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VOL. 125 | NO. 75 | Monday, April 19, 2010

Sheriff's Race Attracts Hard-Boiled Veterans

By Bill Dries

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Email reporter | Comments ()


The May 4 primary ballot features 44 races for 22 positions.
There are 77 candidates in those races, 47 in the Democratic primaries and 30 in the Republican primaries.
A dozen of the races have no candidate listed under the party heading, meaning whoever wins the other primary on May 4 will win the seat, since they will go to the August county general election unopposed.
The races with no one in them are evenly split, six Democratic primaries and six Republican primaries, and all are races for the Shelby County Commission.
Only one of the 13 commission races will not be decided until the August general election – the District 5 showdown in which Republican Rolando Toyos will face the winner in the Democratic primary between incumbent Steve Mulroy and Jennings Bernard.
Seven of the primary contests are one-candidate affairs – six are Republican primaries and one is Democratic.
That includes Toyos as well as incumbent county commissioner Mike Ritz, the only incumbent on the ballot who has no opposition.
Also in the group of seven is former county commissioner Walter Bailey. Bailey left the commission in 2006 because of term limits.
After four years, he filed for his old District 2 Position 1 seat on the commission. He effectively won election to the seat because he also has no opposition of any kind.
The remaining unopposed primary candidates are in countywide races and advance to the August ballot, where they will meet the winner of the opposing party’s primary.

They are:
  • Republican incumbent Circuit Court Clerk Jimmy Moore.
  • Republican incumbent Register Tom Leatherwood.
  • Republican Joy Touliatos in the race for Juvenile Court clerk.
  • And Republican Paul Boyd for Probate Court clerk.

The net result is 25 of the 44 primary contests will be decided by voters. The remaining 19 were decided at the filing deadline for candidates in February.
Most voters will see a ballot that has a dozen races – three County Commission positions and the nine countywide primary races.
But voters in County Commission District 5 will have 10 races to decide. The district is smaller than the other four. It has only one representative as opposed to three.

Most of the Democratic and Republican candidates for Shelby County sheriff gathered last month in the office of outgoing Sheriff Mark Luttrell.

In the briefing, Luttrell made his case for what the next sheriff might want to make a priority.

The meeting was significant for two reasons: First, it was well attended. Second, it is the clearest indication yet of a relatively peaceful transition in an elected office that hasn’t had a similar transition since Bill Morris left in 1970.

A.C. Gilless chose not to run for re-election in 2002 when Luttrell won the post.

By then Gilless was the longest-serving sheriff in Shelby County history.

But Gilless, who died in 2004, left office after 12 years with the jail still under federal court supervision and, in the opinion of a court monitor, controlled by street gangs.

His former chief deputy, Ray Mills, was in prison for selling deputy positions. And county taxpayers paid $27,000 to settle a lawsuit in which a deputy claimed Gilless had sexually harassed her.

Live, die by sword

Gilless took office in the election that followed the suicide of Sheriff Jack Owens in 1990 as Owens was being investigated by a federal grand jury.

Owens had toppled Gene Barksdale in the 1986 elections that ended a 10-year reign in which several of Barksdale’s chief deputies and other managers had run against him in hard-fought elections.

Barksdale emerged on top in a scramble that followed Roy Nixon’s move from sheriff to becoming the first Shelby County mayor in 1976.

From 1970 to 2002, campaigns for sheriff were usually personal, hard-fought, dominated by deputies in the management ranks and carried out on county time, frequently using patrol cars.

Deputies in the lower ranks who weren’t politically minded or ambitious dreaded election season because it was difficult if not impossible to be neutral.

Backing a losing candidate could sidetrack a law enforcement career. Backing more than one candidate was worse because it could create career-long suspicion about what became the most valued asset to any career in khaki – absolute loyalty.

By the time he left, even Gilless had apparently grown weary of the constant turmoil.

He closed out his tenure in a contract negotiation year with deputies by doing away with the clause that allowed them to be able to run for public office without being forced to take a leave of absence.

Crime, punishment

Of the eight candidates in the Democratic and Republican primaries, two are part of Luttrell’s command staff, four more have management positions below the command staff and one is a former ranking officer. Only one has never been a sheriff’s deputy.

