UPDATE: Longtime Gwinnett sheriff will not seek reelection

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway in his office at the Gwinnett County jail on Thursday, April 18, 2019. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway in his office at the Gwinnett County jail on Thursday, April 18, 2019. TYLER ESTEP / TYLER.ESTEP@AJC.COM

Longtime Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway is retiring.

Conway, a Republican who has held office for more than two decades, announced Tuesday he would not seek reelection this year. In the same statement, Conway said that one of his chief deputies would be running to succeed him.

But the sheriff’s retirement sets up another wide-open 2020 race in Gwinnett, where Democrats are hoping to further expand their influence in a one-time conservative stronghold.

Conway said his decision was personal, not political.

“I didn’t think it would be this soon,” the sheriff said in a Tuesday press conference. “But I recently had some issues, lost a son-in-law, and I want to spend more time with my family and pursuing other opportunities.”

Conway’s son-in-law, Chris Clay, recently died after a long battle with brain cancer.

Conway began his law enforcement career in 1973 and worked with the Gwinnett and Lawrenceville police departments before being elected sheriff in 1996. Most of his reelection campaigns were devoid of substantial opposition, but Gwinnett’s demographic shifts and changing politics have made him a lightning rod in recent years.

At least four Democratic candidates — Curtis Clemons, Ben Haynes, Floyd Scott and Keybo Taylor— have signed up to run for sheriff this year. All are longtime local law enforcement officers and each has vowed to end the office's participation in 287(g), the federal immigration enforcement program of which Conway has been a staunch supporter.

The Gwinnett sheriff’s office is one of just a few Georgia agencies to participate in the program, which allows jail deputies to check the immigration status of detainees and, if appropriate, hold them for federal authorities. About one-fourth of Gwinnett residents are foreign-born, and detractors of the 287(g) program say it tears families apart and makes law-abiding immigrants fearful of speaking to law enforcement.

“I’m not racist,” Conway said Tuesday. “Never have been.”

Outside of immigration, Conway has often adopted progressive policies and programs, many of which have been replicated by other agencies across the country.

The “jail dogs” program Conway started pairs inmates with rescue dogs, which they train and get ready for adoption. The department’s Gwinnett Reentry Intervention Program helps inmates connect with resources to increase their chances of success once released.

housing unit geared toward helping incarcerated military veterans recently opened at the jail.

“He has done so much to make Gwinnett safe. Hate to see him go,” Gwinnett Republican Party Chairman Edward Muldrow said. “Hard to replace a great man like him who has a heart for the people of Gwinnett.”

Conway has also endured controversies.

A federal grand jury has investigated the use of force by members of the sheriff's office's rapid response team, a SWAT-style team that operates inside the jail and responds to disruptions. Former Deputy Aaron Masters was indicted earlier this month on a federal charge of using excessive force.

In 2018, Gwinnett County had to repay nearly $70,000 that Conway spent on a Dodge Charger Hellcat, a high-powered sports car. Federal officials, who originally approved the purchase, later determined that the vehicle was an "extravagant" use of drug forfeiture funds.

In his retirement announcement, Conway said that Chief Deputy Lou Solis, a retired Army Ranger and former assistant chief with Braselton police, will be running to replace him.

Conway said he hired Solis two years ago with the current situation in mind.

“He’s prepared to step in,” Conway said. “I think he will continue the great things that we’ve been doing.”

Like every other Republican candidate in Gwinnett, Solis may have a tough road to election.

Longtime District Attorney Danny Porter flirted with flipping parties and running as a Democrat but ultimately decided against it. Like Conway, Gwinnett Commission Chairman Charlotte Nash is not seeking reelection, creating an open contest for her powerful seat.

If Democrats win the chairman’s race or flip either of the other commission seats up for grabs this year, they’ll gain a majority on the five-member board for the first time in decades.