At the time, I didn’t understand why I was being bullied, why was this happening, why am I surrounded by all these negative things…” he said. “What it did was it made me more resilient to pursue my passion, which is law enforcement.”
After several years of work as an insurance agent and supervisor, he was hired in 1986 by the Sheriff’s Office as a patroller, then detective in the inspections and accreditations unit. He served as a field training officer and academy instructor, and as a detective in the burglary and sex crimes units.
He was also coordinator of the Drug Education for Youth Program, which mentored at-risk youth in the community. His last job was as a public information officer for the sheriff’s office.
Jefferson says his best qualification to be a sheriff is 24 years of experience with the department, many of them in leadership roles.
“I know this community and the community knows me. I can identify with anyone at any time, and also with my life experience,” he said, recalling his childhood at the time.
“We didn’t have much money. We were homeless, we were hungry,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be desperate in these situations. I was almost tempted to go the other way because of desperation, so I think I can bring that experience to the sheriff’s office, as well as my experience in law enforcement.”
After retiring in October 2010, he ran against incumbent Sheriff John Rutherford, gathering enough petition signatures to appear on the ballot where he received 38% of the vote. Then he became a crime analyst in local television news from 2012 to 2014 before leaving that to run again in what started as a race seven. This second campaign boiled down to Jefferson and Williams in the March 24 municipal elections. Williams, elected for the first of his two terms which now endwas a former sheriff’s director.
Jefferson said he “never really left” police work, continuing as a crime and security expert for Action News and then News4Jax, visiting numerous crime scenes. He also runs Jefferson Consulting Group, which conducts empowerment workshops and seminars.
Jefferson announced his departure from WJXT TV-4 in a Feb. 15 Facebook post, saying it was his honor to provide viewers with “an honest and unbiased perspective regarding law enforcement matters, insight into criminal investigations , helpful safety tips and much more”. Writing that he was moving on to another chapter in my life, he officially announced his campaign on Friday.
The others vying to be the new sheriff
Regarding the crowded race he entered, Jefferson said he faced six other candidates in the 2015 race. And with just over a year to go until the 2023 election, it’s the “good time” to come in, adding that he is not late in the game.
Waters, 51, announced his race in late August. The only one still active in the department, he has 30 years in law enforcement starting as a corrections officer in 1991. He received early endorsements from Williams and Rutherford, a former sheriff and current congressman.
Burton, 46, deputy chief of City Police Zone 2 in Arlington until his retirement Thursday, was the first candidate to be announced in April. She is the first black woman to run for sheriff.
Clark, 59, announced his race in early August. He is a 30-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office who also headed the Jacksonville Airport Authority’s Aviation Security Department and recently left the Duval County School Police Department as acting superintendent.
Nemeth, 53, became the third candidate to be announced in mid-August. Beginning in 1996 with the sheriff’s office, he served as executive director of the Jacksonville Police Athletic League and chief of patrol support before being named chief of special events. He retired at the end of last year from the force.
Cummings started with the sheriff’s office in 1995, working in the patrol and detective divisions as well as an assistant professor in Keizer University’s Crime Scene Technology program. He ran unsuccessfully for sheriff in 2015 and 2019.
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