June primary shines light on Democratic challengers to Cobb sheriff

Cobb Democratic Sheriff candidates left to right: Gregory Gilstrap, James Herndon, and Craig Owens. (AJC file photos)

Cobb Democratic Sheriff candidates left to right: Gregory Gilstrap, James Herndon, and Craig Owens. (AJC file photos)

Three Democratic challengers are vying in the June 9 primary to face off against incumbent Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren, a Republican, in November.

But despite perennial political chatter about Cobb turning blue, Warren has easily sailed to re-election in years past—most recently in 2016, when he won despite Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump in the county.

This time around, Warren faces a pending ethics investigation by the state and publicity over a slew of deaths at the jail, which could make him vulnerable. He's also made national headlines for his role in a controversy at Kennesaw State University that led to the resignation of the school's president.

Still, after 16 years in power, the sheriff remains a formidable figure in a county that has historically favored conservative, tough-on-crime policies. All three Democratic candidates — James Herndon, Gregory Gilstrap and Craig Owens — have announced their intention to abandon some of those policies, such as 287g, a controversial immigration enforcement program. Herndon has also said he intends to de-emphasize enforcement of misdemeanor marijuana offenses.

Jacquelyn Bettadapur, chair of the Cobb County Democratic Committee, said she doesn't think staking out progressive positions in the primary will hurt the eventual party nominee in the general election, pointing to local shifts in attitudes and demographics. She said Warren's baggage and general lack of transparency, particularly around the department's budget, should be of concern to all Cobb residents.

“If you’re going to be the chief law enforcement officer, you need to be of a certain temperament that people can trust,” she said. “[Warren] just brings a lot of bad attention to Cobb County because of his actions.”

Warren’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Jason Shepherd, the chair of the Cobb County Republican Party, doesn’t think the jail deaths or ethics investigation — which looked like it was headed for a consent order before COVID-19 temporarily shut down the courts — will hurt Warren come November.

“He does need to acknowledge the issues because the Democrats are going to attack him on it, but overall he needs to focus on the positive achievements of his office and his staff over his entire tenure as sheriff,” Shepherd said. “Fortunately or unfortunately, a lot of it will have to do with how well the president does in the county … but the sheriff will continue to have a lot of crossover appeal.”

With three Democrats running, there could easily be a primary runoff between the top two finishers if no single candidate gets 50 percent of the vote. Fundraising will be especially important since the pandemic has severely limited grassroots campaigning, leaving candidates without Warren’s name recognition dependent on outdoor signage, direct mail and online advertising.

All three Democratic candidates have talked about restoring trust in the Sheriff’s Office and rebuilding community ties, focusing most of their platforms on what they say are needed reforms after years of Warren’s tenure.

But the race has already turned contentious after Gilstrap and Owens were temporarily disqualified by the Board of Elections over alleged violations reported by Herndon. A court later overturned that decision and reinstated the two candidates, but some prominent Democrats worried about the drama playing out in public, Bettadapur said.

Currently, Owens, a major in the Cobb County Police Department, appears to be leading among the Democratic candidates in terms of fundraising and endorsements. So far he has raised more than $72,000, including a $27,000 loan from himself, with $16,300 left on hand. He has also racked up the most high profile endorsements, including former Governor Roy Barnes; a handful of Democratic state lawmakers; and the president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"This election is really about restoring truth, trust and transparency to the Sheriff's Office, which obviously we don't have right now," Owens said, referring to complaints from families of detainees who died in custody. "We can't afford to get this wrong."

Herndon, a former sergeant with the Sheriff's Office, has raised about $15,000 to date and has about $2,400 on hand. He was won the backing of Democracy for America, a liberal political action committee founded by Howard Dean, and two Cobb school board members. Herndon has emphasized that he is the only candidate who has worked in the Cobb jail, and has warned that he believes the sheriff could get "scrappy" in the upcoming election. Herndon has been engaged in an ongoing legal battle with Warren over his personnel file, which he accuses the sheriff of falsifying in order to hurt his campaign.

“I expect them to fight tooth and nail to hold on to that office,” he said, referring to Warren and the Republican Party more broadly. “If they lose the Sheriff’s Office, the rest of the county will soon follow.”

Gilstrap touts his 38 years of law enforcement and security experience and has run against Warren for sheriff four times previously. In 2016, he won 44 percent of the vote. So far, Gilstrap has raised about $10,000, as well as about $2,000 in-kind contributions, and has $1,700 cash on hand. His website does not list any endorsements and he did not respond to a request for comment.

“A sheriff has to lead by example and have compassion,” Gilstrap said during a video interview with Bettadapur that was posted to the Democratic Committee’s website. “I will restore and maintain the public trust by being visible in the community.”

The Austell Community Taskforce and the Mableton Improvement Coalition are scheduled to host an online candidate forum for the sheriff's race on Thursday, May 21 at 7 p.m.