Photo by Kathy Jefcoats
Clayton County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Garland Watkins addresses supporters Tuesday. Watkins qualified as a write-in candidate for sheriff in November opposite his former boss, Victor Hill.
JONESBORO — Victor Hill, next sheriff of Clayton County?
Not so fast, said Clayton sheriff’s Chief Deputy Garland Watkins, throwing a monkey wrench into Hill’s best-laid plans to retake the office of sheriff after a four-year hiatus.
With a stroke of a pen and a well-placed legal ad, Watkins qualified Tuesday to run against would-be sheriff-elect Hill as a write-in candidate in November. Hill is facing a 37-county felony indictment for crimes he allegedly committed during his term in office, 2005 to 2008. He is set to go to trial Nov. 26 — 20 days after the election that could change the course of the county.
The prospect of having a person in the sheriff’s office who is facing years in prison if convicted has some people concerned, said Watkins.
“I’ve had so many phone calls from people who are concerned about the office of sheriff and where it’s going,” he said. “There is a cloud of uncertainty about the sheriff’s office. I gave it some thought and prayer and decided to go ahead and do a write-in campaign.”
It is said that politics makes for strange bedfellows and this situation almost requires a program to sort the players. Hill was elected Clayton’s first black sheriff in 2004. On his first day in office — January 2005 — he fired 27 deputies. Watkins, a lieutenant, was one of them.
Watkins, 50, had worked at the sheriff’s office since 1986, his entire law enforcement career. When the deputies reached a settlement with the county over the firings, Watkins transferred to the county police department in 2007. In 2008, Watkins joined a handful of other law enforcement officers who qualified to run against Hill in an effort to unseat him. Watkins finished third, with 14 percent of the vote, behind Hill and Kem Kimbrough. Kimbrough narrowly won a run-off with Hill and took office in January 2009. He brought Watkins in as chief deputy.
In January, a Clayton County grand jury indicted Hill on 37 felonies related to his duties as sheriff. After his 2008 defeat, Hill ran unsuccessfully for state senate and vowed to make a third run for sheriff. The indictment proved no barrier to his either campaigning or winning against Kimbrough.
However, with Hill the apparent sheriff-elect after another narrow run-off — and his conviction far from a certainty — his opponents scrambled to find another way to keep him out of office. Kimbrough, who was out of town Tuesday, gave Watkins his blessing in taking on the challenge of winning a write-in campaign, said sheriff’s Capt. Brian Crisp.
Watkins said he is up to the task.
“I’m running to give people a choice,” he said. “People who know me know I have integrity, character and am an outstanding leader. I want to use those qualities to prevail over Victor Hill.”
Watkins promises to run a clean campaign.
“I want to focus on the issues of the office,” he said. “Victor has legal problems that in itself are obstacles for him. With something like that hanging overhead, nobody should look to attain the office of sheriff, not with the question of conviction looming over him.”
Hill could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday but maintains his innocence and has pleaded not guilty.
Hill’s attorney, Steve Frey, said he wishes Watkins well.
“I’ve known Garland a long time, I like him and don’t wish him any ill-will,” he said.
Should Hill prevail in November, his ascension to office is not guaranteed. He will go to trial Nov. 26 and faces years in prison if convicted. If convicted of any felony, he will not be eligible to take office Jan. 1. An interim sheriff will likely be appointed and a special election may be held.