The good ol’ sheriff

A long-serving southern sheriff seeks reelection against an African American opponent who wonders, ‘Will they vote for a Black candidate?’
Grady County Sheriff Harry Young perches outside a polling location in the small southwest Georgia town of Cairo, Ga., during the Republican primary election. (Mark Wallheiser for The Washington Post)

CAIRO, Ga. — It was Election Day in Grady County, and Sheriff Harry Young, 76, had hardly slept three hours the night before. He was going for another term, his fifth, and as the sun rose, he settled into his usual voting-day spot under a white tent by the county’s agriculture center, trying to shake off a sinking feeling that in a changing country, his victory was no longer secure.

“Good luck Harry!” a woman called out as she headed to vote in the Republican primary, the winner of which was likely to win the general election in the GOP-dominated county.

“Thank you, babe!” the sheriff yelled back.

“Hey Harry, we want you back in there!” yelled a man passing by in a truck.

“Well this one is stressful!” Harry shouted.

The immediate reason for the uncertainty was a Facebook meme that the sheriff had posted on May 8, before the killing of George Floyd in police custody: “Can we get back to the tradition of hanging traitors?” it had read over a drawing of a prisoner being led to the gallows. He said he had posted it in response to House Democrats who voted to impeach President Trump, but as nationwide protests and riots broke out over Floyd’s killing, a local woman had called attention to the post, writing on her own Facebook page that she was “completely disgusted” by it, and the sheriff had doubled down. He re-shared the post with the meme, writing: “If you like destroying hard working people’s property because of one officer’s horrible decision then you are the problem!!!”

Now the election was becoming a referendum not just on another four-year term for Harry Young but on all he had come to represent in a county that was 66 percent White, 29 percent Black and where the face of law enforcement had always been White and male.

“Hey, Harry, we’re going for another four years?” a woman yelled out of her car window.

“Sure are, sugar!” said the sheriff, who had three primary challengers, one of whom was Duke Donaldson, who was a mile away under his own tent on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.

“You know I got you!” a young man yelled out to Duke as he headed to vote.

“All right!” yelled Duke, a 54-year-old police officer in the county seat of Cairo trying to become the county’s first African American sheriff. Even though he considered himself a Democrat, he was running on the Republican ticket to reassure the White voters he would need to win, including some who had quietly pulled him aside to say that they felt the Harry situation was an embarrassment.

“If we want change then this is one of the steps,” Duke said to one of his volunteers.

“Harry’s got to go,” she said, waving her sign at the traffic.

“Duke!” yelled another young man driving by.

“You voted?” Duke said, and over at the agriculture center, Harry was wiping the sweat off his forehead and swatting gnats hovering above the grass.

“Oh boy,” he sighed. “I’ll be glad when this day is over.”

* * *

Behind one of his signs, Republican candidate Duke Donaldson greets supporters while vying to become the county’s first African American sheriff. (Mark Wallheiser for The Washington Post)

There are two versions of law enforcement in America, the police departments led by hired chiefs who are accountable to mayors and city administrators, and the relatively less-scrutinized system of sheriffs — elected officials who have few professional requirements and are accountable only to the voters who put them in office.

While sheriffs preside over thousands of rural and suburban counties across the country, they are especially powerful figures in the South, where in the decades before and during the civil rights era of the 1950s and ’60s, they were relied upon to protect local White power structures, whether that meant enforcing segregation codes or enabling mob violence against African Americans perceived as threatening that order.

In more recent years, aspects of the old culture have lingered in the list of sheriffs and deputies accused of racial profiling, excessive use of force, coercing confessions, siphoning money meant for prison food and other violations, though there are also examples of change. Departments have undertaken professional reforms, and in some of the South’s most populous counties, African American candidates have ousted White sheriffs in power for decades. Other sheriff’s departments exist in somewhat murkier territory, and this was the case in Grady County, some 400 square miles of farms, small towns and trailer parks in the southwestern corner of Georgia. No great scandals had come to light in recent years, and though there were now Black deputies on staff, no great reforms had been deemed necessary either, a status quo that left Harry Young feeling entitled to another term as the county’s chief constitutional officer.

