Longform

Keys to the Jail

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.

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.

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten