Clayton sheriff masters ‘retail politics’ to manage divisive reputation

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill may be divisive to many outside of the south metro community, but many residents said he’s popular on his home turf because he focuses on everyday issues that other politicians don’t.

Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill may be divisive to many outside of the south metro community, but many residents said he’s popular on his home turf because he focuses on everyday issues that other politicians don’t.

When Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill offered to pay $2,500 of his own money to anyone with information on a man recently accused of assaulting two seniors at a grocery store, Marla Thompson-Kendall wasn't surprised.

The sheriff may be known to many outside of the south metro community as a divisive figure — he’s jailed a potential opponent for office, has a history of controversial staff firings and accidentally shot a female friend while demonstrating “police tactics” during a date — but the Victor Hill that stepped up to find the alleged assailant of 80-year-old Mary Gardner and her 60-year-old daughter, Kathy Malone, is the person many in the county know, Thompson-Kendall and supporters said.

Instead of a leader who calls himself the “Crime Fighter” and who posted snipers on the sheriff’s office roof after firing employees when he was first elected to the office in 2005, many Clayton residents say they see Hill as someone who dispatches deputies to take home elderly residents who don’t like driving after dark or who calls veterans on their birthdays to thank them for their military service. He’s someone who responds quickly to calls about garbage piling up on roadways when other county departments won’t, they said.

“If other politicians did what he does, we would be in a lot better place,” said Thompson-Kendall, an adjunct professor at Life University. “He’s the best sheriff south of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Others, such as Dee Haney, see him as a man of his word. Hill came to her home two years ago after someone had broken in to make sure she was safe. He had told her in past conversations that she could count on him if there was trouble, but she thought it was just a political promise.

“I called Clayton Police and they came but I also called him,” she said. “Surprisingly, he personally came out.”

Hill’s financial offer was a stunt for his re-election, the sheriff’s detractors said. Hill won re-election in 2016 with 63 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.

The alleged assailant in the attack of the two women, Joseph Kenneth Arnold, 49, was taken into custody Tuesday by Forest Park Police. Hill said the money will be spent taking Forest Park Detectives out for a celebratory dinner.

The sheriff, who has declined interviews for years and prefers to communicate directly with residents through an online notification tool called Nixle, also sends chaplains to funerals as a way of promoting his office and pushes weather and traffic alerts to residents phones as a way of keeping his name on voters' minds, the detractors said.

“It’s all a facade,” said former Clayton Sheriff’s Office chaplain Rodney Williams, who was fired by Hill in 2018 and took his dismissal to court. “It’s about him being the best politician he can be.”

Gerrian Hawes, whose husband plans to run against Hill, agreed.

"These approaches are known as marketing acknowledgement techniques," said Hawes, who was arrested by Hill after the sheriff said she sent him harassing messages. "Acknowledging constituents is a classic example of why so many unworthy elected officials stay in office. The current sheriff of Clayton County uses this technique during pre-election cycles. In my opinion, these are manipulation tactics to overshadow the real horror of what is going on in the Clayton County Sheriff's office."

Others said what Hill is demonstrating is his understanding of what constituents want. While his duties don’t directly include cleaning up garbage or dispatching deputies to give residents rides, Hill connects with Clayton voters on a personal level that is often referred to as retail politics. Instead of talking about big policies or initiatives to combat problems, he focuses on direct contact with residents to show him as indispensable to the community.

“It’s very smart politics to engage the community,” said Harvey Newman, professor emeritus from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. “The only downside would be if he neglects his work as a law enforcement officer.”

Hill quickly took to Nixle on Tuesday to announce the arrest of Arnold.

"'Bring him in before sundown', Hill wrote. "This is the order Sheriff Victor Hill gave his elite Fugitive Squad once the warrant was signed by a judge for Arnold's arrest. Arnold realized that he picked the wrong county to abuse the elderly, and wisely choose to surrender peacefully when Fugitive Squad members came for him."

The sheriff’s Facebook page lit up with compliments Wednesday.

“Thank you Sheriff Hill you got our vote. Glad this clown is off the street!!” one person wrote, while another said, “This is why Mr. Hill will ALWAYS be my Sheriff! Thank you sir!”

Clayton resident Pat Pullar said Hill’s success is about substance more than his style. She thinks that he has become a little more humble and that his missteps of the past have made him a better leader.

“When you can’t get others on the phone and he is there, it’s not hard to see why he is liked,” she said. “Who are you going to support when others make you jump through hoops.”