“Afternoon, Harry,” a deputy said as the sheriff arrived at headquarters a few days before the election.

“Hey, bud,” said Harry, who was part of a constellation of long-serving sheriffs in southern Georgia. To the west was Wiley Griffin, with 20 years. To the north was W.E. Bozeman, with 27. To the east, R. Carlton Powell had been in office since 1976.

Harry considered them all friends, and lately, they had been calling to check in more than usual, which was reassuring yet also underlined his sense that their world was off-kilter.

“We’ll be fine,” Harry would say.

To his way of thinking, the killing of George Floyd was the result of a rogue officer rather than a systemic failure; the rioting was a plot by liberal billionaire George Soros; the protests sweeping the nation were creating a moment of peril, not hope, views he had often poured forth onto his Facebook page late in the evening, including the nights he let loose about hanging traitors.

“Some of us were talking about it the other night, that every 50 years we go through this all over again,” he said, sitting in an office decorated with certificates of appreciation from local sports teams and clubs. “It just goes in a circle. Things are going great, and then something happens to mess it up. Like Floyd. It’s just brought a whole ’nother cycle. If they have their way, it’ll be the downfall of America — we’ll be communist socialists.”

He just hoped there were enough like-minded people to keep him in charge of the $2.4 million budget, the 21 deputies, the four investigators, the three-person drug unit, the jail, the jail guards, the double-aught shotgun in his truck, the .22-caliber Kel-Tec Magnum on his belt and the walkie-talkie now beeping on his desk.

“Go ahead, buddy,” the sheriff said, heading out to his truck.

It was a deputy calling to ask how he should handle a BlackLives Matter protest rumored for that afternoon.

“I just don’t want no trouble,” Harry told him. “I heard they were going to march here. If they do it, fine. As long as it’s peaceful.”

He’d heard that someone had threatened to burn down the jail, too, but for now it was quiet. He pulled onto a two-lane road, heading out on one of the loops he sometimes drove around the county. His cellphone rang.

“Hey, buddy,” Harry said.

“Hey, Sheriff,” a man said. “Just calling to check on you. Just wanted to wish you luck. Hope you stay in the driver’s seat.”

“I think we’ll be all right,” Harry said.

He drove past the Valero gas station, where there had already been a small Black Lives Matter protest, and turned toward downtown Cairo, where there had also been a peace vigil that Harry himself had attended, sitting off to the side in a lawn chair as pastors led prayers. At least he could agree with that. When he had first run for office, he said, God had visited him in a dream with a detailed plan: “He said, ‘Son, you will be deputy sheriff for 2.5 years, and you’ll be sheriff until you’re old and gray,’” and now here he was, white hair, white mustache and a cellphone with what he estimated to be more than 2,000 numbers of people he called “my friends.”

He passed a convenience store called Susie Q.

“They’re my friends — they give us all free coffee, free drinks,” Harry said, lifting his hand off the steering wheel to wave.

He passed the white-columned banks of North Broad Street.

“All the bankers — they’re all friends of mine,” he said.

He passed a Baptist church — “the pastor’s my friend,” Harry said — and the Cairo Messenger newspaper, where a crowd traditionally gathered on election night to see the returns posted on the storefront window.

“The editor, he and his wife, both of them are friends of mine,” Harry said.

The school: “My friends.”

The courthouse: “All the judges, all the lawyers.”

The hospital: “All the doctors, I consider all of them my friends — except one,” he said, referring to the doctor whose wife had drawn attention to his Facebook post. “Well, I guess we’re friends, but I never thought they’d do what they did to me.”

He rode past the brick ranch houses and green lawns on the east side of town.

“All these,” he said, sweeping his hand toward yards with Harry Young signs.

He knew not everyone was a fan. Besides critics of his Facebook page, he knew there were people who believed his deputies arrested more Black people for marijuana offenses than White people for dealing meth and other drugs. He knew people thought he did favors for his friends. He knew that there was talk around town that he sometimes had one too many drinks in the evenings. He said none of it was true and blamed the stories on his political enemies.

He rode around for another hour or so, nodding as he saw his signs on barns, in farm fields and lawns, and soon he was back in Cairo.

He turned into the west side of town.

It was the mostly African American side, and during Harry’s first election, when he ran as a Democrat, he rode in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade. Since he switched to Republican, he hardly ever campaigned on the west side anymore.

“I don’t bother — they know I love ’em,” Harry said.

He drove slowly into an enclave of narrower streets of shotgun houses where his deputies served warrants and his drug unit sometimes conducted marijuana busts.

“This is the Hotbed,” he said, referring to the nickname of the neighborhood where people once grew peppers. “They don’t like law enforcement. I keep my eyes moving when I’m through here.”

He pointed: “Big raid on that street.”

He was sure that his biggest gift was what he called his “instinct,” which he’d first noticed when he was 12 years old, and his father would arrive home drunk.

“I could feel something in my stomach when he’d come in the door,” Harry said. “I knew something was going to happen, and sure enough, he’d jump on my mother. I remember my stomach would get nervous. I was always right.”

Back when he patrolled, he’d get the feeling when he was driving through the Hotbed, or when he pulled someone over for speeding.

“Sure enough, you could see they were nervous,” Harry said. “You could see their eyes dilated. You could tell they were on marijuana or something.”

He hadn’t gotten the feeling in the longest time until the Facebook situation happened.

“I got it then,” Harry said. “I had the feeling it was all going to blow up, and then it did.”

He’d been waking up at 3 a.m. ever since, tossing and turning. He had been thinking about the apocalypse. “The Bible says there’ll be rioting in the streets, people trying to destroy the government,” he said.

It was late afternoon when he arrived back at headquarters. No protest had materialized; no one had tried to burn down the jail. It was quiet, and when Election Day arrived a few days later, it was still quiet as people voted across Grady County. Harry sat under his white tent and waved as voters drove by, and now one of them pulled over and parked. A man got out and walked over with a vigor that pierced the afternoon lethargy.

“Mr. Harry, I want you to know I voted for you,” the man said, shaking Harry’s hand as Harry tried to place his face. “I’m Dave. I worked up at the Piggly Wiggly? Just wanted to let you know.”

“Appreciate that, my friend,” said Harry.

“I don’t understand what’s going on in the world right now,” Dave continued. “I watch Tucker Carlson a lot, and last night it was about the Black Lives Matter movement. And it’s nothing about Black lives. It’s about trying to change the whole country over to Marxism.”

“Well, we don’t want to let it slip,” Harry said.

“No,” Dave said.

“We just have to lean on God,” Harry said.

“It’s brotherly love that’s going to heal this nation, and now we got this movement to abolish police?” Dave continued. “And they want to get rid of conservatives and put in all leftists.”

“You let 'em turn loose, they’re going to realize they made a big mistake,” Harry said.

“I’m not racist if I want to protect my family,” Dave said.

“Right,” Harry said.

“Anyway, just wanted you to know I voted for you,” Dave said again.

“Appreciate you,” Harry said, and with four hours to go before the polls closed, he watched Dave walk back to his truck and drive away.

* * *

Randy Wind, editor and publisher of the Cairo Messenger, pores over election results with Tamila Best before posting them on the window. (Mark Wallheiser for The Washington Post)

“They said the turnout at the airport is pretty steady,” Duke Donaldson was saying over on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., where the mood was cautiously hopeful.

“How many you got on the other side of town, Duke?” said Sonia Simmons, one of several volunteers under his tent.

“It’s about like this,” said Duke, who had volunteers working several precincts he considered promising in the county. His cellphone rang.

“What? Why?” he said to a volunteer explaining that she was being asked to move away from a polling place. “There’s a sign right there — you’re not past that sign, right? Then you shouldn’t move. Don’t move. Who told you to move?”

