The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A week has passed since the primary, and still Jerry Griffin is mystified by the Clayton County sheriff’s race.
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In some ways, the election is like a repeat of 2008, with Kem Kimbrough and Victor Hill once again squaring off. But, this time around, Kimbrough is the incumbent and Hill the challenger. And Hill is facing 37 felony charges, ranging from racketeering to witness tampering while serving his one term in office, accusations he denies.
The two will battle each other in an Aug. 21 runoff. In the July 31 primary, Kimbrough took 40.41 percent of the votes, while Hill claimed 37.54 percent, reducing the eight-person field to a grudge rematch.
“I don’t know why people vote like they do,” said Griffin, a resident of Clayton County for more than 40 years.
If Hill wins, he could still take office, as long as he has not been convicted. No trial date has been set. Hill’s certification from his years as a homicide detective and then sheriff has been suspended. Also, the governor could suspended him from office and appoint a temporary sheriff until the felony case is resolved.
“It’s one thing to bounce back after losing a contest,” said Charles Bullock, a political analyst and a professor at the University of Georgia. “The allegations against him (typically) would have been a career ender. The voters must be pretty unhappy with the incumbent to turn against him given the choice that they’ve made.”
Derrick Boazman, former Atlanta City Council member who follows southside politics, said he’s never seen another race in Georgia “where you have a man under indictment facing some very serious charges that is able to almost be re-elected.” He has endeared himself to parts of the community willing to overlook his flaws.
“Victor has positioned himself as Andy Griffith, if you will. The sheriff everybody knew, who knew your kids, who knew your grandmomma and was generally concerned about the overall welfare of the citizens,” Boazman said.”
The race symbolizes a showdown between a button-down attorney, Kimbrough, and a career law enforcement officer who envisions himself as Clayton’s Caped Crusader, Hill. Hill’s videos cast him as a “crime fighter” and as “the only sheriff that criminals fear.” But Kimbrough says his administration added more “uniform deputies on the street,” and he takes credit for a drop in crime. State records show year-to-year crime did not drop during either’s adminstration with the exception of 2011, which was slightly lower than the previous year.
“He goes around and says “I’m a crime fighter,’” Kimbrough said. “Hell, I’m Batman too.”
Hill declined in a text message to answer questions, saying the campaign would issue a release on Wednesday.
Kimbrough chalked up the surprising outcome of the July 31 primary to Hill’s name recognition and voter disenchantment with incumbents in general.
“The issues that my opponent has are well-known or I thought were well-known,” Kimbrough said. “There’s a lot of name recognition. He spins a good game. … There’s got to be some level of distrust in the criminal justice system where a man can be under indictment and people believe there is nothing to it.”
Earlier this year, Hill was indicted on charges of racketeering, theft by taking, making false statements, influencing a witness and violating his oath of office, all allegedly while he was sheriff. A special prosecutor says Hill took tens of thousands of dollars from the county and his 2008 re-election campaign.
Some voters like Barbara Soza of Riverdale believe Hill’s legal troubles are politically based.
“I disagreed with how he handled his first term,” Soza said. “You need a person with a strong A-type personality and views and a good sense of right and wrong and that I think he has. I didn’t believe the charges imposed on him.”
Hill was among those elected in 2004 after Clayton voters dismissed virtually all incumbents.
His tenure as sheriff was controversial from his first day in office when he had 27 fired deputies escorted from the building with snipers positioned on the roof. Hill fought with the county commission and with all the law enforcement agencies in the county. Hill used a tank in drug raids. “The tank was already at the Sheriff’s Office years before Victor Hill became sheriff,” the website noted. “Victor Hill decided to put the tank to use against drug dealers instead of letting it sit and go to waste.”
The 2004 voting pattern repeated four years later, with incumbents losing again to newcomers. Hill was replaced in 2008 by Kimbrough, a former employee of the sheriff’s office.
Hill has said the indictment was a political ploy by those, including Kimbrough, wanting to keep him out of office. But Kimbrough says the charges stem from a special grand jury’s finding that Hill used his office for personal and financial gain and he, as sheriff, had no role pushing for an indictment.
Meanwhile, Kimbrough was confronted by news cameras asking about a picture on his Facebook page of him making an obscene gesture; he angrily said it was a private page and a television reporter got access by making a “friend” request.