Keys to the Jail

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

The campaign between Lupe Valdez and Lowell Cannaday was supposed to be a bellwether race for Dallas County, one that pitted an openly gay Latina Democratic sheriff against a traditional red-meat Republican with outstanding law enforcement credentials.

For Democrats, it would measure the power of their incumbency, having to defend a vulnerable sheriff from a glut of blunders and miscues committed during her nearly four years in office. For Republicans, it was payback and a chance to stem the hemorrhaging caused by the wholesale electoral shellacking they suffered in the last election cycle. To them, Valdez symbolizes not only what they lost—their decades-long county courthouse monopoly—but the depths of their pain: losing to an unorthodox outsider.

Yet the sheriff's campaign has proven something of a dud. That is, until August when the Republicans infused some life into the race by parading a man in a chicken costume outside a Valdez fund-raiser in North Dallas and posting it on YouTube. The one-minute video called "Watch the Feathers Fly" was an attempt to flush out Valdez, who Republicans accused of dodging debates with Cannaday.

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.
Even though she's an incumbent and a Democrat, Sheriff Valdez leaves nothing to chance as she campaigns on foot along Ellsworth Avenue in North Dallas.
Sam Merten
Even though she's an incumbent and a Democrat, Sheriff Valdez leaves nothing to chance as she campaigns on foot along Ellsworth Avenue in North Dallas.
Despite four failed state jail inspections during her administration, Valdez says she has solved overcrowding and understaffing in the jail, along with improving health care and sanitation.
Brandon Thibodeaux
Despite four failed state jail inspections during her administration, Valdez says she has solved overcrowding and understaffing in the jail, along with improving health care and sanitation.
Cannaday is relying on 38 years of law enforcement experience to convince voters that he can "fix an organization that's broke."
Brandon Thibodeaux
Cannaday is relying on 38 years of law enforcement experience to convince voters that he can "fix an organization that's broke."
On July 15, representatives from four law enforcement associations protested Sheriff Valdez as she faced budgetary cuts from the commissioners court.
Sam Merten
On July 15, representatives from four law enforcement associations protested Sheriff Valdez as she faced budgetary cuts from the commissioners court.

Clucking provides the soundtrack as the chicken struts around wearing neon orange signs, front and back. One sign reads "Lupe, Why Won't You Debate?" and the other "Lupe, What Are You Hiding?" It's apparent that the chicken is up to no good, waving at people arriving at the fund-raiser. Suddenly the words "When Democrats Attack!" appear, and a woman rips the sign off the chicken's back, which queues this zinger: "Valdez can't even stop crime at her own fund-raiser!"

Jonathan Neerman, chair of the Dallas County Republican Party, claims responsibility for the video, saying he was simply trying to bring some levity to the campaign. He wouldn't have posted the video "if the chicken hadn't been assaulted," he says. "If this is the worst we talk about her, then she's gotten off pretty light this campaign season."

Valdez arrived at the fund-raiser after the chicken flew the coop, but later said the video was a "dumb" ploy. Besides, she had already agreed to several debates, one of which was scheduled on September 16 before the Stemmons Corridor Business Association and was listed on Cannaday's Web site at the same time the Republicans were parading their chicken.

If Republicans are right—that Valdez was hesitant to debate—perhaps it's understandable considering that the Dallas County jail system, which includes both jail towers in the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, the George Allen jail, the Suzanne Kays jail and the Bill Decker jail, has failed five consecutive state inspections, four of which have occurred under her watch. In September 2007, deplorable heath care conditions at the jail provoked the U.S. Department of Justice to file a lawsuit against Valdez and the county, resulting in federal oversight of the jail for the next four years.

Valdez has also been denounced for blaming jail problems on her predecessor, hurting employee morale, failing a state law enforcement licensing test, ducking the media and giving County Commissioner John Wiley Price too much control over the county jail.

As she begins the September 16 debate, she acknowledges her nervousness. "I would rather wrestle a bunch of gangsters than do this," Valdez tells a crowd of around 60 people in her opening statement.

Wearing a red suit coat and skirt, Valdez focuses her message on what she believes is the strong relationship she has forged among the sheriff's department and the Dallas County Commissioners Court, the District Attorney's Office and Dallas Police Department. But her demeanor is uneasy, and she has difficulty connecting with the audience. When the moderator raises the issue of the failed jail inspections, Valdez immediately responds, "This is an area where I like to brag." She uses the question as a vehicle to tout the improvements she's made in the jail, but for those in the audience, four failed inspections seem nothing to brag about.

Perhaps Republicans shouldn't have forced the debate issue. Sitting to Valdez's right with an empty chair between them is Cannaday, who generates sparse enthusiasm with his soft, monotone voice. He too appears uncomfortable, clearing his throat on numerous occasions.