He and his campaign team had been knocking on doors since the start of the year, registering voters at the Walmart, and after the pandemic hit, making calls and tapping networks of family, friends and churches. His case for the job was his 24 years of experience as a resource officer for the county schools, and more recently, as a Cairo police officer. He had coached football and basketball and felt he had the trust of Black and White parents across the county.

“When it all boils down, the question is, will they vote for a Black candidate?” Duke said, referring to White voters. “I just feel they will. I just think Harry’s burned his bridges. There is no trust there.”

He sat under the tent with his volunteers, all of whom were Black, all of whom had stories about Harry.

“He sure fooled me,” said Sonia, whose son had driven Harry in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade during his first election. “I supported him. I handed out candy. I stood down there just like I’m doing right now, campaigning for Harry Young. He gave my son a big donation for graduation. He’d hang out and treated us like he was okay with us. I wanted to respond, but I didn’t,” she said, referring to Harry’s Facebook post. “Ain’t no telling what I’d say.”

“Well, I told him,” said another volunteer, Sondra Williams, whom everyone called Queen. “I said, ‘Really, Harry? This is not acceptable. You cannot show this kind of bias.’ But he does it. He does it so much. I do not feel safe with him. Not with that attitude.”

“Well, he had to be this way always to be this way now,” said Sonia.

“I tell my son, if it’s dark and you don’t feel safe, drive to a lighted area” rather than call the sheriff, said Montez Palmer, who lives in a rural part of the county and said the few times she had called 911, it took an hour or longer for a deputy to respond. “For all they know, I’m dead in an hour. They don’t care.”

“There’s a meth epidemic and they hardly touch it,” Duke said. “But people see a Black guy going to jail for marijuana and they think the sheriff’s working.”

“That’s why they keep him in there,” said Queen. “Because of the good ol’ boy system in the South.”

As the afternoon went on, they discussed their concerns about Harry’s drinking, and rumors of improprieties they’d heard over the years that never got investigated.

“Brunswick, Georgia, is what we are living with here in Grady County,” said Queen, referring to the town where more than two months passed before three White men were charged with murdering a Black jogger named Ahmaud Arbery. “That’s exactly what we are dealing with.”

“We are lucky nothing like that’s happened yet,” said Duke, and after a while, a man named Odell Jolly walked over to the tent. He was 78 years old and had dealt with all of this before when he had tried to become the first African American sheriff in Grady County. His case for the job had been his 25 years of experience with the Miami Police Department as an officer, an investigator, and decorated lieutenant. “I figured I could show people all my experience and background and have no problem,” he said. “That’s what I thought. Didn’t work out that way.”

In 1998, the first time he ran, the people of Grady County elected a former school bus driver named Snooks Green. In 2012, the second time he ran, the people elected Harry.

“White people won’t vote for a Black man,” said Odell. “Maybe they thought I’d be too strict. Maybe they thought I’d come in here and do what needs to be done and they’d wind up with the short end of the stick.”

He stood under the tent for a while and watched Duke waving to voters, wondering if he could pull it off.

“You gonna win, Duke?” a man called out from his car, and Duke gave a thumbs up.

A young man rode by on a bike.

“Ty!” Duke yelled, and the young man wheeled around.

“Hey, Duke!” he said.

“What grade you in now?” Duke asked.

“Eighth,” the young man said.

“All right then,” said Duke, smiling and waving, and after the polls closed, he headed over to the newspaper to see the results.

* * *

Residents await election returns outside the newspaper's building. (Mark Wallheiser for The Washington Post)
The numbers from four precincts begin to tell the tale. (Mark Wallheiser for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Residents await election returns outside the newspaper's building. (Mark Wallheiser for The Washington Post) RIGHT: The numbers from four precincts begin to tell the tale. (Mark Wallheiser for The Washington Post)

Harry was already there, opening his shirt collar one more button. It was hot, and he could feel his old sense of dread rising. Police had blocked off the street in front of the Cairo Messenger, and by 8 p.m. all the local candidates and their supporters had arrived, some unfolding lawn chairs, anticipating a long night. On the window of the newspaper building, an official taped up a chart with rows of empty boxes where vote totals from nine precincts would soon be filled in. Harry drifted between clusters of people, avoiding the usual chatter, finally standing off to the side by himself. He checked his phone.

