By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
Sheriff Republican candidate Ray Cross got a chance at last week’s political debate at Head River to set the record straight: He is not, either, promising a standoff with the federal government to defend Dade County’s right to keep and bear arms.
“Several months ago, Obama signed into law that he could declare martial law in times of peace,” Cross explained matter-of-factly to Dade’s most remote voting precinct.
Cross was referring, apparently, to a populist frenzy started this March by an incendiary newsletter from Republican Congresswoman Kay Granger of Texas. Ms. Granger, whose claims about martial law were based upon a colorful misinterpretation of a routine emergency preparedness executive order, withdrew them in a newsletter dated April 30.
But Cross, who was answering an audience question about what evidence he had that the federal government was planning an invasion of Dade, used the martial law threat as the basis for his stance. As sheriff, he would do all he could to keep the federal government from depriving the county of its guns in such an eventuality, or any of its other rights, said Cross. “That’s what I meant by that statement, not that I’m going to stand up and be a David Koresh against the federal government,” he said.
He’d never said word one about fighting the Feds to the death, said Cross. “I wish the news media would make direct quotes of what we say as candidates,” he said.
The Sentinel is happy to oblige. Here comes one now, from the Sentinel’s digital recording of Cross’s clarification:
“I strongly believe that our federal government, with the Obama administration, would love to come in and do away with our guns.”
The Oct. 2 debate, as might perhaps already have manifested, was lively and well attended, and moderator Mike Hollingsworth flipped through the stack of audience questions with obvious dismay. “I don’t feel that some of these questions need to be asked,” he said.
So audience members dispensed with formality and stood up to ask them themselves. It made for an informal atmosphere and candidates likewise posed their own questions to other candidates, while coroner incumbent Johnny Gray, though his challenger for the post, Danny Hall, was not even present, dived into discussion after discussion with interesting anecdotes about over-prescribing doctors, doc-shopping users, the drug deaths they cause and the secret force of “gun-toting pharmacists” the government sends to sniff them out.
It was a splashy show, and as at earlier debates the sheriff’s race was the standout act, with some of the same old questions asked – see accompanying articles – but a few new ones, too. One audience member asked why Head River so seldom sees a patrol car: “Are we that good and have no law breakers up here, or are we just forgotten?”
Philip Street, who was Dade’s sheriff for 20 years before losing to present Sheriff Patrick Cannon in 2004, and is now the Democratic contender, answered that yes, probably Head River had been forgotten. It wouldn’t be under his administration, though, when Lookout Mountain like Dade’s other precincts would be patrolled by an officer dedicated to that zone, with a floating supervisor to give backup without pulling other deputies from their own assigned areas.
The scheme sounded familiar, and not just to the Sentinel: “I came up with that plan back in January when I started running for sheriff,” protested Ray Cross.
Cross told Head River it was just as important as anyplace else in the county. “When I was on duty, I was up here at least twice a day,” he said.
Cross co-narrated with one resident the story of how he had helped solve a burglary at the man’s home. He had more hands-on law enforcement experience than Street, he said, solving burglaries, working accidents and holding people in his arms as they died. “I’ve been in a patrol car from ’93 until just a few months ago,” he said. “Every part that a sheriff’s done, I’ve done, except being a sheriff.”
Audience members were generous with their applause for Cross, but less gentle with Street. Have you ever had an inmate walk off? they asked him. (Answer: Yes.) Have you ever been under investigation yourself? (Answer: No.) What about all the lawsuits filed under your leadership? (Answer: “Stuff happens,” and “It’s totally out of our control.”) Well, were similar lawsuits filed against your successor, Patrick Cannon? (Answer: Ask the county attorney.)
Another question was: “You claim that you have learned from your past mistakes. What mistakes have you made that you’ve learned from?”
Street replied that he had always been too good for his own good. “Folks that I depended on that didn’t take care of stuff that they should have taken care of” he should have dealt more firmly with, said the once-and-would-be future sheriff, instead of “being the compassionate person I am” and “giving them the benefit of the doubt.”
Possibly this was a reference to the lawsuit question, but coming from a sheriff whose very supporters tend to express their approval along he-made-the-trains-run-on-time lines, the insight into Street’s self-perception as an old softie packed arguably as much audience astonishment value as Cross’s calm conspiracy theorizing.
“Hate me or love me, I had a reputation of being tough on drugs and thieves,” the candidate himself expressed the Street mystique. “I’ll continue to be tough on drug dealers and thieves.”
The sheriff candidates sparred as always about matters budgetary. Cross pointed out as a new sheriff he would cost the county less per annum than has Cannon, who has had raises, though Cross did not know how much the sheriff’s base salary was. (Answer: $58,800, according to the board of elections when qualifying fees were posted in January.)
Street said all county employees deserved a raise, and that starting deputies who were married with children routinely qualified for food stamps. “That’s very, very sad,” he said.
For the Georgia House of Representatives District 1 race, Republican candidate John Deffenbaugh seemed a little more prepped than at their previous debate to talk education alongside schoolteacher Tom McMahan, the Democratic contender. Discussion was general, though, with little disagreement aired between the two.
Fielding a question on the proposed Charter School Amendment, which he strongly opposes, McMahan explained that local boards of education already had the power to create charter schools as needed. He said the amendment would give the state the privilege to create a new kind of charter school that local school boards did not control. “The idea is to sort of privatize our schools, to allow companies to make a profit off them,” he said.
Deffenbaugh had less to say against the amendment but said he saw no point for charter schools in Dade County. “I think we’d be better off to work within the system,” he said.
Deffenbaugh said yes, local control of the schools was important, and added that the federal government had too much control as things stood. But he stressed the value of education in general and asked the sheriff candidates: “What is the degree of people in jail who don’t have a high school degree?” He said investing in education fights crime. “It means spending more money on the early end rather than the jail end,” he said.
Again, Democrat Johnny Gray was the only coroner candidate in evidence but he managed to weigh in on most issues nonetheless, including parenting – “You have to use tough love. I’ve seen the end result of what happens if you don’t let your kid go to jail” – and high grass on state right-of-ways – “It’s a safety issue. I haven’t worked a death yet but it’s coming.”
He urged Head River residents concerned about Georgia not mowing grass on its roads to call State Sen. Jeff Mullis, or to fire up their weed-eaters.
The next local debate is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday at the West Brow community center.