Keys to the Jail

There's only one thing tougher than running for Dallas County sheriff—getting people to care

"When you pin on the badge, it's yours," he says. "Whatever is right with it and whatever is wrong with it, it belongs to you. And you don't waste time pointing fingers at anybody else."

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Sitting inside the Mockingbird Station office of his campaign manager, Cannaday seems ill at ease. He has agreed to speak with the Observer over a late-morning cup of coffee. He wears a suit and tie, but uncomfortably so, as if he is only meant to be in uniform. Yet his voice is anything but authoritative, more like a mild-mannered Mister Rogers out of his neighborhood. Even his recent campaign mailer is somewhat plain, matter-of-factly touting his experience, endorsements and family ties as the reasons he should be sheriff.

The Republican Party paraded a man in a chicken costume outside a Valdez fund-raiser, infusing life into an otherwise boring campaign.
The Republican Party paraded a man in a chicken costume outside a Valdez fund-raiser, infusing life into an otherwise boring campaign.
Lowell Cannaday and Lupe Valdez have engaged in several lackluster debates in their race for Dallas County sheriff.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Lowell Cannaday and Lupe Valdez have engaged in several lackluster debates in their race for Dallas County sheriff.

Cannaday grew up in Houston, played in the high school band and was a competitive swimmer, though he was "certainly no Michael Phelps," he says. He describes his father, a petroleum engineer, as a peacemaker and his mother as a hard-working homemaker. His parents, both deceased, created a good, Christian environment for him and his two sisters, he says. All three attended Baylor University where he earned a degree in philosophy.

After graduation, he worked for his father, but decided that the oil business wasn't for him. His interests were in law enforcement, sparked by a close friend of his father. After transferring to Dallas as a finance insurance manager for a car dealership, Cannaday became a police officer in 1966.

Cannaday would spend the next 28 years with DPD, where he helped create the department's gang unit. He says his biggest accomplishment was managing the development of the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center, which opened in February 1991 to treat sexually and physically abused Dallas County children.

Cannaday worked his way up the ranks to become assistant police chief and applied twice to become chief of police. Both times, he was passed over. Cannaday puts a positive spin on not getting the job, calling it a growth experience, and besides, things worked out when he landed the job as the chief of the Irving Police Department in August 1994. In his first staff meeting, Cannaday remembers asking about the department's family violence program and being told Irving didn't have a problem with domestic violence. He collected the statistics and learned that 52 percent of the violent offenses in Irving were related to family violence, which prompted him to form a domestic violence unit.

Cannaday also implemented the Irving Family Advocacy Center, which opened in January 2002 to respond to the needs of families and victims of crime. Additionally, he brought greater transparency to the department, he says, whose relationship with the press had been virtually non-existent.

Naya Pope, who became an Irving police officer one year prior to Cannaday's arrival, worked closely with him when he developed the department's Citizen Police Academy. Now a 15-year veteran of IPD and president of the Irving Fraternal Order of Police, she says Cannaday boosted morale and modernized the department by giving officers cell phones and laptops.

"Chief Cannaday was fair and very personable. He knew his troops, knew officers' names and took the time to get to know who worked for him," she says. "He was well respected and involved in the community and was a wonderful leader who led by example."

At age 67, after 10 years as chief, Cannaday felt it was time to retire from law enforcement. After three months, he felt drawn to politics, something in which his wife has been involved in Texas "since the Republican convention was held in a phone booth," he says.

In 2005, Cannaday ran for the Irving City Council, winning a runoff election against restaurateur David Cole. His time on the council seems somewhat undistinguished; as accomplishments, he only cites his assistance with the city budget, working with the community and his service as liaison to Irving's Housing and Human Services Board and Convention and Visitors Bureau Board. But Irving Mayor Herb Gears, who served with Cannaday on the council, says Cannaday's involvement in the establishment of senior housing rehabilitation programs has garnered Irving national recognition.

"He came right into the job and got to work on the budget and helped us pass some pretty important measures to elevate services and impact public safety," he says. "He was always a calming voice when we would have disputes among council members."

In late 2006, his attention returned to law enforcement after he was encouraged to run for Dallas County sheriff by influential Republicans such as lawyer Jonathan Neerman, who later became Dallas County Republican Party chair. In early 2007, Cannaday resigned from the council, replaced in a special election by his wife.

"I really have a passion for law enforcement, having been in it for nearly 40 years, so [running for sheriff is] like coming home," he says. "To me, it was just an outstanding opportunity to go in and fix an organization that's broke."

Cannaday's experience and appeal with the party faithful made him a favorite to win the GOP primary, which became decidedly stickier when Bowles decided he wanted his job back. Although Bowles had no money, he did have name recognition and shocked Republicans by forcing a runoff with Cannaday. But Cannaday's war chest—he has raised more than $600,000 for the entire campaign—and his support were enough to ensure him a landslide victory. (It was another close call for Valdez in the Democratic primary where she defeated three opponents with 51 percent of the vote.)

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