Cannaday bears a fleeting resemblance to Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Both are in their 70s with large families and politically active wives. Although McCain and Cannaday tout experience as their most valuable asset, Cannaday is anything but a maverick, playing it by the book in his 28 years with the Dallas Police Department and 10 years as chief of police in Irving.

He says he's ready to accept the responsibility that comes with being sheriff and wants the department to be the law enforcement hub for the county. He cites the repeated failed inspections as evidence that Valdez is unfit to remain sheriff, and he claims that the morale in the department is in desperate need of a boost that only he can provide.

Cannaday mentions critical staffing shortages in the sheriff's department, only to have Valdez counter that the jail has been properly staffed for more than a year. He also details two lawsuits that were settled against the department, one for $900,000 in August of this year and another for $950,000 in February 2007. Both settlements, however, were made with inmates who spent time in the jail before Valdez had taken over the department.

At an October 7 debate at Preston Hollow Elementary School, the candidates appeared slightly more comfortable. Cannaday pointed angrily several times and audibly sighed before answering some questions—a mannerism that didn't work well for Al Gore either when he debated George W. Bush in 2000. Valdez consulted her notes regularly, preferring to read scripted answers instead of speaking directly to the audience.

Perhaps their poor debate performances won't matter much, because if conventional political wisdom holds, it's the top of the ticket that dictates the bottom. And with a collapsing economy and an unpopular war in Iraq, says Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, the Democrats are rallying strongly behind presidential candidate Barack Obama. Dallas County demographics now favor the Democrats, so the winner of the sheriff's race might just be the beneficiary of high voter turnout. "What appears to be happening is that the sheriff's race hasn't caught independent fire," Jillson says.

But you wouldn't know it from their fund-raising efforts, as the candidates have collected approximately $1 million between them. And convincing them that their tireless campaigning won't make a difference seems pointless.

Just ask Valdez, who is putting forth the kind of effort that yielded her national headlines in 2004 when she narrowly defeated Republican Danny Chandler to become the first woman, the first lesbian and the first Hispanic to be elected sheriff in Dallas County. She also was the first Democrat in the county to become sheriff in 30 years.

"I think I was the only one that knew I was going to win because I knew how hard I was working," she says.

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It's 10:30 on a Saturday morning in mid-September, and Valdez is at it again, helping with the ground game at her modest campaign headquarters in a largely Hispanic neighborhood in Oak Cliff. This time, instead of working to beat the odds, she's working to save her job.

On the second floor of an aging medical building, Valdez sits in a folding chair, personally signing campaign flyers with a Sharpie. She wears a red, sleeveless, skin-tight shirt with a collar as she prepares for a day of grassroots campaigning. Her name is stitched on the front of her shirt in yellow letters, with a sheriff's badge sewn on the opposite side.

Her black cargo pants are worn, with a hole near her knee. Valdez's running shoes will come in handy as she targets potential voters on foot in Precinct 1229, just east of Highland Park. The flyers she's signing will be put on doors of people who aren't home.

Valdez grabs a bottled water from a rusted refrigerator. Despite raising nearly $400,000 for her campaign, it's apparent that very little of that money has been spent on anything more than providing an operable headquarters. But that's plenty for Valdez, who says she grew up "so poor I didn't even know it."

The youngest of eight children, Valdez shared one bedroom with her siblings while picking crops in San Antonio as a migrant worker. "I just thought that was normal," she says. "I didn't think anybody was any different."

After graduating high school, Valdez moved to Oklahoma and earned her bachelor's degree at Bethany Nazarene College, now called Southern Nazarene University. She later became a youth minister in Phoenix before landing in Kansas City, where she got a job as a jailer with the Jackson County Department of Corrections and also enlisted with the U.S. Army National Guard and Army Reserve.

Valdez had no intentions of returning to Texas, a place she says contained "lots of bias and prejudice against the Latino," but she came back in 1978 to be close to her aging parents.

She held three government jobs before spending nearly 15 years as a special agent for the U.S. Customs Service, earning her master's degree in criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas at Arlington in 2000. She joined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a senior agent in 2002.

After nearly 30 years in law enforcement, Valdez saw retirement around the corner, though she wanted to remain in public service. She says the sheriff's office caught her eye because it fit her background and there was turmoil in the department that needed to be resolved.

Like other candidates, she smelled blood in the water. Then-Sheriff Jim Bowles, who had been running the department since 1985, had a damaged relationship with county commissioners, which culminated with their disagreement regarding Bowles' award of a jail commissary contract—the same one that led to an investigation of the sheriff.

Five special grand jury indictments were returned against Bowles, which resulted in his landslide defeat in the March 2004 Republican primary to Danny Chandler, who had spent 29 years in the sheriff's department.