The winners of the primaries advance to the Aug. 5 general election. The winner there will become the 46th sheriff. He or she will be the first sheriff to be term limited under terms of a Shelby County charter amendment approved by voters in a 2008 countywide referendum.

Randy Wade and Reginald French are the most recognizable names in either primary. Wade was the Democratic Party’s 2002 nominee for sheriff. French was the 2006 Democratic nominee. Each lost to Luttrell.

This time they are joined by more than the same primary at the same time. Willingly and unwillingly, they are the undercard match for the August Democratic congressional race between incumbent Steve Cohen and former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.

French is a close associate of Herenton. But in kicking off his campaign in February, French made liberal use of the word “independent” to describe how his campaign would work and what kind of sheriff he would be.

“We simply cannot afford to go back to the old-style ways of ideas of the past and political bosses,” French said. “To prevent crime and make our community safer, we must implement smart, effective policies and address the root causes of criminal activity.”

Wade, a former sheriff’s deputy, is a top aide and adviser to Cohen. Cohen describes him as his “brother from another mother.”

“They put me in the middle of Randy Wade and Reginald French because of their name recognition and their association with different politicians.”

– Bennie Cobb, Candidate for sheriff

Cohen and Wade have been campaigning in tandem, including a set of billboards that went up last month around town featuring them as well as kickboxing champion Anthony “Amp” Elmore and television Judge Joe Brown.

What Wade took away from the PowerPoint presentation with Luttrell in March is the jail again will be overcrowded by 2016 if current arrest trends continue and no new jail is built.

“It sounds good to stand here amongst all of my friends and say I’m going to be tough on crime,” Wade told a crowd of more than 100 people at his Midtown campaign opening. “That’s a real political statement. But it’s not all about being tough on crime.”


None of the candidates in either primary are using a “lock them up” pitch exclusively.

All have advocated some alternative sentencing programs for nonviolent younger offenders as they had called for tougher state sentencing laws for repeat violent offenders.

Bennie Cobb concedes his supporters and other voters have cast him as “the man in the middle” in the Democratic primary.

“They put me in the middle of Randy Wade and Reginald French because of their name recognition and their association with different politicians,” Cobb told The Memphis News.

Cobb is a captain in the sheriff’s department, the executive officer of the uniform patrol division.

He is not a big fan of the interim years between Jack Owens and Mark Luttrell.

“I think our department is in a regrowth – a rebirth. We got out of hard core enforcement,” he said.

Campaigning in the Klondike area of North Memphis, Cobb reminded a group of 30 or so behind Friendship Baptist Church that he grew up in the area and later worked drug details there.

He’s emphasizing more collaboration with area police chiefs in the suburbs, with the sheriff coordinating the regional approach to law enforcement.

“We know that we are pushing the criminals from one jurisdiction to another. What I want to do as sheriff, along with the other police directors, is keep pushing and keep pushing until we close the vice and we squeeze them in and they don’t go across jurisdictional lines,” Cobb said.

“Prevention can come while you lock a person up,” said James Coleman, who is running in the GOP primary.

He should know. He’s the chief of the Shelby County Jail.

“I tell inmates all the time … that they were on the road to two places – hell or jail. Coming to jail may have stopped them from going to hell. Now you’ve got a chance to think about the mistakes you’ve made in your life,” he said

Gilless hired Coleman in the last year of his final term as sheriff. Coleman was assistant chief jailer until 2004 when Luttrell made him jail director.

Coleman came to Memphis from Nashville, where he began a career in corrections by working for the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office more than 35 years ago. From there he served as training director for the Tennessee Corrections Institute. He is also a corrections consultant and specialist with certification from several professional groups.

The Davidson County sheriff became responsible only for Nashville’s jail when city and county governments were consolidated in the early 1960s.

With a Metro Charter Commission working on a proposed Memphis-Shelby County consolidation charter, Coleman is not an advocate of doing that to the position of Shelby County sheriff.

“There’s a reason that the framers of our Constitution wanted it that way – to make sure that all of the citizens of the county were protected,” Coleman said. “I would hate to see the county sheriff’s office ever dismantled.”

So would his rivals in both primaries.

All have advocated a higher profile for sheriff’s deputies in the city of Memphis as well as the few remaining unincorporated areas of Shelby County.

That includes Bill Oldham, Luttrell’s chief deputy, who comes at the job from a very different perspective. Oldham is a former Memphis police director.

