By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
From last week’s local political debate at American Legion Post 106, the last in the series before the Nov. 6 general election, yet another issue emerged in Dade County’s bitterly fought sheriff’s race: Philip Street, Dade’s once and would-be future sheriff, shrugged off an audience question about an alleged contest among deputies during his previous term as to who could write the most traffic tickets, incidentally gathering $2 a pop toward the sheriffs’ retirement fund, but he did not deny it happened.
“They may have had their own little game going on, but they done their job and there was never any excessive amounts,” said Street.
Street was Dade’s sheriff from 1985 until 2004, when he lost to present Sheriff Patrick Cannon in the Democratic primary. His 20-year administration was characterized by frequent police roadblocks, which he has defended, during this year’s campaign to retake his old office, as the best way to find wrongdoers. “A suspended driver is a suspended driver is a suspended driver,” he paraphrased the Gertrude Stein poem in a previous debate.
But the ticket contest question marked the first time this election year Street has been accused – publicly, in any case – of using his signature heavy-handed policing to feather any nests.
The question was prefaced by a reference to the Georgia Annotated Code section allowing for $2 of each traffic ticket citation to go to the Sheriffs’ Retirement of Georgia fund. “It is alleged that several of your deputies had a competition to see who could write the most tickets,” moderator Dion Bradford read from an index card submitted by an audience member. “Were you aware of this? As sheriff, how could you not know? Why did you allow this ridiculous behavior to continue?”
Street answered that yes, $2 of each traffic fine went to Sheriffs’ Retirement, later mentioning that other amounts went for other causes.
But he neither precisely admitted nor denied knowing his deputies had competed to add most to the pot. “As far as me promoting it, I told them, I said, guys, you know what your job is, you go do it, and I’m not going to interfere with you doing your job as long as you’re fair, you’re honest, it’s legal.”
Street didn’t seem to find anything wrong with any such perp-busting bee. “I don’t think that the deputy sheriff would give anybody a ticket if they didn’t have the legal right to give a ticket,” he said. “Suspended license, insurance, DUI, reckless driving, speeding – I don’t think there’s anybody out there that wants these folks to run free in your neighborhood or in your community.”
And in any case, as he added later: “If the judge don’t find them guilty, they don’t get any.”
This Oct. 16 debate differed broadly in form from earlier ones, moderated rather aggressively by Dion Bradford, who began the evening by reading from the Georgia constitution and drawing some interesting inferences – Is the state perhaps spending too much on education? Should it help pay college tuition at all, or wasn’t that the responsibility of parents?
Bradford convened the event with the customary prayer but markedly not with the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, and he questioned the two candidates for Georgia House of Representatives on where they stood on gay marriage with a stern preface on where they had better.
(Answers: Republican candidate John Deffenbaugh said marriage was between a man and a woman, which was traditional, Biblical and the way it should be; Democrat Tom McMahan said churches, not the state, should regulate the institution of holy matrimony.)
Bradford said, as no audience questions had been submitted for Johnny Gray and Danny Hall, respectively the incumbent Democrat and challenging Republican for Dade’s part-time coroner position, he would allow them a moment to speak and then dismiss them. The candidates accordingly stood up, asked audience members for their votes on Nov. 6, and forthwith stepped down.
Bradford later also dismissed the Georgia House candidates, though first allowing them plenty of time to answer audience questions and to make their positions clear.
As at other debates, McMahan, a schoolteacher, used the opportunity to speak out against the proposed Charter School Amendment, which he describes as a cynical corporate grab of taxpayer dollars and an attempt by the state to wrest control of schools from local boards of education.
“It’s clearly a violation of the local counties’ rights to run schools,” said McMahan. “What I really fear is over time is that we’re going to see the budget for traditional schools gradually shrunk, with more and more going to these charter schools outside of our area.”
“I have not made up my mind yet,” Deffenbaugh said on the same issue.
But answering a question on whether he shouldn’t show more leadership on this matter, Deffenbaugh displayed his copy of the amendment to show it was heavily highlighted, demonstrating he had in fact begun reading it. He said he would reserve judgment on the amendment until he had spoken with its writers. “I have a handle on it, but I don’t know … all the details,” he said.