The Democratic primary was much closer, with Jim Foster, who would later be elected county judge in 2006, forcing a runoff against Valdez. But she destroyed Foster in the runoff, garnering 73 percent of the vote.

In April, all five indictments against Bowles were dismissed, but he had already been bounced in the primary, and the department was tainted by allegations of impropriety. That month, the jail also failed its first inspection in 21 years. Overcrowding, understaffing and health care deficiencies were the most notable violations cited by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which performs annual jail inspections.

Valdez's timing was perfect, says attorney Susan Hays who was then-chair of the Dallas County Democratic Party. "She embodied the outsider at a time when the department really, really needed it."

In addition to the chaos surrounding the Bowles administration, Valdez's campaign continued to gain momentum after The Dallas Morning News endorsed her over Chandler. The editorial board wrote that both candidates were "so well qualified and ready to lead that the voters can't go wrong," but they ultimately gave the nod to Valdez, because she would bring "fresh blood, fresh instincts and fresh ideas."

Valdez made history on November 2, 2004, when she narrowly beat Chandler, receiving 51 percent of the votes cast. Reflecting back on her big day, Valdez still isn't sure which barrier she broke was the most significant. "That depends on which group you talk to. They all say they got me elected."

But whether it meant more to be a Democrat, a lesbian, a Hispanic or a woman, Valdez says those labels were the last things on her mind. She was more concerned with turning around the sheriff's department.

Hays, who also served on Valdez's transition team, says the problems in the sheriff's department were worse than anticipated. She describes the culture in the department at the time as "horrible" and the morale as "terrible." Some officers seemed willing to assist Valdez only if there was something in it for them, says Hays. When no special treatment was offered, they turned against her. Others simply wouldn't take orders from a woman. Hays recalls being told by one administrative staffer: "They don't even get to the part that she's gay; they can't get over the fact that she's a woman."

Hays says some of Valdez's close aides suggested doing a major staff overhaul because of the resistance to working for her, a tactic Hays disagreed with at the time. "But, in retrospect, I think that was a big mistake because they were out to get her."

While battling for respect, Valdez faced her first failed jail inspection only two months into her administration. Again, overcrowding, staff shortages and health care woes highlighted the concerns of state inspectors, along with problems with fire safety and cleanliness. Only a month later, a Dallas Observer column ("Fatal Phone Tree," April 21, 2005) exposed major problems with the jail's phone system, as only two employees were charged with handling more than 700 daily calls from people trying to locate inmates. Some inmates were lost in the system for days.

In November 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice notified the county commissioners that it intended to launch an investigation into jail conditions as a result of the failed inspections and the federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the county for its alleged inhumane treatment of three prisoners. Although their injuries—the death of two mentally ill inmates and the grave illness of another—occurred prior to her tenure, it didn't help that Valdez was the public face of the department when commissioners hired Dr. Michael Puisis, an outside consultant, to review conditions at the jail. He would later describe a system so rife with neglect that inmates were regularly denied basic care. The $5 million in jail improvements that commissioners would throw at the problem did little to change the opinion of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards when the jail failed another inspection on March 10, 2006.

Valdez didn't help herself by maintaining poor relations with local media outlets, which accused her of refusing to honor their interview and open records requests. Small wonder that when Valdez flunked her state law enforcement licensing test, receiving a score of 66 and needing 70 to pass, the media had a field day. Only last week, Cannaday tried to exploit the issue in a campaign brochure that linked the jail's failed inspections to Valdez's failed test.

In December 2006, the Justice Department released its investigative findings, which highlighted a disturbing pattern of negligence and unprofessional conduct on the part of health care providers and jail staff. The report found that the jail had violated the constitutional rights of inmates and contributed to the deaths of at least 11 people. The Justice Department also described parts of the jail facility as filthy and sanitation practices as "grossly inadequate," citing leaky toilets and sinks, clogged drains and fly larvae in the bathrooms. In September 2007, the department filed a lawsuit against the county and Valdez, which resulted in a four-year agreement giving the feds oversight of the jail with regular biannual inspections.

In January of this year, state inspectors made a surprise visit and the jail failed its fifth inspection in as many years. The state, however, noted that progress had finally been made regarding overcrowding, understaffing, health care and sanitation.

Since Valdez first took over the jail in January 2005, she maintains that she's been cleaning up the mess Bowles left behind after 20 years of neglect. Price, her most ardent supporter on the commissioners court, couldn't agree more. "Shit, it was always that way."

But Cannaday maintains that blaming Bowles is just a wholesale excuse by Valdez to absolve her of any responsibility; he also accuses her of taking a single-issue approach to fixing the jail as opposed to focusing on the big picture.

