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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Jeff Mann, Vernon Jones gear up for DeKalb sheriff runoff battle

Looking for a good old-fashioned spaghetti Western standoff? Try the race for DeKalb County Sheriff.

On one side of town stands the low-key lawman Jeff Mann, riding into the July 22 election on the saddle of incumbency, and with a large lead in the primary vote thanks to support from the county's political establishment and the new, predominantly white cities in North DeKalb.

Now turn to his challenger, former DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones, who hopes to emerge from his South DeKalb stronghold and make a grand return to politics.

Only 20 percent of the county's nearly 390,000 registered voters actually voted in the May primary that determines who oversees the jail system, 850-plus officers, and an $80 annual million budget. Mann's crossing fingers just as many of his supporters return to the polls - and not to be upset by Jones, the political machine who refuses to quit.

Both candidates are political veterans and are singing from the usual hymnbook of safer streets and a well-run jail. Jones, who trailed Mann by 18 percentage points, and the incumbent say they have a strong passion and commitment to better DeKalb and are convinced they can keep county residents safe - in addition to running an ethical office.

Jones is a polarizing, yet captivating, politician; remembered during his tenure as DeKalb CEO for headline-grabbing antics and a flamboyant style that endeared him to some residents and turned off others. On the other hand, Mann has run a low-profile operation, much like he did while serving as a legal advisor, and later chief deputy, to former Sheriff Thomas Brown. In fact, Mann, who's served in Brown's steed after he launched an unsuccessful bid against U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, is happy that some supporters refer to him as "Brown 2.0." He says the nickname points to his predecessor's fiscally responsible approach and transparency efforts.

"As my father always said growing up: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'" Mann says. "And I don't think it needs fixing."

On the campaign trail, Mann often asks potential voters a simple question: Do you like the leadership you have had for the past 14 years under Brown? If so, he says, it's important to come out and cast your vote for him.

Mann says he's focused on restoring public confidence in the scandal-saturated county. Last year, CEO Burrell Ellis was indicted for allegedly using his position to score campaign contributions, which he denies, More recently, county commissioners have been slapped with ethics complaints. Mann also wants to beef up under-staffed prison facilities and retain officers who work with "extreme efficiency" in daily operations.

Mann, like Jones, has visited homeowners' associations, churches, and political forums. He operates from a Memorial Drive office space where his sister answers the phone and volunteers make calls to targeted precincts. His list of endorsements includes interim CEO Lee May, two DeKalb commissioners, a smattering of mayors, and Brown. Mann says he is a "proven leader" who will ensure integrity and avoid controversy (he is, however, currently battling two lawsuits from former employees alleging the incumbent made them work on his campaign while on the clock for DeKalb, which he denies).

Controversy and the DeKalb Sheriff's office have long been linked. Prior to Brown, DeKalb sheriffs have served as public reminders of mischief and misdeeds. In 1972, Sheriff J. Lamar Martin was charged with accepting over $50,000 in kickbacks from a bail bondsman. His successor, Ray Bonner, faced charges of mail fraud and perjury (later dropped), followed by a scandal surrounding his shooting of an unarmed teen one year after leaving office. Pat Jarvis, a former Atlanta Braves star pitcher, served nearly five terms before earning a 15-month stint in jail for federal corruption charges. In late 2000, sheriff-elect Derwin Brown, running as a reformist, was gunned down in front of his home under orders from defeated incumbent Sidney Dorsey.

Jones has taken to donning blue jeans and a Stetson hat on the campaign trail, and he asserts DeKalb won't return to its old ways if he is elected. His status as the "most vetted politician in Georgia," he says, will keep enough scrutiny on him to ensure no malfeasance occurs under his watch. Jones' history in the press reads like a veritable roll call of accusations, complaints, controversies, and firestorms. A registered Democrat, Jones voted for George W. Bush twice, then photoshopped Barack Obama onto fliers for his 2008 U.S. Senate campaign. The county was sued over claims of racial discrimination during his term as CEO, among other scandals.

Often up before 5 a.m. on most mornings, Jones runs an aggressive campaign out of his Decatur campaign office, barely stopping to eat as his team travels from meetings, churches, barbershops, and roadside stints on DeKalb streets. While Mann benefits from his incumbency, Jones has more name recognition all over the county - good, bad, or otherwise.

"I know DeKalb and you know me," Jones told a Lakeside homeowner's association meeting in late April.
In addition to boosting the county's greenspace, Jones likes to tout that he oversaw the county's dual Triple-A bond rating, making DeKalb one of 37 counties in the country to hold that distinction. Jones also, he reminds voters, helped establish the first local Homeland Security office in the country, and attended to the various duties of a county executive, including balancing the budget, overseeing road improvements, and funding library expansions. However, he's never been in law enforcement before.

Jones likens his accomplishments to being the captain of the massive vessel that is DeKalb County. Because of that experience, he assures voters that he is more than capable of commandeering a small part of the deck as sheriff. Jones says his administrative duties as CEO are transferrable to the Sheriff's office, where he plans to tackle the large backlog of warrants, expand officers' presence in the community, and add increased awareness and crime prevention programs aimed at youth and senior citizens.

The July 22 race represents more than just who is the keeper of the keys in the sheriff's office. The two men running represent a paradigm shift in DeKalb.

Jones has relied on a stronghold in south DeKalb and unincorporated areas as his voting base, while Mann has received support from central and northern DeKalb - areas where voters have created new cities to distance themselves from county control, a trend that began during Jones' tenure as CEO.

Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, says Jones' high name recognition could have helped propel him into a runoff. Despite that "he remains a controversial, perhaps polarizing figure," she says. Long-term residents - for example, those who lived in DeKalb when Jones served - could vote differently then newcomers, she says.

We find out on July 22.

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