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Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner addresses supporters as they await primary election results at the Salty Dog restaurant in Bluffton on Tuesday, June 14. Unofficial results indicate that Tanner captured nearly 62% of the vote, defeating challenger Joey "JoJo" Woodward. Photo by Tony Kukulich.

Incumbent Tanner soundly beats Woodward in Beaufort County Sheriff’s race

By Tony Kukulich

It was midnight when Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner told supporters gathered at the Salty Dog restaurant in Bluffton to watch election results come in that he was calling it a night.

Though polls had closed five hours earlier, there were no official election results available indicating who had won the hard-fought race between the incumbent Tanner and challenger Joey “JoJo” Woodward.

“It’s midnight,” Tanner said. “These folks, they need to go home. We had this place scheduled from 7 to 10. Here we are at midnight, so we’re going to go ahead and move on out. I wish we had results. We don’t.”

Unofficial results provided by the Board of Voter Registration and Elections of Beaufort County showed Tanner with more than 63% of the votes at the time he pulled the plug on his election-night event, but only 38 of the county’s 98 precincts had reported results at the time.

“Things look good right now,” Tanner added. “I think the numbers are looking good. I feel good about the results so far. But I’m one of those guys, you all know me. I think everyone in here knows me real well. When it comes to the facts, I want facts. I don’t want fiction. That’s how I operate. That’s how I want us to go ahead and move forward.”

When the board updated the unofficial results shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, Tanner’s lead over Woodward remained. Tanner had 15,015 votes compared to Woodward’s 9,208 with 96 of 98 precincts reporting.

Tanner and Woodward were the only two candidates for sheriff. As such, the winner of the primary will not face an opponent in the November general election. For all intents and purposes, the race was decided in Tuesday’s primary.

Tanner first won election for sheriff of Beaufort County in 1998. Assuming that the official vote count remains inline with the unofficial results, Tuesday’s victory hands Tanner his seventh consecutive four-year term as sheriff.

Woodward served in the Sheriff’s Office under Tanner and was most recently an investigator for the 14 Circuit Solicitor’s Office. This is the second time he has faced off against Tanner. Woodward was defeated in the 2018 race for sheriff. In that contest, he captured 45% with a particularly strong showing in the Bluffton precincts.

During the election campaign, Woodward criticized Tanner on issues including the high number of open positions in the Sheriff’s Office; the agency’s high turnover rate and poor morale; and a lack of transparency.

Tanner countered that law enforcement agencies across the state and the country are struggling with staffing issues, and said that the application pool has started to grow again, a fact he attributed to a salary adjustment that Tanner implemented earlier this year.

“The criticisms through a campaign, it’s unfounded,” Tanner said. “Misinformation, I find, is the most egregious part. Don’t mislead the people that we work for, the people that pay the taxes and expect us to do the job that we do. Of course, you expect a negative campaign for those that are running against somebody that’s in office, that’s an incumbent. You’ve got to try to attack them at some level. But where’s the fairness in the factual data that’s supported? Those are the things that are irritating.”

Woodward’s campaign had problems in the late stages of the race. Woodward’s campaign manager, John Acker, admitted to manipulating the Facebook account of South Carolina State Representative Bill Herbkersman (R, 118), a Tanner supporter. Acker reportedly used Herbkersman’s account to like posts on Woodward’s Facebook page, and he deleted Herbkersman’s video in which he endorsed Tanner. Acker was also involved in Herbkersman’s campaign.

Tanner pounced on the opportunity and criticized Woodward, first for failing to acknowledge the actions of his campaign manager, and then for allowing Acker to remain on the campaign. Woodward struck back in a social media post.

“Making this race a personal attack on a campaign worker is classless and only proves that the betterment of Beaufort County is not a concern to my opponent,” wrote Woodard.

Woodward was also called out in the June 8 episode of the popular “Murdaugh Murders Podcast.” He was criticized for collecting evidence from the scene of the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh in June 2021 when he was an investigator for the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, Alex Murdaugh was a prosecutor for the same office, which host Mandy Matney said represented a clear conflict of interest.

“I point out JoJo Woodward because his involvement in the case concerns me personally as someone who lives in Beaufort County,” Matney said. “I keep hearing JoJo Woodard supporters saying things like, ‘He was just doing his job. He was just following Duffie’s orders.’ That is the problem. A sheriff is supposed to be a leader and a person of impeccable integrity. … As a former deputy, JoJo Woodward should have known that he should not have been on that scene, and he should have walked away.”

Beaufort County’s results in the race will become official once certified on Thursday.

“I’m very proud of our campaign,” Tanner concluded. “I’m very proud of the message that we sent to the residents of this county for their consideration, for their vote. I respect all of the votes, if it was for me or not for me. At the end of the day, I respect their opinion and the position they took. I don’t know that I can say it any clearer. Thank you for those that voted for me. Thank you for those that voted against me. I’m going to earn your vote. I’m going to earn your support.”

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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