By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Hell, I'm a nice guy," he says.
hr style="size: 1px; width: 50%; text-align: centerJust off the Denton County jail lobby, where anxious-looking women sit and an inmate clad in black-and-white striped jailhouse pajamas busily shines shoes for $1, is the wood-paneled and frequently smoke-filled sheriff's office. (He designated it an official smoking area.)
Lucas, a barrel of a man who looks a little like Paul Sorvino, sits behind a heavy wooden desk in a high-back leather chair surrounded by confiscated weapons and other tough-guy stuff. On a table is an autographed picture of Chuck Norris, star of Walker, Texas Ranger. Lucas is a consultant on the show and knows Norris and other cast members.
"I read their scripts and make sure they're doing the proper thing," he says. "Chuck's a nice guy."
First elected in 1993, Lucas, 58, has not infrequently been burned by the press. He nevertheless agreed to a lengthy interview because he's "never tried to hide from the public," and never will, he says. As he talks, Lucas keeps his hands busy by continuously turning over a disposable lighter or by smoking one of the day's 30 or so Winstons. When he talks, he looks straight at you and answers even the rudest questions directly and in a non-threatening way. That's what some claim to be his strong point: people skills.
"Whether we get along or not, you are always welcome here," he says. "I do not hide from the press. I really don't."
No, he really doesn't.
Longtime Denton lawyer Bill Trantham says the man's unflinching ability to maintain lines of communication is what has kept Lucas in the sheriff's chair and on speaking terms with some of his most vocal critics. Trantham, who has handled several lawsuits against Lucas and his department and could be ranked among those critics, says, "Weldon Lucas stands out as a mighty oak tree in a landscape of forest plants. There's nobody else in this county that has any people skills."
Lucas claims a fierce streak of loyalty to those whom he trusts. Those who know him say he receives the same sort of loyalty in return from those who report to him. Yet that loyalty has landed Lucas in trouble with the public on more than one occasion. He once gave his secretary a $10,000 raise. Last year, he gave the secretary's husband a $700-a-month job mowing the lawn at a house being used for undercover narcotics operations. The sheriff's department spokesman said then that the husband was the only one who could be trusted with the top-secret address. The criminal justice division of the governor's office, which was critical of the lawnmowing arrangement because of the family relationship, is apparently among those who can't be trusted; the division relinquished the address as part of a request filed under the state's Public Information Act.
Some say Lucas gets so much loyalty from his employees because he hires misfits who have nowhere to turn. Lucas claims it's just a matter of keeping his word.
"The main thing is, I am a man of my word. If I tell you something, that's the way it's going to be," he says. "I have a helluva lot of loyalty. You've got to understand, I've got 400 people working here. Several thousand people--everyday citizens--are also very loyal to me."
Lucas is undoubtedly as politically savvy as they come and can be trusted to do what is necessary for his fellow Republicans in his GOP-dominated county. That commitment is how he ousted his predecessor, Kirby Robinson.
"I work hard enough within the Republican Party that, yes, I have loyal backers that usually...assist me in certain political endeavors," Lucas says.
Unlike Tarrant County Sheriff David Williams, whose career imploded following repeated public confrontations with his county's commissioners, Lucas is careful to keep any battles with his commissioners behind closed doors.
"If I'm mad as hell--and I've been mad as hell--at [Commissioner Jeff] Krueger, I'll go to his office and knock on his door, or if I see him over here and we go in here and we chew each other's ass out, but the whole world don't know that. We walk out of here friends. I've seen sheriffs go over there and just raise hell in court. That's not my way. I'm not going to fight commissioners or judges or any elected officials in the open."
That's exactly why the county's commissioners may appear so obsequious regarding the sheriff. He gets the votes before he goes public, Lucas says.
"I still don't get half of what I want," he says.
Nevertheless, during his first eight years as sheriff, Lucas he has achieved quite a bit of what he's wanted, including two major jail expansions. The latest of these achievements initially involved a proposal to award a lucrative consulting contract to the Republican Party county chairman's law firm. That proved as unpopular as a proposal to pay for the new jail expansion without asking voters. Commissioners eventually booted the law firm from the mix, but despite a public outcry, they continued with a plan to borrow part of the money for a $17 million jail expansion. Lucas has won several raises for his troops and has received much of the special equipment he has requested (including watercraft and sport utility vehicles).