Muscogee County Sheriff John T. Darr eked out an apparent victory in the Democratic primary, fending off a challenge from former sheriff's lieutenant Pam Brown in a race that kept supporters up until the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Brown, however, refused to concede the election, pointing to military ballots that haven't yet been counted.
"I'm still confident," Brown said in a phone interview just before 3 a.m. “I was surprised it was this close," she said the night before, "but I felt like I was going to give him a run for his money and it paid off.”
Final tallies from all precincts and absentee votes showed Darr leading 8,604 to 8,528. But those numbers do not include provisional votes or approximately 200 military ballots that won't be counted until Friday, said Nancy Boren, the Muscogee County elections director.
Darr also did not claim victory, pointing to the outstanding ballots. "Tired is how I'm feeling right now," the sheriff said this morning. "It was hard."
The election results were delayed several hours due to technical difficulties that affected some 1,500 mail-in absentee ballots. Brown had seemed poised to pull off an upset earlier in the night when final precinct tallies showed her leading the sheriff by some 38 votes.
But the mail-in ballots pushed Darr ahead.
The election pitted a first-term incumbent against a former Sheriff’s Office lieutenant who left the department after settling a discrimination claim with the city. Darr also has been sued in federal court by three veteran female employees who accused him of showing a pattern of prejudice against women.
It's not clear whether those pending allegations hurt the sheriff politically. But Darr this morning said the closeness of the vote had caused him to wonder aloud whether he could have done anything differently in his first term.
Darr, 45, ran on his record, citing improving conditions at the Muscogee County Jail and community involvement among his achievements.
In the run up to the primary, the sheriff called a news conference on a near weekly basis to tout a new program, be it the jail’s fatherhood and veterans dorms or the department’s nascent use of iPads to keep track of sex offenders.
If re-elected, Darr said he would focus on ending the city’s consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department, an agreement that went into place many years before Darr’s administration after the feds discovered deplorable conditions in the Muscogee County Jail.
“The biggest thing for us is going to be finally to get out from under the DOJ,” Darr said recently.
Tuesday’s neck-and-neck race may have seemed unlikely for a first-time candidate who lacked the name recognition and campaign bankroll of her opponent. But she had the full-throated support of former Sheriff Ralph B. Johnson, whom Darr defeated in an upset in 2008.
Johnson, who has since moved to Tennessee, said Brown had the experience to become the county’s first female sheriff. “She has an incredible ability to ‘fit in’ with the diverse population of Columbus,” he told the Ledger-Enquirer recently.
Brown, a 53-year-old former lieutenant who also worked undercover for the Metro Narcotics Task Force, said there had been no bad blood between her and the sheriff despite her departure. “I feel like I’m a fair person,” Brown said. “I feel I can bring a consistent fairness in that office and honesty that’s lacking.”
Brown’s candidacy had historic prospects — she would be the first black and first female sheriff of Muscogee County. Interviews with a handful of voters outside Wynnton United Methodist Church showed strong support for Brown among women.
Linda Curry, 52, for instance, said she voted for Brown because she wanted to see a woman in the office. “Not being chauvinistic or anything, but because she’s a female, that would be someone different and with her views and everything I just decided to give her a shot,” Curry said.
But Rita Ellis, a naturalized citizen from Canada, voted for Darr, in part because she was more familiar with him. “I think it’s important that people step up to the plate to run for public office,” she said, “and I admire anybody who has the courage to do so because — in this day and age — I don’t think it’s an easy thing to do.”
Brown received support from Columbus attorney Mark Shelnutt, who has clashed publicly with Darr and worked behind the scenes of Brown’s campaign. The sheriff, meanwhile, had been endorsed by Edward O. DuBose, president of the Georgia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a reflection of his popularity among African American voters.
Darr far outraised and outspent Brown. Through June 30, had brought in nearly $38,000 in campaign contributions, and spent more than $27,000, according to campaign disclosures.
Brown raised about a third of that — some $13,000 — and spent more than $6,100 through the end of last month.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face former Columbus police officer Mark LaJoye in the General Election. LaJoye, who is running as a Republican, ran unsuccessfully in 2008.
Staff writers Tony Adams and Tim Chitwood contributed reporting