As Deputy Sheriff Daron Hall and second-term at-large Metro Council member Leo Waters begin what is shaping up to be a confrontational and, in some ways, quite juvenile campaign for sheriff, another colorful candidate might decide to join the fray.
Former one-term Sheriff Hank Hillin, the crusading former FBI agent who succeeded the penitentiary-bound Fate Thomas, says he is thinking about running for his old post.
“I thought I did a good job the first time,” Hillin says. “If I did decide to run, it would be to validate the legacy I left behind.”
Hillin, who is currently recovering from a knee operation, says that he’ll make a decision about his possible candidacy within two months. The race will be decided at the winner-takes-all Democratic primary next May.
In the meantime, as the former sheriff sits home and reflects, the two announced candidates are already hammering away. Hall in particular has attracted attention for an aggressive, well-oiled campaign that relies on help from within Metro Government.
Realizing that he has to pump up his low name recognition, Hall has taken time out of his work day to shake hands at Chamber of Commerce luncheons and store openings. The Nashville native also has enlisted employees of the Davidson County Sheriff’s Officemany of whom he supervisesto help stump for him at neighborhood functions and other events where county voters are likely to swarm.
Outgoing Sheriff Gayle Ray defends Hall’s on-the-clock campaigning, saying that his executive position is an around-the-clock job that affords him certain latitude during daytime hours. As well, Ray, who defeated incumbent Hank Hillin on a good government platform in 1994, says that there is nothing wrong with employees being involved in a political campaign off the clock, if that’s what they want to do.
“I’m adamant that no one should feel pressured in any way or feel that the future of their job is at stake if they don’t volunteer,” says Ray, who is openly supporting Hall’s candidacy, and who last year even lifted a departmental restriction that would have prevented him from campaigning during work hours. “But we also have a lot of employees who want to see Daron continue because they like the way the office has been running.”
Of course, given that the late Fate Thomas went to prison for misusing his office, Hall has to realize that he might be evoking familiar images. In fact, Waters’ many supporters in the Council have mentioned Thomas’ name when criticizing Hall’s campaign tacticsselectively failing to mention that Waters too worked under the former sheriff.
And recently, second-term Council members Don Majors and Janis Sontany asked Council staff attorney Don Jones whether Hall can play dual roles of candidate and public servant simultaneously.
“We need some clarification on whether a Metro employee can remain a Metro employee while running for office,” Sontany says. “It just seems to me like a conflict of interest.”
Hall, however, says that since announcing his campaign, he has worked as vigorously as ever. He claims that, if anything, it’s Sontany who has blurred the lines between performance of duty and politics by wearing campaign buttons for Waters during the televised meetings of the Metro Council.
“It’s surprising to me that an elected official from a district on the other side of town is pointing this out when she is wearing a sticker for my opponent while she is performing her job,” Hall says of his Glencliff area Council detractor.
Hall also says that Waters wears campaign buttons during Metro Council meetings, characterizing such accessorizing as a “pure conflict.”
For his part, Waters says that he doesn’t even remember wearing a campaign button during any Council meetings but that if he did, it hardly breaks from tradition. Other past and present Council members from Tim Garrett to Vic Lineweaver have similarly worn campaign buttons during legislative deliberations, he says.
In any case, Hall’s daytime campaign activities would have been prohibited by his department’s own code of conduct had his boss not changed departmental policy last fall. Now, according to Jones, Hall is perfectly within his rights. Typically, most city departments require that if employees launch a bid for political office, they must take an unpaid leave of absence. The sheriff’s office had such a policy in place until last September when Ray erased the long-standing restriction on employees running for office.
Naturally, Hillin, who is not likely to lunch with Gayle Ray at Arnold’s anytime soon, bristled at his former adversary’s policy change. “Supposedly she ran against me saying she was going to kill the sheriff’s office,” he says. “That was an out-and-out misrepresentation. Now she is trying to preserve the job for her chief deputy, and for what reason? I’m not going to speculate as to the reason.”
Hall has taken advantage of his liberated position. Last week he attended a 90-minute luncheon at the Donelson-Hermitage Chamber of Commercea 20-minute drive from Hall’s downtown officesshaking hands and introducing himself to a connected crowd that probably had a high percentage of active voters. And on Wednesday afternoon, he attended the grand opening of Tony’s Cee Bee Food Store in Joelton, glad-handing with nearly 250 people.
“It was a good place for him to get some exposure here in the community,” says owner Tony Hunter. “He was able to shake hands and introduce himself to a lot of my customers.”
Various employees of the sheriff’s department who have volunteered for their boss insist that while they are sensitive of their shop’s past image as a political factory, things have changed.
John Taylor, the director of community services for the sheriff’s office, says that he decided to volunteer for Hall because he likes the way things are run and wants to see it continue that way. Taylor, who campaigned for Hall at a Democratic Party fish fry last week, says he knows of no employees being urged to help their boss. “Under Fate, there was pressure to volunteer. That’s just the way it was run in those days,” Taylor says. “Now most everybody signs up or calls on their own. They are anxious to see them carry on what’s happened over the last few years.”
Jonathan Laster, a chief internal affairs investigator for the department, says that he approached Hall about volunteering for his campaign. “I think he’s the best man for the job. Our department has come a long way over the last eight years, and I think it needs to continue that way,” he says of a department that has won several accreditations by the American Correctional Association. “I have been in this for 22 years, and I remember those days under Fate Thomas, but that’s not the case these days.”
Others are not as convinced. Eddie Bryan, secretary and treasurer of the Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, helped organize last Wednesday evening’s Democratic fish fry. Bryan, who says he’s leaning toward supporting Waters, says he was surprised to see sheriff’s employees wearing blue and yellow “Daron Hall for Sheriff T-shirts” and handing out campaign pins. “It’s amazing to me that they would do that,” Bryan says. “I think that’s a little unethical. Who really knows if those people were told ‘you be there or you might be fired’?”
Hall insists that’s not the case and says that many of the supporters Bryan saw were outside volunteers. In addition, Hall says that he’s not going to discourage “people’s involvement” in his campaign. And according to the chief deputy, other city employees are stumping for Waters as well.
And while Waters has not been publicly critical of Hall’s campaign tactics, the deputy sheriff nevertheless feels like he has been slighted by the popular Council member. “While Leo has been running for various offices in the last seven years, I have been running my office,” he says. “Now that I’m advertising who I am, I find it ironic that a professional politician is critical of that.”
For his part, Waters, whose countywide office has earned him favored status, is reluctant to engage in a war of words with his tenacious opponent. “My official comment is that we’re running our own campaign, a grassroots campaign with support from all over the city,” he says. “What Daron does, that’s up to him. I don’t have any comment on how he’s running his campaign, and he probably shouldn’t have any comment on how [I] should run mine.”
Possible candidate Hank Hillin shows no such reticence when asked about Daron Hall, who worked under him when he was sheriff. “I would not employ him again,” he says, declining to elaborate. Hillin says he has no opinion, one way or another, about Waters.
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