“I’m worried about you,” his daughter texted him from Florida.

A police officer walked over.

“Hey, Harry, how’re you doing?” he said.

Harry nodded and went back to his phone.

Across the street, Duke and his supporters watched the scene.

“Look at him over there,” Queen said, shaking her head.

Soon, the door of the Messenger opened, and people began gathering at the chart.

Harry walked over, and Queen crossed the street, and now they were shoulder to shoulder as an official began filling in the first batch of results.

“Duke won the Ag,” someone said into the quiet, reading the numbers from the agriculture center: Harry, 63. Duke, 65. A third candidate, a former sheriff’s deputy named Steve Clark, viewed by many as a younger version of Harry, got 62.

The official moved on to Cairo 4, the precinct by Martin Luther King Jr. Ave: Harry, 15. Duke, 96. Then came the rest.

A rural precinct called Spence: Harry, 67. Duke, 3. Clark, 67.

A rural precinct called Woodland: Harry 99, Duke 29, Clark 153.

The early votes: Harry, 371. Duke, 50. Clark, 300.

Harry’s phone started ringing.

“Hey, buddy,” Harry said, brightening. “Yeah, they’re starting to put them up. I got Spence and Woodland. Yeah. Well, we’ll see.”

People began patting Harry’s back and shaking Harry’s hand.

“Good to see you, brother,” one man said.

“Hey, Harry, how you do?” another said.

Duke and some of his supporters watch as new results are posted. (Mark Wallheiser for The Washington Post)

Across the street, Queen showed Duke the numbers she had written down in a notebook. In past elections, more than a thousand people had voted at the precinct by Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave.; the total this time was fewer than 150.

“They didn’t show up,” Duke said.

He looked at the rural precincts where he needed to get a decent share of White votes to have any hope of winning. Mostly single digits. He looked away.

“It’s still mathematically possible,” said Queen. “Not likely, but possible.”

Duke sighed. He looked at the pavement. He looked down an empty street.

“I’m just going to go,” he said.

“Duke, don’t you leave like this,” Queen said. “Go get yourself together and come back and shake their hands. Just take a deep breath and see it through.”

He retreated to his car to collect himself. Queen walked back across the street to where Harry was chatting with a supporter.

“George Soros — it’s been proven,” Harry was saying when Queen came up to him.

“Hey, Queen,” he said.

“Hey, Harry, how’re you?” she said, smiling, pulling him in for a hug, close enough to whisper in his ear: “If you win this, you better clean your s--- up, Harry.”

“I’ll try to,” said Harry, but he was beginning to think that the events of the last few weeks might have helped rather than hurt him and that he didn’t have anything to clean up at all.

His spirits were lightening. Blowing Cave, Midway, Higdon — as the night went on, it was becoming clear that there would be a runoff between Harry and Steve Clark, not the outcome Harry preferred but hardly the disaster he had been dreading. He had missed a clean win by just 19 votes.

Across the street, the reality was settling in.

“I’m numb,” said Queen.

She and the others stood there in silence for a while, watching Harry shake hands, listening to the little bursts of laughter on the other side, and Montez Palmer felt her anger rising.

“Duke worked harder than all of ’em!” she said. “How can they vote Harry back in there anyway? Duke worked harder than all of ’em.”

“There’s going to be a runoff, baby,” said LaTasha Copeland, trying to calm her.

“How can they vote him back in that chair?” Montez said, wiping her eyes. “They all do that good ol’ boy crap.”

“It is what it is,” said Queen, who saw Duke walking over to rejoin them. “Don’t let him know you’re upset,” she told Montez.

Duke stood with his arms folded.

