Long-time Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren, a Republican who garnered national attention as an immigration hard-liner, appears to have lost his bid for reelection to Democrat Craig Owens, a police major who would be the county’s first Black sheriff.
“There’s a new day; there’s a new sheriff, and we can do things the right way,” said Owens, who spoke of a need to restore trust in the Sheriff’s Office among the public and deputies alike.
Warren, who has held office since 2003, did not respond to a request for comment. Owens was ahead by 40,000 votes Thursday with just a few hundred remaining to be counted, according to unofficial results.
In addition to facing demographic headwinds, Warren has been dogged by a series of “public relations nightmares" that hurt his campaign, said Kerwin Swint, the head of the Political Science Department at Kennesaw State University.
Several years ago, Warren made national headlines by inserting himself into a controversy over how KSU handled student protests, which resulted in the ousting of the school’s president, fellow Republican Sam Olens. The episode also sparked a lawsuit against Warren billed to Cobb taxpayers.
Later, a slew of deaths at the jail provoked a public outcry and a series of community town halls in which the sheriff refused to participate.
Warren was also recently fined $10,000 for campaign finance violations, including using county resources to run his campaign.
Over time, his ultra-conservative positions fell out of sync with a changing county. Under Warren, Cobb was the first jurisdiction in Georgia to enter into the 287(g) program, which extended the reach of immigration authorities into the jail.
Owens ran on pulling out of the program as quickly as possible — he hopes within his first 100 days.
“It shows you where Cobb County has been trending demographically,” Swint said of the sheriff’s race. “Owens ... will be more in tune with some of the national calls for change."
Owens said being the first African American sheriff is a “great responsibility” that he takes very seriously, but he also said his election shows Cobb voters will elect the most qualified candidate, regardless of race.
“Cobb had a very negative connotation for several years” when it came to race relations, he said. “This shows that Cobb has turned the page on that.”
Owens undoubtedly benefitted from high Democratic turnout for the presidential election. But he also received the support of several high profile conservatives, including the head of the local police union and Olens, the former university president and state attorney general whose career in academia was cut short by Warren’s interference.
Some voters also seemed willing to split their ballots in an otherwise polarized electoral landscape.
“I’m a lawyer, I go to the jail a lot and I’d like to see them make some changes,” said Daniel Hoffey, a Cobb voter who cast his ballot for Trump and Owens. “Warren’s been there too long.”