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Four challengers lining up against sheriff

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

With a third candidate kicking off a campaign to unseat the county's controversial, incumbent sheriff, and a fourth printing campaign literature, the field of contenders is growing crowded.

Seven months before the decisive primary election, it is not clear, however, how the challengers will distinguish themselves and avoid splitting the anti-incumbent vote.

"That's absolutely a concern," said Kem Kimbrough, one of the four men running against Sheriff Victor Hill. "I know it's been discussed in my campaign and I guarantee it's been discussed in the other candidate's campaigns."

The four challengers -- Kimbrough, formerly of the sheriff's office; College Park Police Lt. Ernest Strozier; Clayton County Police Lt. Garland Watkins; and Clayton County Police Maj. Sherman Lemon -- all have extensive law enforcement experience.

Each of the men expressed respect for his fellow challengers, and has considered the possibility the group could split the anti-Hill vote so much, that the incumbent sheriff would gain a second term.

Kimbrough said he thinks the crowded field indicates there is a strong sentiment for change, and he only wishes more candidates had run in 2004, when Hill was elected.

"If we had had more qualified candidates in '04, we wouldn't have been limited in the choices we had, and may not have had some of the problems we've had," Kimbrough said.

Strozier's campaign manager, Mike Murphy, said that rather than splitting the number of voters who oppose the incumbent, he hopes it has the opposite effect, and increases the number of anti-Hill voters through the four candidate's criticisms.

"The more missiles going his way, the better," Murphy said.

So far, however, the four Democratic candidates have been campaigning quietly against the Democratic sheriff. They have only criticized Hill in veiled ways.

Strozier, who raised $3,000 at a recent campaign event, opens his mission statement rather bluntly: "The best way to solve any problem is to remove the cause."

His campaign manager, Murphy, makes reference to the lawsuits against Hill, in his pitch for Strozier, promising that Strozier's election will "assure the taxpayer that you're not likely to be exposed to the lawsuits that you're seeing now."

Kicking off his campaign with a meet-and-greet on Thursday, Watkins -- who was fired from the sheriff's office on Hill's first day on the job, and who recently received a sizable settlement check from the county -- only alludes to allegations, while outlining his campaign promises.

"I will re-establish order and control within the sheriff's office," he said. "Re-establishing and making sure the people adhere to the organization rules and regulations, the standard operating procedures. My goal, first and foremost, is to promote a non-hostile work environment. In my opinion, I don't feel like that's being done."

During Watkins' first major "campaign" appearance -- in a Christmas parade in Jonesboro -- he didn't even mention he was running for sheriff. Complying with the parade's rules that the event was non-partisan, his campaign signs only listed his name. His volunteers, shouting his name without saying why, passed out candy, rather than literature.

Lemon, the oldest candidate at 52, lists employee morale, multi-agency cooperation, and not listening as the biggest failings of the Hill administration.

"I have watched this county pretty much disintegrate," Lemon said. "When we lost contact with the community, I think that's when the problem started. One of the biggest and most important things I think we have got to do is, we have to have an open ear."

Lemon said he has personally experienced Hill's refusal to listen. Part of the reason he didn't run in 2004, even though he was approached and asked, Lemon said, was because of his relationship with Hill. He had once been Hill's supervisor, he said, and the two men talked about how Hill should act as sheriff.

"I encouraged him to assess the situation and go slow," Lemon said. "He told me I should pull on his coat tails if I thought he was getting a big head. He won't even speak to me now. He hasn't returned my phone calls."

Hill, for his part, has said he doesn't plan to even acknowledge any of the contenders during his campaign.

"This is my position: I don't know who any of these guys are. I've never heard of them and I don't want to know who they are," Hill said in May, when two candidates announced they would run against him and two more were rumored to join the race. Hill said he didn't plan to mention the men or respond to their comments, during the campaign. He intends, he said, to be re-elected on his record of "quality of life issues," and vice crack downs.

The 42-year-old sheriff's campaign has been the most visible, so far, with billboards across the county announcing his intentions.

The four challengers all said that while they have started campaigning, they don't expect to push the race "into high gear" until sometime between February and May, leading up to the Democratic primary next summer.

Kimbrough said he plans to campaign differently than Hill, and expects the other challengers are also going to move away from the sheriff's methods of communicating to voters. This next election, he said, will be won by organizational skills and community connections, rather than the divisiveness and campaign ads of the last one.

"People are sick and tired of racial politics," he said. "People are no longer interested in how many billboards you got, or flashy slogans."