Keys to the Jail

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

With nomination in hand, Cannaday began to spread his general election message; he, not Valdez, was the one with solid law enforcement credentials; Valdez was unqualified to run a department with more than 2,300 employees and a $130 million budget. Which is why she was forced to turn to Commissioner Price, ceding too much control over the jail to him, says Cannaday.

"He's stepping in to help with a situation that she's not able to manage," he says. "She's just abdicated her responsibility because I don't feel like she understands what needs to be done."

"I ain't trying to run the damned jail," defends Price. "I just want to make sure that whatever she needs, whatever her employees need, they get it. I ain't trying to 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.

Valdez admits she asked Price for help, noting that having an involved commissioner could help trigger larger jail budgets.

This strategy proved effective as more than $110 million has been infused into the jail to help pay for new guards, medical facilities and a jail tower. But Price didn't side with the sheriff's department when the commissioners sought to cut $6 million from the department's budget this year. And the way many officers figured it, neither did Valdez.  

On July 15, representatives from four local law enforcement associations staged a protest on the steps of the Frank Crowley Courts Building, in part, to get Valdez's attention. Some within the rank and file figured she was unwilling to go to bat for them before the commissioners and budget cuts would mean constraints on their ability to run the department and the loss of jobs and raises. Although Valdez was able to avoid reducing staff or pay to satisfy the budget crunch, Cannaday stresses that she froze merit increases.

These groups also criticized Valdez's decision to hire positions from outside the department rather than promote from within, such as hiring Lieutenant Marlin Suell from the Smith County Sheriff's department as head of inmate housing.

Valdez defends the practice, noting that she needed to change the culture in the jail because the old system didn't work; she needed to bring in new people with new ideas.

But the hiring of outsiders and the job insecurity created by budgetary woes created a morale problem for Valdez, which Cannaday has seized on in his campaign. He has secured endorsements from 14 local law enforcement groups including the Dallas County Sheriff's Association and the Greater Dallas Chapter of the National Latino Peace Officer's Association.

Greg Porter, chair of the Dallas County Sheriff's Association, describes morale as "in the sewer" and says Valdez would know this if she simply would ask around. He admits that improvements are being made in the jail, but says the credit goes to the Department of Justice. "It's at their direction and drive that these changes are being made, not because of any initiative that she created."

Darlene Ewing, chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party, says if there is a morale problem, it has more to do with gender than competence. She says a faction of the association members are more comfortable with an organization built on "good old boys and cronyism," and they would feel better represented by a man with a police background.

"I think there's sexism involved," she says. "Peace officers are kind of a macho group. They don't like taking orders from a woman."

Republican chair Jonathan Neerman dismisses the accusation, noting that both men and women are members of police organizations, and they are ready for a change based on the "dismal performance" of Valdez. "I think that's insulting and demeaning to the officers who are down there."

Valdez claims that while Cannaday has the endorsements of the leaders of these associations, he doesn't have the support of their members. But Porter disagrees, saying Valdez is just engaging in political posturing. He says he is merely voicing the concerns of the approximately 540 members he was elected to represent.

The best proof of low morale, says Porter, is how the sheriff's staff watched "with embarrassment and dismay" when Valdez appeared before the commissioners and Price told her there would be no pay raises for her department.

"We watched her turn around and walk away with her tail between her legs. I mean, not so much as a whimper," he says. "But when she was trying to get that Discovery Channel circumstance squared away and get cameras in there, which was just basically a self-promotional opportunity—everyone saw it—she fought tooth and nail.Now what kind of a leader is that?"

----

In what had been a relatively uneventful campaign, the loudest fireworks were heard in July when Valdez agreed to allow the Discovery Channel to film a documentary inside the jail without asking for commissioners court approval. She says it was an effort to display the many improvements to the jail, which could help with recruiting and grants. Cannaday saw it as a brazen "political ploy," giving him additional campaign fodder to claim that Valdez couldn't work as a team player with commissioners—or her own staff, for that matter.

Valdez claimed that the documentary would air sometime in early 2009, but was forced to admit she was mistaken after an open records request by the Morning News revealed that a mid-October airdate had been scheduled.

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