Another audience question asked the House candidates if, once elected, they would hold townhall-style meetings in the evening, when working people could attend them, rather than in the morning as state officials currently do. Both said yes.
“I can’t have them in morning, I don’t have that luxury,” said McMahan, who explained he couldn’t afford to quit his day job, though he would have a long-term substitute teacher for when the House is in session.
“More than that, I think the individual contact will be much more important,” said Deffenbaugh, who said in his experience town meetings were poorly attended. He said he was eager to be Dade’s point of contact with the state government and that he could use his problem-solving talents to advantage in the House. He said the district’s two last representatives had been “obstructionists.” “I would like to change that,” he said.
One audience question to Deffenbaugh was: “Since you were absent for several debates, how can we be sure you’ll be present when the legislature is in session?” Deffenbaugh answered that his September absence had been in fulfillment of a longstanding commitment to take his son to Eastern Europe, made before he’d decided to run for office, and that the trip showed he was the kind of man who kept his promises.
A question to both House candidates that seemed related was: “Why do you think you can represent us poor folks?”
Predictably, this blew up a storm of po-mouthing. McMahan pointed out he was a public schoolteacher and rested his case, but Deffenbaugh said he washed his own car, mowed his own grass, weeded his own flowers and had recently borrowed money to buy a hamburger.
He drove a 2007 model car, said Deffenbaugh, his wife a 2006. He had only been able to afford Europe because he got free airfare as a military benefit, he said. “I don’t know that I’m out of touch with you-all,” said the candidate.
Bradford allowed the House candidates a chance to make opening and closing statements. McMahan stressed schools, roads and cleaning up corruption, Deffenbaugh jobs, jobs, jobs – “That could be tourism, it could be industry, it could be a lemonade stand for your kids, really.”
Then Bradford dismissed them with the blessing, “I think we’ve got two good choices,” and moved back to the sheriff’s race.
Some questions Bradford read the sheriff candidates, others he gave them in a stack and allowed them to answer or not at their discretion.
Candidate Ray Cross took back up the matter of his personal bankruptcy, speaking with feeling about the humiliation he and his family have faced over this issue. “I have nothing to hide,” he said. “My bankruptcy was from medical bills and for no other reason.”
Out of the $30,000 he had been making yearly, said Cross, $17,000 had gone to medical bills. He invited questioners to examine documents displayed at the back of the room by family friend Carolyn Bradford Lane.
What Ms. Lane had was a schedule of payments made by the Crosses on their Chapter 13 debt consolidation bankruptcy – later converted to Chapter 7, or liquidation bankruptcy – as well as a Schedule A from their federal tax return, on which medical expenses were listed as itemized deductions.
Candidate Street had challenged the audience at the previous debate to examine public records of the Crosses’ bankruptcy, which show only a few expenses identifiable as medical, with the bulk for cars, furniture, home mortgages and what looks like a $13,000 motorcycle loan.
“Mr. Street is up here more or less accusing me of telling you lies,” said Cross. “I am not lying to you.”
In reference to the Chapter 13 list, he said: “There were so many medical bills, they did not put them on that sheet.”
Another audience question asked Cross whether Howard Doyle, whom he has proposed hiring as a grant writer, was not himself also a bankrupt. His answer: Ask Doyle.
Cross was also asked how he is currently supporting himself. Answer: “Right now my wife is still working.”
As for candidate Street, he was asked whether it was right he was campaigning in a county vehicle with county gas. Street answered he did no such thing. “I know better than that,” he said. “I’m smarter than that.”
“Did you ever have records sealed to protect your career?” read another question. Street responded: “Whoever’s using their imagination, but the answer’s no.”
Was it true, another asked, that current Sheriff Patrick Cannon would be Street’s chief deputy? Answer: “I have not promised no one a job, and I’m not going to until after the election.”
No more public debates have been scheduled locally, so from here on out the candidates must make their own opportunities to get their message out to the public. By all accounts, the public is listening: Early voting has already started for the general election, and poll workers report turnout has been spectacular.