By Daniel Silliman
As the five men running against the incumbent Clayton County sheriff prepared for an early candidates forum, they sat down behind microphones, spaced along the table, and their chairs were a few feet apart. The men started to feel out their relationships to one another, and their relationships to the big absence in the room -- Sheriff Victor Hill.
In the campaigns of some of the challengers, the assumption seems to be that if the controversial sheriff loses his re-election bid, and one particular contender wins, then justice will have been served. Everything seems to be focused on Hill.
But in the campaigns of others, the strategy seems to be to run as if Hill doesn't exist.
"I feel like, every time you mention him, you actually give him something," said Kem Kimbrough, the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia attorney, and a major in a former sheriff's administration. He is trying to unseat the current sheriff without talking about him.
"The ballot is not going to have, 'Victor Hill, yes or no?'" Kimbrough said. "You have to pick someone to vote for. People come up to me, and they say, 'Anybody but Lil' Man,' 'Anybody but Lil' Man.' But that's not the answer. You don't get any points for continuing to rant and rave. I say, 'Let me tell you why it should be Kem Kimbrough.'"
Kimbrough, in an attempt to show that people are choosing him, and not just voting against Hill, is pursuing a number of endorsements from respected organizations. He recently filmed a campaign ad, which has been described by those familiar with the project as showing "people excited about Kimbrough."
Over at the Earnest Strozier campaign, staffers are working with a different strategy. Instead of ignoring Hill, the lieutenant from College Park is attempting to take him on.
In Strozier's first campaign press conference, he called for an investigation, alleging possible campaign-law violations by Hill. Strozier held up documents obtained through open records requests and made allegations. The press conference got him on the evening news, and his campaign staff believes that's a big step for a challenger.
Michael Murphy, Strozier's campaign manager, said their first goal is publicity. "In our case, the key is name recognition," Murphy said. "They've heard his name before. They know he's running ... Our strategy is going to be very high visibility, and then capitalizing on the difference between Earnest and the incumbent and, of course, between Earnest and the others."
Murphy said they decided, in early conversations, to run against the sheriff, rather than try "a strategy of pretending it's an open seat."
The Strozier campaign has continued in that style, with "morning stand-outs at high-traffic intersections," putting the effort into broad exposure, more than into one-on-one conversations.
The style of Strozier's paid campaign staff contrasts starkly with some of the styles of other challengers. Garland Watkins, who spent 21 years as a sheriff's deputy, said he's been campaigning door-to-door and going to any social events he can find.
"I got a billboard up," Watkins said. "Up on Tara Boulevard. I had no idea that cost so much ... The hardest part, for me, about this whole thing, is I'm not a politician. Not being a politician and not being in the political arena, fund-raising and getting campaign contributions is very hard. We need the funding to pay for the advertisements and pay for the ways to get your name out, but it's really tough. I've just been talking to people."
When asked directly, Watkins said he doesn't talk about Hill, while campaigning. He spent 16 years in managerial positions in the sheriff's office before being fired by Hill on Hill's first day in office. Almost all of Watkins' campaign statements reference the current sheriff.
His campaign flyer urges people to get out and vote because "WE MUST END THIS NIGHTMARE." It describes the last four years as "a bleak picture of an out-of-control Sheriff mismanaging his office and creating an unsafe environment." Watkins promises to "restore the professionalism, respectability and accountability the Sheriff's office needs."
Meanwhile, candidate Sherman Lemon has developed a way, while campaigning, to avoid getting into arguments about the incumbent sheriff. "I don't try to change their mind," said Lemon, who recently retired from the Clayton County Police Department as a major with 29 years experience. "I just say, 'If you do your research, you will see he's hurt the county.' I think the current administration speaks for itself. It has failed the county and I don't need to say much more."
Lemon primarily has campaigned at area churches and homeowners' associations, using the connections he made through his work at his family's funeral home and his work as a police officer.
"I've been involved in the community, and that means a lot," said Lemon. "You get to know the ministers of the churches, and the pastors of the churches and that has helped tremendously. They've opened their doors up to allow me to speak."
The fifth candidate campaigning for sheriff has, in his own words, "been laying back in the cut to see who my opponent really is."
Jack Rainwater is running as a Republican, one of only three Republicans running in the Democratic-dominated county. He wanted to run as an independent, he said, but it required almost 7,000 signatures to get on the ballot and, with the Democratic primary so crowded, he opted to go with the GOP.
"It's not really a great move," said Rainwater, who spent 12 years in the Atlanta Police Department and now works with a private security firm.
Rainwater, who has mostly been campaigning on the south side of the county, holding his initial meet-and-greets in Lovejoy and Jonesboro, said he's run into a lot of the people who plan to vote for Hill.
"I hear a lot of people say they're supporting him, and then we talk about the money he's costing us, the way he's hurt property values and, one of the big things for me, the morale in that office," said Rainwater. "I'm not going to down-grade the current sheriff, I simply want to replace him, to do a professional job. And I want to take ego and arrogance out of the job."
On a recent Saturday morning, Rainwater was shaking hands at a privately-owned coffee shop, south of Jonesboro. He stopped to talk to an older couple about his campaign. They gave him the opportunity to attack the other challengers in the race, asking an open-ended question like, "Well there sure are a lot of people running for sheriff." Rainwater avoided the opportunity to attack, though, complimenting his opponents' experience, service and dedication in abstract terms, and then turning to his own platform.
"All of us are qualified," Rainwater said, "but I'm not hearing a lot of talk about a platform. I'm not hearing a lot about what's going to be done, and how it's going to be done. I'm going to give you a quote, John C. Maxwell [a best-selling author and a leadership expert] defines a leader as one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way. That description fits me, and if I'm elected, that's exactly how we will handle business."
After each of the candidates stakes out his relationship to Hill, he must then position himself against other challengers. All five contenders are pretty deferential toward each other, and each has crafted a succinct statement about his own experience, making himself the most qualified of all the qualified candidates.
Watkins points to his time in the sheriff's office. All the challengers agree that the sheriff's office is different than the police department, and needs to be taken down to its basic duties of operating the jail, providing security for the courts and serving warrants. But Watkins said he is the only one who has spent more than two decades as a deputy.
"Being there so long, I know what worked in the past and what failed," he said. "This is not about self-elevation. My heart is for that sheriff's office. That's where I grew up as a young man. I think people, by and large, value that sense of dedication."
Kimbrough takes a similar position, saying he thinks the next sheriff needs experience in the sheriff's office. "The way I've been hearing it, it's really either me or Watkins," Kimbrough said. "I think people see that we're from within the sheriff's office ... I'm trying to get across to people my command experience. I was the commander of the jail, no one else can say that. You can be a 30-year dog catcher and still not be qualified to run animal control. I commanded that jail. I literally was the daddy. I looked after my people. I took care of my people, and that's what a leader is supposed to do."
Lemon said the qualities of a leader aren't earned through wearing one badge or another, but through years and years of commitment and service. "You have to know how to administrate and communicate," Lemon said. "I've learned through the years."
Strozier is attempting to carve out a middle interpretation of "experience," positioning himself as the candidate who has experience in the field, doing law enforcement work and receiving law enforcement training, and who also has experience as a commander. That combination, according to Murphy, means Strozier has the experience that counts.
As the challengers all push toward the July 15 primary and beyond, marking out territories and making use of their own campaign styles and strategies, they are also promoting the idea that this election is all about change.
"I do believe this is the year when we finally get it together and make a change," Kimbrough said. "But there's a hold-out cynic in my mind, that says, 'This is all a crap shoot.' I'm hopeful that this is the year where we're fed up, and we want change, but I'm still worried."