“You want to give people the benefit of the doubt on the racial issue,” he said, shaking his head. “But everything around here is Black and White.”

Around 10 p.m., officials came outside to say there was a glitch counting the mail-in votes. There were voting glitches all over Georgia. It was going to be another two hours before the full results were known.

“No tellin’ what they’d do if we left,” said Sonia.

They settled in, and as the evening went on, the street barricades were removed, and election night in Grady County distilled down to two distinct scenes: The one under the lights in front of the Cairo Messenger, where White candidates and their White supporters sat in lawn chairs with coolers of sodas, and the one across the street, where Duke and his smaller group of supporters stood in a half-dark parking lot, looking on.

They watched the chairman of the county Republican Party chatting on the other side. He was the one who had encouraged Duke to run on the GOP ticket.

“I think they told him to be on the Republican ticket to trap him,” said Sonia. “They wanted to knock him out of the race.”

“They don’t give you a chance, and that’s on purpose,” said Montez.

They watched Harry drifting around the crowd until a man led him by the elbow to a truck and drove him away.

“That’s our leadership, y’all,” said Queen.

“When they start talking about marching to get him out, I don’t want to hear it,” said Sonia. “No way. Don’t bother me.”

“They don’t understand — this little vote for sheriff here? This affects us more than the president of the United States does,” said Montez’s husband.

“This is a direct impact,” said Queen.

They talked into the night about strategy and politics and life in a rural county in the south, and near 1 a.m., the door of the Messenger opened, and the official began writing in the final tallies. Queen crossed the street and copied them down in her notebook.

Duke, 357. Clark, 1,526. Harry, 2,042.

She crossed back over.

“So, y’all,” she said to the others. “What’s the next move?”

At nightfall, as the voting picture becomes clearer, Harry studies the board. (Mark Wallheiser for The Washington Post)

* * *

In the morning, Harry got to his office earlier than usual, anticipating all the calls.

“It was just stressful,” he was saying to one of his friends. “But I think I got enough support to go ahead and finish it off.”

The runoff was still weeks away, and November distant. For now, he was still the sheriff of Grady County, his white button-down freshly ironed, his badge on his belt, his walkie-talkie on his desk next to a booklet on the powers of constitutional officers. His phone rang again.

“Yep, I’m in a runoff buddy,” he said to Doug Hanks, the sheriff of Cook County. “I had three running against me, you know. I know you had it pretty good.”

“Yeah,” said Hanks. “Well, just wanted to check on you.”

“We’ll be fine, and Wiley’ll be fine too,” Harry said, referring to the sheriff of Decatur County.

“All right,” said Hanks. “If you need me, holler.”

He hung up and took a moment to review everything that had happened. He thought about what Queen had whispered to him, and what he knew she and others had said about him.

“They say, ‘Oh, he’s a good ol’ boy.’ I always ask, who is the good ol’ boy? Explain to me, who is the good ol’ boy? Am I a good ol’ boy? Am I getting the job because I’m a good ol’ boy? I think I’m a good person.”

His phone rang again.

“Harry!” said R. Carlton Powell, the sheriff of Thomas County, who was likely to become the longest-serving sheriff in Georgia.

“How are you doing my friend?” Harry said, and they talked about the runoff.

“Well, I believe you’ll get it,” Powell said. “I heard ‘ol Wiley pulled his out, too.”

“Yeah, we’re going to be fine,” Harry said again. “But I’m telling you, it was a long night. I got to thinking about ‘what if.’ Then the ‘if’ never happened. So, I feel pretty good about it. Fixing to take two weeks off. Going to Florida. Let things cool off here.”

“Well, be careful,” Powell said. “People’ll say, ‘Oh, Harry thinks he’s got it made.’”

Harry knew his friend was right, and when he thought about the “if,” and the different world that it contained, he could feel his dread returning, the premonition he had always trusted.

“I hear you,” Harry said.

Candidates and supporters continue to wait past midnight for absentee ballots to be counted. (Mark Wallheiser for The Washington Post)
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