As we move closer to the May county primary election, the political chatter tied to candidates is getting louder and more frequent. A key question we are hearing is whether candidates can use their current job to campaign for another elected office.
We took a look at one race in particular for Knox County Sheriff. Lee Tramel serves now as Chief Deputy but is running to become the next sheriff.
Current Knox County Sheriff J.J. Jones is term-limited after serving eight years in the office.
Supporters of Tramel's opponent Tom Spangler suggest Tramel should not be allowed to campaign given his current role in the sheriff's office.
Tramel's critics point to the Federal Hatch Act, a statute that limits certain political activities of employees who work with federally funded programs.
Experts say it does not apply in this case.
"The Hatch Act is a federal act," said WBIR legal analyst Dennis Francis. "It doesn’t apply to anybody at the county level or the state level. It is a federal statute."
Tennessee does have a state law called the Little Hatch Act, but the Knox County District Attorney's office says it "only limits the political activity of state employees and thus does not apply to county employees."
"Absent coercion, there is nothing inherently wrong with an assistant running for the top job or someone from the ranks wanting to move up," said Greg Mackay, the former Knox County Administrator of Elections. "It’s to stop coercion is the purpose of it. It’s not to stop political activity."
In a TV ad, Lee Tramel wears his sheriff's office uniform and stands in front of what appears to be other deputies and law enforcement cars.
Tramel's campaign said the officers were off duty and paid for their time.
"He’s wearing his uniform. It’s hard to tell when he’s representing the sheriff’s department and when he’s representing himself as a candidate," said Bo Peirce, a Tom Spangler supporter who reached out to 10News with concerns. "We do need to be able to delineate between employee and candidate."
Experts say there is nothing wrong with Tramel using his position as chief deputy to support his candidacy.
"Why would a person have to resign or take a leave of absence? That's what he does for a living," Francis said. "What you have appears to be an attempt by a political candidate in opposition to another political candidate throwing stones."
Tom Spangler is Tramel's opponent and is a former chief deputy himself. His website also includes a picture in his Knox County uniform.
10News spoke to Tramel and Spangler on Thursday, neither candidate wanted to comment for this story.
There is no law in Knox County that would prevent a county employee for running for public office. In fact, it happens often.
Our current sheriff ran for sheriff while employed by the sheriff's office and commissioners and Board of Education members often run while currently holding an elected seat.
Though an argument could be made that current office-holders get more face time, according to Tennessee law, there's nothing illegal about it.