Nothing normal about Clayton sheriff’s election

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Nothing normal about Clayton sheriff’s election

Victor Hill

Age: 47

Family: Single. No children.

Residence: Riverdale

Occupation: Unemployed

Political Party: Democratic

Political Experience: Hill is a former homicide detective and state lawmaker who served as Clayton sheriff from 2005-2008.

Garland Watkins

Age: 50

Family: Married. No children.

Residence: Jonesboro

Occupation: Clayton County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy

Political Party: Democratic; running as an independent write-in

Political Experience: Watkins ran for Clayton sheriff in 2008, placing third in the Democratic primary.

Garland Watkins hopes to accomplish the difficult — if not the almost impossible.

The Clayton County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy is trying to win the sheriff’s race as a write-in candidate.

Until early last month, former Sheriff Victor Hill was expected to claim the office on Jan. 1, even though he faces more than 30 felony charges related to his time in office from 2005-2008. Hill defeated incumbent Kem Kimbrough in the Democratic primary runoff in August, and there is no Republican candidate. Hill’s path was clear until Watkins filed notice he would run as a non-partisan write in candidate.

No public polling has been conducted to indicate which way voters might be leaning. But conditions could be more favorable to Watkins than the usual write-in candidate.

News broke last week that Hill, if elected, could be removed from office soon after being sworn in. Plus, Hill is nearly out of money after spending $66,000 to win the Democratic primary, according to the most recent campaign disclosure statements. And, while Hill won a whisker-thin runoff among 37,000 voters, the electorate could nearly triple to more than 100,000 voters because of the presidential election. That means Republicans, independents and Democrats who voted against Hill in the primary could all oppose him, making a win in dependably Democratic Clayton County less than a sure thing.

Consider also the fatigue among Clayton voters, who have gotten an inordinate amount of attention lately because of being on verge of electing the troubled Hill and the recent news that the Clayton school district’s accreditation is at risk because of in-fighting among its elected board.

“Clayton County really does need to change. I’m willing to do my part in that,” said 30-year-old Jonesboro resident Chavon Ruff, who voted early but declined to say which candidate she supported. “It’s really disheartening the state [Clayton] is in. We have to try something different.”

Something Different

Watkins, at 50, isn’t new to politics; he unsuccessfully ran for sheriff in 2008 and has been active in Clayton’s Democratic Party. But his argument to voters is that he’s far different than the controversial Hill, that he’s a steady hand at a time when the county needs it.

“I tell them I’m giving them another choice… in light of Victor’s issues,” said Watkins, who came in third behind Kimbrough and Hill in the sheriff’s race in 2008.

Watkins, currently the chief deputy under Kimbrough, says he wants to put all his attention on the areas that traditionally have been the primary concern of Clayton’s sheriff — running the jail, serving warrants and protecting the courthouse.

Hill, on the other hand, said he wants to shake things up by focusing, again, on street crime, which in Clayton has been traditionally the purview of various police departments. Voters have credited Hill with being tough on crime, but, when he was sheriff, his approach ruffled other Clayton County law enforcement agencies.

And whatever Hill may have accomplished is tarnished by the criminal charges he’s facing. Last January, he was indicted on 37 felony charges, which allege he used campaign money for personal expenses and used county cars and credit cards for out-of-town travel and expenses unrelated to the office. He’s also accused of forcing sheriff’s office personnel to work at campaign events.

Hill, who has made a practice of not speaking much to the media, has said a few times publicly that the charges were brought by his political enemies and the criminal element in Clayton. He did not respond to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s requests made through his attorneys to be interviewed about this race.

His record has some voters reluctant to elect him but unsure about the alternative.

“Victor did good things and then he did bad things,” said Pete Pollok of Jonesboro. “I don’t know anything about the other candidate.”

Others are ready to shut down Hill.

“Why should we have someone who has charges against them … be a leader?” said Laurel Hinze, a Jonesboro resident who wrote in Watkins at the suggestion of a friend. “He shouldn’t have won [the primary runoff].”

Even with Hill’s troubles, Watkins’ low profile hurts him. If it’s a choice between a known quantity in Hill and an unknown in Watkins, there are some voters who are likely to go with who they know.

“It makes people wonder why, at this late juncture, you are throwing your hat into the ring,” said Pat Pullar, a political consultant and vice chair of the Clayton Board of Elections, of Watkins’ candidacy. “It’s almost too little too late.”

The path to victory

Money is the lifeblood of politics, and neither Hill or Watkins has any.

It’s one of the reasons why this race is difficult to gauge.

Hill’s campaign has consisted of yard signs, YouTube videos and small gatherings and festivals. Pullar said she had received an automated call from the Hill campaign, a “robo call.” As of Sept. 30, Hill reported he had almost $4,800 in cash after spending $66,000, of which $19,500 was loans to himself.

Watkins and his supporters have blanketed the county with large and small signs urging voters to write in his name. He has spent many hours greeting voters casting ballots at early voting locations.

Watkins had almost $11,000 in cash, but no debt. Some of that went toward mailing voters instructions on how to write in a candidate.

If Watkins is to have a shot at winning, he must not only convince voters he’s the best candidate but also make sure they correctly write his name on the ballot.

“The difficulty (for a write in candidate) is you have to get the word out to people,” said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock, adding that he could not recall any candidate in Georgia winning an office as a write in.

And the process for writing in a candidate is complicated. Only candidates who have filed the proper documents can be written in and, with voting machines, it’s a little more involved than when paper ballots were used.

“It is certainly an uphill climb,” Bullock said.

But it might be aided by something far more difficult to measure: frustration.

“Let’s just put Clayton County on a reality show,” Hinze said. “I think we’re the laughing stock.”

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