Oldham is campaigning on a theme of continuing Luttrell’s initiatives. In his speeches, he emphasizes his law enforcement career and resume.

“I’m a career law enforcement officer,” he has told several groups.

Oldham became director during a politically unstable time in which Herenton went through five police directors in 13 years before settling on Larry Godwin, the current police director.

Oldham had already planned to retire before he was thrust into the top job in 1999.

He joined the MPD in 1972. It was a time of visible change in the department – but also a time when cowboy cops were more common and patrol officers prided themselves on the new patrol cars built along the lines of Richard Petty’s 1971 Dodge Charger racecar.

After 10 years as a patrol officer, Oldham began his climb through the ranks.

By the time he became a deputy chief in 1991, the police department had several longstanding joint units with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department. The joint units were re-examined when Godwin became director and some were eliminated.

The Sheriff’s Department side of the units have thrived under Luttrell. And when Oldham came out of retirement in 2002, the year Luttrell was elected, Oldham became chief deputy in charge of the department’s law enforcement division.

Tough customers

Dale Lane is a product of several of the units that work within the city of Memphis. He is commander of the Homeland Security Division within the department after stints on the Interstate Drug Interdiction Team, the K-9 Unit, the Street Crime Unit and the Metro Gang Unit.

Lane is also a reminder that Bill Morris remains a powerful political example among those who have ambitions to wear the star.

In the 1980s, Jack Owens, who was not in the field, frequently cited Morris’s lack of law enforcement experience in his campaign to oust Barksdale.

Luttrell is a corrections professional. But like Morris, his political origins are in the Jaycees, a civic organization that spawned the city’s first post-World War II generation of political leadership.

Lane, who was born two years after Morris became sheriff, has invoked Morris’s image as he copes with the political foibles of looking younger than his age. He is frequently asked how old he is.

“I don’t know if I don’t look old enough to be sheriff,” Lane told supporters at his campaign opening. “I’m reminded that our president is 49 and Bill Morris was 32 when he became sheriff. Well, I’m 44.”

Luttrell is the fourth sheriff Lane has worked under since joining the department in 1989.

Like everyone else in the race, except Wade and French, Lane’s entry into the race was rapid and prompted by Luttrell’s sudden decision to run for mayor.

But Lane had already been considering a new job.

“I’ve been preparing for the day I walk out of the sheriff’s office," he said. "I’ll have my time in just a little over three and a half years ... My goal has always been to become a chief of police or a sheriff when I retire."

That changed when Luttrell made his announcement in February.

“I went home, prayed with my wife and felt that this was the right thing to do,” Lane said.

Lane’s religious beliefs are prominent in his campaign and he makes no apologies for them while pledging that he will be inclusive as sheriff.

He’s also started to make sure voters understand that he is a realist as well as a devout Christian.

“We have some really fine Christian leaders in our community. But we also have some that are corrupt," he told supporters. "And it’s time for us, collectively, to stand up and say enough is enough."

Lane wants to create a “youth violence strike force” that would work regionally “to not only do suppression and lock people up, but they’re about intervention and they’re about prevention.”

“Violent crime impedes economic development. It prevents our kids from getting a good education,” Lane said. “And the biggest thing, it lowers the overall quality of life because fear is so high."

Lane is not the only candidate with new ideas.

Wade is not a fan of the Operation Safe Community ad campaign. Luttrell has been a key player in the united crime strategy that has pushed for tougher state sentencing laws and emphasized cooperation.

Wade agrees with that. But he said the television and billboard ads advising citizens to “chill, don’t kill” are “negative.”

“The ads are not working. … I would love to see an ad … that would say, ‘Down with incarceration and up with education.’”

He’s also not a fan of the MPD’s Blue CRUSH crime crackdowns based on statistical data.

“When (the police) leave, there’s nothing to take care of that property. It becomes an eyesore,” Wade said. “If you go in there with a Wyatt Earp mentality, you are going to get a Wyatt Earp response.”

Like Wade and French, Bobby Simmons is making his second bid for sheriff. Unlike them, he’s a Republican.

He finished behind Luttrell in the 2002 GOP primary.

Since then, he’s been elected to the Bartlett board of aldermen. He is serving his second term after decades in law enforcement.

Simmons is promoting community outreach efforts.

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