Sheriff P.J. Tanner

Tanner will face Woodward once again in June primary 

 Longtime Beaufort Co. Sheriff officially files to run for re-election

 By Tony Kukulich 

P.J. Tanner, Beaufort County sheriff since 1999, has filed papers indicating his intention to run once again for the elected office. 

“I’m all signed up,” Tanner said. “Everything is a go.” 

Tanner’s 23-year tenure makes him the longest continually serving sheriff in Beaufort County history. 

“I love this job,” he said. “I’ve always loved it. I started three days after I turned 21 years old. I love it as much today as I did the first day I started.” 

Tanner is slated to face Joey “JoJo” Woodward in what will be a rematch of the 2018 election. To date, Tanner and Woodward are the only candidates to have filed their intention for candidacy with the county. The deadline to file is noon, Wednesday, March 30. Both men are registered Republicans. 

Woodward challenged the incumbent Tanner in 2018 and lost with just over 45 percent of the vote in the June primary. Tanner subsequently ran unopposed in the general election. Prior to the 2018 election, Tanner had not faced an opponent since 2002. 

“I think all elections are difficult,” Tanner said. “I ran the first time in 1994, and there were seven of us in the race. I ran against the incumbent in 1998 and won by 114 votes. In 2002, I had a Democrat run against me. I beat him 75 to 25. The next election after 2002 was 2018, when JoJo ran. So yeah, I take every election cycle seriously.” 

In the 2018 contest, Tanner, a resident of Bluffton, generally outperformed Woodward north of the Broad River. He captured two of the three Beaufort precincts and lost the third by only three votes. The candidates split the two Port Royal precincts, while Tanner dominated the St. Helena and Lady’s Island precincts. Woodward’s only bright spot in the northern portion of the county was Burton, where he grabbed six of the eight precincts and 52 percent of the votes.

South of the Broad River, Woodward had a strong showing in Bluffton, where he is also a resident. There he captured 13 of 15 precincts and 60 percent of the votes. However, Tanner was equally strong in the populous Hilton Head Island and Sun City precincts. More than 60 percent of the votes cast in the county’s 92 precincts came from those three regions.

“I am standing here today as I did four years ago because I still believe there is a better way to be sheriff of Beaufort County,” Woodward said when he announced his intention to run earlier this month. “Currently, our sheriff’s office is experiencing historic manpower shortages, soaring costs, low morale and rising crime. A stronger, more focused sheriff can address these problems.”

Tanner acknowledged that recruiting to fill law enforcement vacancies has been a particular challenge in recent years, driven by a variety of factors including wages, competition from the private sector and increasing public distrust of those in the law enforcement field as manifested in calls to defund police programs across the country. He also noted that viable applicants have turned down job offers from the Sheriff’s Office due to the cost of living in Beaufort County.

“The attraction to law enforcement as a profession is a struggle,” Tanner said. “Everyone is struggling. We have openings here at the Sheriff’s Office, but every law enforcement has openings.”

In response to recruiting issues, Tanner has made adjustments to salaries in four phases that started in February. The move came in reaction to increases in law enforcement salaries at the state level and was intended as part of an effort to remain competitive with the state agencies.

During his tenure as sheriff, Tanner has maintained an acrimonious relationship with the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, a characterization which he doesn’t deny.

“Duffie and I, we don’t always agree,” Tanner said. “I don’t think that’s unhealthy. He’s got a job to do, and I’ve got a job to do. When I feel like I’m doing my part in public safety, I have the same expectation of others in public safety. His role is to take cases made by law enforcement and adjudicate those cases in the appropriate court. I don’t tell him how to do his job and he doesn’t tell me how to do mine. But there are times when we absolutely disagree, and neither one of us bites our tongue. I honestly think that’s a healthy relationship.”

In 2018, Tanner received strong support from all corners of the county, but Woodward did find footing both north and south of the Broad River. It remains to be seen if he can expand his support, or if Tanner’s many years of experience will propel him into another four-year term.

“I was born and raised here,” Tanner said. “My family lives here. Having the opportunity to provide the best level of public safety I can to a county I love, and the people who make up this county, is an honor and a huge obligation. At the end of the day, you know you’re doing the right thing. It’s hard to not want to do it every day.”

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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