Coroner job becomes most contested race
Five seek election to job that pays $35K a year; 3 Republicans and 2 Democrats vie for seat.
By Cara Rank, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
June 9, 2010
Kiley Campbell remembers the time he went on his first dead body “recovery.”
He was a teenager, and a climber had fallen from the Exum route up the Grand Teton. The National Park Service retrieved the body from the mountain and ferried it back to flat ground, where the coroner took over, determining the cause of death.
Going to work with dad to a climbing or car accident wasn’t out of the ordinary for the county coroner’s son, though the nature of the work may have been.
“It was weird, at first, because I hadn’t been exposed to dead bodies,” Campbell said. “But it was interesting at the same time.”
Nearly a decade later, as his father, Bob, retires from the job he’s held for 24 years, son Kiley, 35, wants to take over.
Campbell, an evidence technician with the Jackson Police Department, will go head-to-head with two other Republicans during the Aug. 17 primary. Two Democrats also filed, bringing the field of candidates to five.
For comparison, the three seats on the Teton County Board of Commissioners drew six candidates. No other local race has as many candidates as the coroner’s.
The office hasn’t been contested since Dr. Brent Blue challenged Bob Campbell in 1998. Blue is again a candidate this year.
The race has started to take on a life of its own. Campbell organized a Facebook page. Others are fundraising and developed campaign slogans.
While taking on the job would be a “natural progression,” Campbell said, he’s interested in taking it to another level. As coroner, he would speak to area schools about suicide and driving-under-the-influence fatalities, two major issues in Teton County, he said.
Elections Clerk Sharon Nethercott said the race likely drew so many candidates because no one wants to run against an incumbent. Just why the job is an elected position is not a question she could answer.
“I think it’s just one of those things that’s always been done,” she said.
Some of the candidates have their own theories.
“Under Wyoming law, the coroner is the only person who can arrest the sheriff,” said Blue, 59. “Maybe that’s why it’s elected.”
He also suspects that some candidates need a job. The coroner’s position is a part-time job that pays about $35,000 a year.
Blue, who runs Emerg-A-Care, said he is not one of those people.
“I think the office needs a professional person with a medical degree,” he said. “Most of these deaths really need medical experience. People need to know how to read a medical chart. They need to know how trauma can affect people. They need to be able to tell the difference between a traumatic problem and a homicidal issue.”
Under the current administration, Blue said, there is a lack of “scientific precision.” To be coroner, a person must attend a weeklong course, which he said is inadequate.
“It’s easy to miss a homicide,” he said.
Other candidates said they were drawn to the job simply because it is interesting.
“It’s an intriguing position to have,” Democrat Steven Ware said.
Ware, 39, said he has no plans to give up his job as the assistant director of food service at C-Bar-V if elected. With experience as an ambulance driver and emergency medical technician, he was attracted to the scientific and investigation aspects of the coroner’s job.
Mainly, he said, his campaign will be based on three words: integrity, dignity and respect.
“That’s how I am going to base the job of coroner,” he said.
Republican Jim Flower, branch manager of the American Red Cross, said he was shocked to see so many people throw in their names.
“I was kind of under the impression that very few people would be interested in it, just because of the nature of the job,” he said.
As an Air Force veteran, Flower said, he sat in on multiple autopsies. He’s also worked as an EMT.
For him, the coroner’s job is about making sure families and patients are respected.
“The coroner begins the healing process for family and friends,” he said.
Jackson Police Sgt. Alan John, who filed as a Republican, was in training and could not be reached for comment. John, 45, said previously that he is about 15 months away from retirement and now seems like a good time to enter public service.
During the primary, voters will advance one Republican and one Democrat to the November general election.