There was a bizarre but instructive moment at a recent 2002 campaign event. Chief Deputy Don Wright, a candidate for Shelby County sheriff, was opening his sprawling new headquarters at Perimeter Mall in northeast Memphis before a large and appreciative crowd.
One by one, Wright's main backers came to the front to deliver their testimonials. First, there was campaign chairman Bob Bryden, former head of the Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission, who came off as a Mr. Clean on the Criminal Justice front during his time on that body.
Next, there was District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, another Straight Arrow who is given credit for not only good intentions but for some certifiably good results -- particularly in the prosecution and sentencing of major drug offenders. Then there was -- Ace?
"Go on, Ace, go on up there!" came somebody's cry from the crowd. And, like a relic from the past -- both literally, in that few people get to see him anymore, and figuratively, in that he represents an age in local law enforcement that many of us would just as soon be bygone -- a now silver-pated A.C. Gilless, the High Sheriff of Shelby County for the last dozen years, came strolling down front to take his place beside Bryden and Gibbons and other well-wishers.
If they were embarrassed by the tableau, Wright, Bryden, and Gibbons did not indicate as much, and perhaps this is to their credit. There is something to be said for loyalty, and what the three of them were implicitly saying was that Gilless has never stopped making some kind of positive contribution to area crime-fighting.
The problem is that Gilless has made too many contributions to the negative side of the ledger: documented improprieties in the conduct of his job (notably in the area of employee relations, where the settlement of sexual-harassment legal actions against the sheriff has cost the taxpayers plenty); blatant job-selling on the part of close associates, which led to terms in prison; skyrocketing "administrative" costs; mismanagement of the county jail facility; and even a cavalier attitude toward public property. Take our word for it: This is a highly incomplete and discreetly enumerated list. The devil is in the details, which have been exposed more than once in this newspaper and elsewhere.
Gilless' shortcomings need not be attributed by association to those who have of necessity worked alongside him for years, and, though Chief Wright's political opponents are privately quite happy to see such connections made, even they do not make public charges linking the one man's misdeeds to the other. Eyebrows did get raised, however, when another candidate for sheriff last week caused surveillance videotapes to be distributed showing Wright, whether innocently or not, blurring the line between the conduct of his current office and the act of politicking for the one he now seeks. Ironically, Gilless himself saw fit to intervene, to the end that all sheriff's candidates employed by the department have now taken the same leave of absence which Democrat Randy Wade already had.
Well and good -- for appearance's sake, if nothing else. More importantly, it will be necessary for the next man wearing the sheriff's badge to do more than merely make this kind of surface change. It behooves all of them -- not excluding Chief Deputy Wright -- to explain in concrete terms how they will prevent the abuses of the recent past from recurring during their administrations.