"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."

----

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.

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.)

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."

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.

A unanimous commissioners court sought a restraining order to prevent camera crews from filming inside the jail, alleging legal liability and jail security as concerns. But Valdez, represented by District Attorney Craig Watkins, fought back, claiming that she had the authority to allow the film crew access as part of her legal responsibility to control and supervise the jail. But she stopped the initial shooting in anticipation of a ruling from District Judge Carlos Cortez. When Cortez granted a temporary restraining order for two weeks, the Discovery Channel decided to pull the plug on the project.

Commissioner Mike Cantrell says the uproar caused by Valdez was "absolutely insane... It just seemed to me to smack of politics."

Even her strongest political ally turned against her. "Cameras can't be allowed to go willy-nilly around the jail," Price says.

Valdez claims she was acting on the advice of one of her chiefs, and that she thought the documentary would air in March. "Why not show something positive?" she says.

Whether seeking positive publicity or political advantage, Valdez recently has encouraged members of the local media to tour the jail—this, despite her history of press snubs and rebuffs. "She has hardly been a media darling," Price admits.

During a tour given to the Observer, a man in a wheelchair wearing a blue hospital gown shields his eyes with his hand, startled as seven people pour out of an elevator into the mental health unit in the West Tower of Lew Sterrett.

"Notice the smell," Valdez says.

A few deep breaths yield no distinct odor, but that's exactly what she's hinting at. Valdez explains that when she took over the Dallas County jail, mentally ill inmates were spreading their feces on the walls.

White jail cells border what was once a weight room for officers. In March, the room was transformed into an office area for mental health professionals. The doctor in charge, who doesn't want his name used "to keep his family safe," says Valdez's leadership has been instrumental in creating what he believes is now one of the top 10 jail medical health facilities in the country.

"This place used to be a dungeon," he says.

In July 2005, after two failed jail inspections and a damning outside consultant's report, the commissioners court voted to replace the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, which had been the jail's health care provider since September 2002, with Parkland Health & Hospital Systems. Valdez says her cooperation with Parkland, which took over in March 2006, has created a completely new atmosphere, and the jail doctor agrees. He describes staff morale as "very high" and says everyone is treated with dignity and respect. The ratio of inmates needing restraint is low, he adds. "The environment has changed from hostile to therapeutic."

Sharon Phillips, senior vice president of community-oriented primary care for Parkland Health & Hospital Systems, says both the budget and staff have doubled since the changeover, which have been keys to making incredible strides. The Observer spoke with Phillips on October 2, as the Justice Department was wrapping up its scheduled biannual tour of the jail. Phillips says department officials commented on its cleanliness, saying there was a noticeable change since their first visit. "We've made tremendous improvements," adds Phillips, who expects the jail to meet all federal standards before the department's four-year oversight period expires.

Valdez says she has healed many of the gaping wounds left behind by Bowles, but admits that it will take another 18 months to make a complete turnaround. She boasts that overpopulation is no longer an issue, as the jail is 84 percent occupied, according to the most recent data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Valdez also says staffing is under control after hiring 700 new employees and meeting the required 1:48 guard-to-inmate ratio.

George Milner III, a Dallas criminal defense lawyer for 14 years, says he's seen significant improvements in the jail across the board, noting that advances in health care are clearly evident under Valdez's leadership. But he says there is room for improvement. His clients still complain that it can take 12-18 hours to get bonded out of jail.

Commissioners Price, Cantrell and Mayfield agree that the jail was in shambles when Valdez took over, and the only major issue holding the jail back from passing its next inspection is the installation of a smoke evacuation system. But Cannaday isn't ready to lavish praise on Valdez—at least not yet. Not until the jail can pass an inspection, not until there is a documented history of success—neither of which have occurred under Valdez's tenure.

"She says it's almost fixed now and we've made tremendous strides; well, how do you know that? They're still failing," he says. "You need to have past inspections in order to say that in fact things are fixed, and they're not, or they would have passed."

Despite a campaign that at times has been too lackluster to capture the public's imagination, voters will be asked to weigh Valdez's track record as sheriff against Cannaday's experience and endorsements. Even then, the race ultimately may be determined on the Republican Party's ability to match the turnout of the Democrats, many of whom are expected to flock to the polls and vote a straight ticket in support of Barack Obama.

"More recently, Democrats have been up on their hind legs, pointing fingers, laughing at the Republicans and finding each other," says SMU professor Jillson. "Momentum has been building, and Republicans have gone quiet."

Maybe some Republicans, and maybe in some local races—but in the campaign for sheriff, Republican Party chair Neerman still remains hopeful. "If people are paying attention to countywide races, this is the one they're paying attention to."

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