Before the Unitary elections when, arguably, the local elections were a little more interesting, I went to the Sheriff’s debates at the IBEW in Springfield -- a sizable man cave that serves, from time to time, gatherings of union folks, activist groups, and the affair I was there for. The event was sponsored by the MyVillage Project on March 3rd and featured what was probably the only serious discussion of ideas during the whole campaign season.
I hesitated to write about the debate as Mr. Gancarski of Folio Weekly did a masterful job of covering the affair, but, in observing the narrowed field, feel that city has been rather underserved by partisan interests. As the race has now boiled down to simple symbolic gestures and rhetoric, I found myself revisiting my notes from that evening.
The crowd was a thoughtful group of people: very nice, cordial, and aware of what they were looking for in a candidate. Arriving early, the backdrop was not too dissimilar from a job fair with every candidate having a stand along the backsides of the room. The flyers were standard fare; bullet points, clever soundbytes, complete with a photo -- most in color. Some had banners whilst others simply had relatives, or other interested folk, manning the “store”. The press folk jockeyed for position along one wall for camera placement as the organizers worked out the final details of questioning.
Taking a spot in the back I was approached first by Jimmy Holderfield who handed me a flyer similar to the one I picked up at the table. Soon to follow was Ken Jefferson who did likewise handing me a card that wasn’t much different from the one Holderfield had produced. One couldn’t help but notice the similarities in the two as opposed to the others that would later speak in the debate in the moments to follow. These were administrative folks who have had long careers in government, had a grasp of the local political game, and, perhaps as a bonus selling point to the average Jaxon, were not people of vision.
Another unremarkable candidate was Lonnie McDonald who served two tours in Afghanistan as a Task Force Patriot with Operation Enduring Freedom. The 31 year veteran was rather detached from the audience often reminding people when asked his views on dealing with inner city crime of his tenure. For example in opening questions, in response to how he as Sheriff might enact a program to “recreate the JSO in the image of the public”, he responded that there should be a top-down review. This kind of answer is stock among administrative types that says, “We’ll look into it.” To his credit, when asked about his general political philosophy, he did state, correctly in so many words, that party affiliation shouldn’t be a prerequisite for electing a sheriff. It, however, didn’t get much better as McDonald gave basic non-answers to questions the rest of the evening.
Jay Farhat missed the event, sending a proxy to give his opening statement, due to having to attend a funeral and Rob Schoonover was absent. This left an interesting scenario between the candidates as, for most of the debate, Ken Jefferson and Mike Williams spared whilst Jimmy Holderfield and Tony Cummings did likewise. The odd man out was Lonnie McDonald whom towards the end Ken Jefferson dismissed as a member of the “Good Old Boy” Network -- an interesting comment to make considering his 25 years, and his public affairs position, on the force.
Mike Williams debating Ken Jefferson came across as a caricature of a typical Conservative Republican. Bravely, despite the fact that the crowd was comprised of Democrats, came out criticizing the police union, demanding transparency, and stating he was a fiscal conservative. However, the rest of the evening he spent arguing the virtues of things, such as trusting the SWAT Team, working on the controversial “Blight Fight” team with Denise Lee, and gave tentative answers on controversial topics such as body cams. Jefferson himself also played up his own Conservative values. He was as tentative as Williams on the subject of body cams, but even more so on the subject of restoration of civil rights for ex-offenders. Williams was agreeable, on the latter, whilst Jefferson wasn’t.
Holderfield was especially adept at schmoozing the crowd. He was relatively well received even though he came across with a charm familiar among used car salesmen. He too identified himself as a Conservative, considered himself “non-partisan”, but unlike, Williams seemed to play more to the crowd as any good salesman would. He was against civilian review boards and body cams, unlike Tony Cummings, but generally imparted his views that the JSO should resemble the communities they policed and that growing up on Old King’s Road gave him an insight on the challenges African-Americans in Jacksonville face. Cummings, his counterpart, brought a newer vision outlining a program of civilian review boards, expanded community outreach, including working with faith based initiatives, and watching the JSO budget to insure a dollar of value per dollar spent. The banter between Holderfield and Cummings was far more spirited with Cummings clearly coming out as more of a progressive while Holderfield looked rather entrenched and obtuse. Holderfield began to sound even less like a Conservative when, in one volley from Williams over the police union lobbying to put a nine month waiting period on internal investigations of police shootings, Holderfield went into some unrelated, but thankfully brief, rant about the virtues of union membership. He was also as confusing about civilian review boards and body cams: two other topics generally not very popular with police unions.
The debate of ideas occurred between Holderfield and Cummings with the secondary exchange of typical partisan platitudes going on between the two status-quo candidates: Williams and Jefferson. The crowd reaction clearly pointed towards Holderfield and Cummings that night. We now know in retrospect that clearly substance doesn’t generally carry into the ballot box. It may be said that Ken Jefferson’s best career move was becoming the Vanna White of law enforcement spinning the “Wheel of Justice” on WJXT Channel 4. Mike Williams will play a campaign role similar to Lenny Curry in the Mayoral race. One can only wonder how the Unitary primary for Sheriff may have worked out had the debate been televised. As the crowd slowly filed out of the IBEW, one got the feeling that it really didn’t matter. But, everyone was entertained.