Take This Badge Off of Me, I Can’t Use It Any More

Why isn’t Sheriff Doug Gillespie running for re-election?

Illustration by Jesse Sutherland.

Illustration by Jesse Sutherland

Many Southern Nevadans were shocked—shocked!—by Sheriff Doug Gillespie’s recent announcement that he wouldn’t seek reelection, and among the chattering classes the speculation began almost immediately as to why he was putting down the badge. Here are several possibilities:

• He may just be tired of politics. After rising through the ranks, he became undersheriff for his predecessor and friend Bill Young in 2003. His record may have revealed a talent for office politics. But retail politics—glad-handing and lobbying—are different and require different skills. Gillespie certainly never looked like he enjoyed that part of the job. Indeed, he didn’t even get into his first race in 2006 in the usual manner: Young had decided to run again and suddenly announced a change of heart, as Gillespie recently did.

• It was going to be a long, hard campaign. Gillespie and Metro have been through some rough times, sometimes of their own making. Gillespie overturned the Use of Force Review Board, which gained power after considerable flak about Metro’s record on that issue. (The board wanted an officer fired after shooting an unarmed man in the leg.) Critics saw him, rightly or wrongly, as doing the police union’s bidding or as too loyal to his troops. In turn, several board members resigned and one of them, former Metro officer Ted Moody, made noises about challenging him. None of this may have inspired Gillespie’s decision, and he knows criticism comes with the territory, but as he told George Knapp, he didn’t see himself wanting to go full-throttle for another four years.

• Perhaps Gillespie is a little tired of Metro, however much he loves and wants to protect his fellow officers. Even if he didn’t give a helicopter ride to a member of Guns N’ Roses, among other embarrassments, the buck stops with him, and he may have had a bellyful. As both a professional and an elected official, he faces standards and expectations that a legislator or county or city politician wouldn’t have to meet.

• Term limits are bad, but two terms may be the reasonable limit for a sheriff. Ralph Lamb had the job for nearly 18 years (1961-79). While television shows and longtime residents often are nostalgic for the tough sheriff who ruled the town, he also faced a lot of explicit and implicit attacks. His successor, John McCarthy, lost his race for a second term to John Moran, who had been Lamb’s top aide. Moran served three terms. By his final four years, he was publicly feuding with Steve Wynn over an old friend of the gaming mogul. That isn’t a criticism of Moran, but it does suggest that sheriffs, like most of us, can stay too long at the fair.

• He’s run into a roadblock on what he considers a make-or-break issue. Gillespie has been trying to win passage of a sales-tax increase that would help him hire more officers and retain the ones he has. Lawmakers had left the matter to the commissioners, and the commissioners stalled, to Gillespie’s obvious displeasure. He has said he wants to be able to focus more on this particular issue. He may just be telling the truth, but he also may be thinking, “Do I want four more years of a citizen Legislature that meets for a couple of months every other year, county commissioners who seem always to be plotting next elections and a public that tolerates both?”

We citizens tend to disdain “career politicians,” presumably because we dislike competence. But a non-politician announces he won’t seek re-election, and speculation immediately begins about the “real” reason he isn’t running. Maybe Gillespie just doesn’t want to. Could it be that simple?


Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.