The race to succeed Mike Williams as leader of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office was already looking to be one of the most interesting contests in an election season with no shortage of drama. Williams’ abrupt retirement, which he announced on June 2 and officially began just a week later, makes things vastly more complicated, which, in turn, makes things a lot more entertaining for you, the voter.
The first round in this incredibly weird election takes place Aug. 23. The technical term is “Special First Election,” and gosh, isn’t that the case? It’s already too late to register to vote for that one, but you have until Oct. 11 to sign up for the final round, which takes place on Nov. 6, along with all the other statewide and national contests being contested this year. They’re calling that the “General Election,” but do not be confused. We’re not electing a general, we are electing a sheriff—although, in fairness, any difference between the two is negligible, in practice.
We have five candidates to choose from: Lakesha Burton, Wayne Clark, Tony Cummings, Ken Jefferson and T.K. Waters. Interim Sheriff (and former undersheriff) Pat Ivey is not running, and he’s made no public endorsement of any potential successor, although it’s presumed that Ivey and his predecessors all share in Governor Ron DeSantis’ endorsement of Waters, but outside endorsements seem to matter far less in this race than usual.
Although the sheriff’s office is technically non-political, the reality is that JSO is perceived as an adjunct of City Hall, not an independent entity. Reality also holds that law enforcement tends to sway to the right, politically-speaking, and the voters’ choices to lead our nation’s police departments usually reflect the sentiments of their officers, while reinforcing their values. With unsolved murders in Jacksonville stacking up faster than JEA affidavits, we’ve seen some parts of this city on a virtual war footing for years. The murder of George Floyd galvanized global frustration with police misconduct, and the deeply flawed responses to those protests only intensified the racial polarization in this country. That, coupled with seismic shifts in the larger political culture in America, has set the stage for probably the most interesting sheriff’s race since the pre-Jaguars era.
Let’s give quick credit to all these candidates on one point, quite clearly: They have proven themselves much more amenable to debating than their counterparts in other races around the city and the state. Perhaps this is a function of the generally increased scrutiny under which law enforcement finds itself across the board, in which case the debates can be framed as a nod toward transparency. It also speaks to possible disparities in political power among blocs, and blocks, for that matter. They are all Black candidates, and many of these debates are taking place in traditionally Black spaces like churches and community centers, and that makes sense, because no one has more to gain—or lose—on the outcome of this particular election than the city’s Black community. Also, the fact that this is a competitive election, with no clear-cut frontrunner, means that most of them are eager to embrace any opportunity to set themselves apart from the pack. Either way, good for them!
There are a lot of questions worth asking about this race, but many of them can’t be answered without a federal warrant. (That’s more of a story for next year, maybe.) The issues our city faces, in terms of crime and the prevention thereof, are not uniquely ours. Every city is dealing with it in its own way, but you can be sure that any useful solutions developed by cops here will be studied by their counterparts around the country. We have five people standing who say they have those solutions. You will decide who gets the chance to implement them.
When Burton first declared, she seemed about as close to a lock as any female candidate can in Florida, which is to say, that lasted a few weeks. Her husband Greg’s work with Duval County Schools is considered an advantage, given the way those two systems have been forced together by our political leaders. Qualifications aside, just in terms of branding for the department, and the city, electing Burton would be a visionary move. If Jacksonville elected women as mayor and sheriff, within a year of each other, in addition to all the women mayors in the Beaches, that’s a huge story.
But, as we have seen, over and over in recent years, when faced with the possibility of a dynamic young female leader, the system responds by flooding the field with men to dilute their appeal and scuttle their candidacy. This usually happens with Democrats, leaving Republicans to pick the bones, but it does work both ways, most notably with Audrey Moran’s run for mayor back in 2011. In Burton’s case, this is not a function of some deep, ingrained misogynistic bent within the system or a fear of change, as it more clearly is in the case of Nikki Fried, who’s been subject to overtly gender-based attack in her campaign for governor.
All five candidates are putting forward a reasoned, deliberative, but still thoroughly orthodox vision of the job. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Better to stick with what kinda works than try a U-turn at cruising speed or whatever metaphor for rash revisionism suits your fancy. All five candidates were well along the way when Williams’ retirement basically forced all their timetables ahead six months. Assuming the contest is not settled immediately, whoever wins in November will assume the position of sheriff for about four months before they must presumably defend their position all over again in the election that was already scheduled for 2023. T.K. Waters, as the only Republican competing against four Democrats for a traditionally red electorate, has the best statistical chance of winning, but if the runoff comes down to T.K. and a Democrat, a unified front can prevail. There is precedent, with Nat Glover in 1995 and ’99. One expects higher turnouts than usual for what is technically a municipal election haphazardly affixed to the midterms. These candidates have remained far more congenial and collaborative than their colleagues in other contests across the area, and that in itself is a good sign.
With the Blue Wave sweeping women to political prominence across the country, that dynamic has extended into law enforcement, with women now running departments in several key cities around America. Accounts will differ, but approximately 4,000 women are currently in charge of various law enforcement organizations in the country—roughly 9%. That’s a bit less than the 12.6% of rank-and-file cops that are women, according to the FBI. Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook, herself a former JSO officer, is a notable example in our community, and her remarkable political trajectory does bode quite well for Burton.
By contrast, minority representation has come much closer to parity, especially in the higher ranks. With the statues (mostly) gone, and most of the names changed, Black activists can rhetorically claim this sheriff’s election as a symbolic victory for themselves, no matter who actually ends up winning. Jacksonville, to its credit, didn’t even bother putting up any white people to run in this election. After the last few years, you look around at guys like Williams and Lenny Curry, and they look ready to spend the next two years laying on the beach and betting on football. The machine punted, and who does punt returns better than Black folks?
This election comes down to five candidates, all of whom have known and worked with each other for years. They bring a wide range of diverse skills to the table; they’re all qualified for the job, but they all have vastly different visions of what the job actually is now and what it should be in the future. Cities all over the country are having their own, very specific debates about the future of policing in their communities, and the same is happening here. Advancing that dialogue will be job No. 1 for the next sheriff. There are a lot of bullets in Jacksonville, but none of them are magic bullets.