Forsyth, Ga. – In politics, it is a fine thing to be able to tell a voter that you prefer his company to that of the president of the United States.
This is the line that peach, pecan and row crop farmers from Houston County heard this morning during a private meet-and-greet breakfast with Democratic nominee for governor Roy Barnes.
It’s what the former governor said as he stood in front of two dozen or so middle Georgia sheriffs at a morning news conference here at the Monroe County courthouse.
“I’d rather be with these folks, if you want to know the truth,” Barnes said. “I’m not running for governor of Washington D.C. I’m running for governor of Georgia.”
He’ll be able to say the same thing in front of voters in Bainbridge and Thomasville this afternoon, and finally to workers at a peanut-shelling facility in Donalsonville.
And President Barack Obama – who was speaking in Atlanta as Barnes chatted up the sheriffs – was okay with the situation, the Democratic nominee said. Obama called after Barnes won the nomination on July 20, and raised the topic of his Atlanta visit.
“I told him that I already had a date planned, and he said, ‘I understand,’” Barnes said.
Though he and his staff portrayed the conflict as a mere clash of calendars, the disparity in location allowed Barnes to trumpet his independence to rural swing voters who will be crucial in November.
“I agree with some things that President Bush did, and I disagreed with others. I agree with some things President Obama did, and I’ve disagreed with others. I’ve always been a pretty independent type,” Barnes said – pointing to former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn.
At the conference with sheriffs, Barnes very carefully read out each of the 28 serving and retired sheriffs who had signed up as supporters.
Though billed as a meeting of middle Georgia sheriffs, among those attending was Thomas Brown of DeKalb County – a close friend of Thurbert Baker and a supporter during the attorney general’s campaign for governor. Brown could surely have obtained an invitation to see Obama — if he’d wanted.
The sheriffs did not dispute the underlying assumption that their support would be more important come November than any president’s.
“The sheriff has more contact with voters than any other county politician. The tax commissioner – nobody likes him,” laughed Gene Pope, sheriff of Butts County – and president of the Georgia Sheriffs Association. “I’ve had people come to me. They’re running for office, and they say, ‘I’ve been told that if I want to get votes, I’ve got to go see the sheriff first.’”
Pope said Barnes is the only candidate for governor who’s paid him that courtesy.
Sheriff John Carry Bittick of Monroe County agreed: “We’re closer to the public than any other elected official – especially in the South or the West.”
In front of his sheriffs, Barnes criticized the closing of regional GBI crime labs that forced deputies to make long drives to Atlanta to deliver evidence. He singled out sex-offender registries as one of the many unfunded mandates heaped upon sheriffs.
“We require these sheriffs to check on all these folks. Good thing – to make sure we know where they are. But we have not provided funding, nor have we provided assistance to them,” Barnes said.
Barnes also criticized the closing of work camps that he had established for medium-security inmates during his four-year term:
“This administration has closed almost all of those work camps, which I think is unfortunate. I think we should look at going back to those work camps [as a place for] soft offenders. There are people that need to be locked up – but not forever.
“Particularly young folks. It’s remarkable what a six-month sentence can do to get some attention into young folks. We need places to do that. And people who commit non-violent crime – we need to use their labor.”
Barnes also declared that the state was periously close to a federal court takeover of its prison system – something that has already happened once, in the 1970s:
“We are defaulting. Everybody in the race talks about [cussing] the federal government. I believe in cussing the federal government from time to time. It’s a constitutional right, and I recommend it.
“However, we have three departments that are about to be under the control of the federal courts. One is Juvenile Justice. The other is Behavioral Health. They just filed suit recently. The third one that’s coming soon is Corrections.
“We know the parameters that have been set by the court. It’s the state’s responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Updated at 3:15 p.m.: Scheree Moore, spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Justice, called to say that Barnes was mistaken on one point. Said Moore:
“The United States Department of Justice ended its monitoring of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice in April 2009, therefore, dismissing the case with prejudice.
The monitors had a favorable report at the end of our federal oversight, citing DJJ’s major service improvements in the areas of education, medical, mental health, protection from harm and quality assurance.”