Days after she lost the Democratic primary by electoral inches, former sheriff's Lt. Pam Brown swung her allegiance to Mark LaJoye, the Republican candidate trying to unseat Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr. Given her distaste for Darr, Brown said she couldn't see herself voting for the incumbent under any circumstances, regardless of his political affiliation.
It was a cross-party endorsement of the kind that has typified this sheriff's race, giving it the feel of a nonpartisan campaign. Darr and LaJoye have agreed on little in the increasingly bitter race, but both candidates, along with many of their supporters, say the office should no longer be partisan.
"When somebody calls the Sheriff's Office, you don't ask 'What party are you in?', before you send a deputy out," Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley said in a recent interview. As they enter the final days of the campaign, Darr and LaJoye both have pointed to backing they've drawn from opposite corners of the political arena. Brown, who lost to Darr by just 68 votes this summer, said last week she remained confident her Democratic supporters would return to the polls in similar numbers Nov. 6 to vote for LaJoye. LaJoye said he's considering appointing Brown chief deputy if elected, though city officials have said Brown's re-employment would violate the terms of her discrimination settlement with the city. "She has been a very good asset to us because she's brought all of her support over to us," LaJoye said, "and it's been extremely beneficial to have her on board."
Within his own party, however, LaJoye's support has remained stubbornly lukewarm, according to interviews with Republicans and a review of campaign contributions, which have overwhelmingly favored Darr. About a week after Brown announced she was merging her campaign with LaJoye's, Darr was endorsed by Bob Poydasheff, a well-known former Columbus mayor who is Republican. The sheriff also received a $2,500 check from businessman Jack Pezold, a life-long Republican whose son, John D. Pezold Jr., was recently elected to represent the solidly conservative District 133 in the Georgia General Assembly.
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"At this level, I don't think that it really matters if he's a Democrat or a Republican," said John V. Rodgers, a Darr contributor and Republican businessman who is president of Rodgers Metal Craft in Fortson, Ga. Jerry Luquire, a Republican who is president of the Georgia Christian Coalition, said he has "no quarrel" with LaJoye, but he has considered Darr a friend for years and contributed to his campaign. "I feel the professional standards he has met and required of those who report to him qualifies him to continue in office," Luquire wrote in an email.
Seth Harp, chairman of the Muscogee County Republican Party, acknowledged there are GOP leaders who do not back LaJoye, but he said LaJoye has the support of the "mechanism of the party."
"People are entitled to give their money to anybody they wish to, to any candidate they wish to, and that is one of the protected constitutional rights that people have," Harp said. "Mark is the candidate who has qualified as a Republican."
Harp, a former state senator, recalled a small controversy four years ago after he contributed $2,500 to state Sen. Ed Harbison, the Columbus Democrat. "There were members of the Republican Party that were furious with me and said, 'How in the world can you support a Democrat?'" Harp said. "Because I saw him as being the better candidate, that's how come, and I chose to give him help and aid."
For his part, LaJoye points to a $300 contribution he received last month from the Republican Women of Muscogee County as proof of his GOP support. On the Democratic side, Brown said she doesn't think her supporters will have any problem choosing the Republican candidate, adding they trust her judgment. "I feel that I'm getting a lot of support from both sides," LaJoye said. "I think they believe in what we're talking about. I think they're energetic in the campaign, and most of the consensus I've gotten is that they want change."
Said Darr: "On this level, people aren't looking at what my stance is on a lot of the national issues. What they want from a sheriff is, is he professional and does he run a professional agency?”
A former Columbus police officer who ran as a write-in candidate in 2008, LaJoye said he decided to run again because the Sheriff’s Office lacks leadership and needs a new direction. “We feel that the Sheriff’s Office is broken,” he said. “Consistently over the years, it’s lost its credibility, and my job is to bring that credibility back.” LaJoye has promised to to respond within 24 hours to any inquiry he receives from concerned citizens.
Asked what most distinguishes him from the incumbent, LaJoye pointed to customer service and community based programs. “I want to make sure that they’re supported, and we don’t have that support right now,” LaJoye said. “I get calls from a lot of community-based programs, drug and alcohol programs and things of that nature where people are concerned about their neighborhoods and crime.”
Darr, who served in the Sheriff’s Office for some two decades before his election in 2008, disputed LaJoye’s claims and pointed to his “proven track record,” which he said LaJoye has misrepresented. “It’s unfortunate that you have a gentleman running around saying lack of strong leadership, effective leadership,” Darr said. “What I consider strong leadership and effective leadership is getting things done, and we have.”
Darr cites a number of innovations of his first term, including an alternative fuel conversion for department vehicles and a series of specialized jail dorms — including one devoted to veterans — that he says have reduced recidivism. About 65 men have gone through the jail’s faith-based dorm and only three have returned, he said. “I really believe when you’re in this position you’re tasked with coming up with ways to make your department better, making it more professional and making it more efficient,” Darr said.
LaJoye says he’d like to see more guidance for released inmates to ease their transition back into society. “We give them GEDs and things of that nature, but the problem is there’s no follow-up care on the outside,” he said. “You can you have a 50 or 60 percent success rate of people getting out of the jail with a GED or, in this case, the veterans dorm, but the problem is there’s no follow-up care after that.”
Darr said he’ll make it a priority of his second term to ensure the city comes out from its consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department over the upkeep of the Muscogee County Jail. That’s a goal he says is within reach.