The Kermit Sanders Lodge #13 of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) endorsed Democratic challenger Maj. Craig Owens over incumbent Republican Sheriff Neil Warren in the Cobb County Sheriff’s election.
The Courier spoke with Lodge Secretary and Treasurer James “Jimmy” Stephens about how the vote was carried out, and he talked about some of the controversy around the vote.
Stephens said that since Lodge President Steve Gaynor had, as an individual, openly supported Owens he was not involved in administering the vote.
Stephens prepared the ballots, but was not present for the vote due to knee surgery, he said.
At the August 5 meeting both Owens and Warren spoke, then members places their ballots in sealed envelopes and the envelopes were collected.
Stephens said he also set up an online voting option, and members were sent email instructions and a link to respond by August 12.
Stephens said he counted the votes on August 12, and on August 13 posted the one-line report that Owens had won the endorsement on the lodge’s website and Facebook page.
“We’ve had questions and I’ve talked to some of our longtime members, and I said, ‘Look, I’m the only one that had access to it. I set up the online component. I said every member in our lodge had the opportunity to vote if they chose to do so’,” he said.
“If they open their email, the link was there that they could click on it. And I had an online ballot that you put your name and address and membership number so we could verify who they were,” Stephens said. “And we had three selections.”
“You could either pick Craig Owens, or you could pick Neil Warren or you could vote for no endorsement,” he said.
He said some members of the lodge were unhappy with the outcome.
“The one that didn’t get endorsed has expressed some strong opinions, and the chairman of the Cobb Republican Committee has been talking about our ‘tainted voting process’, and that something smells in it,” he said.
“The bottom line is that we have over 1000 officers we represent,” he said. “The majority of our members, whether they’re active or retired, are from Cobb County.”
“And out of that majority, the majority of the members are either from Cobb PD or Cobb SO. But we do have some officers and deputies from Cherokee and Paulding and Douglas County.”
Responses to the endorsement
We gathered responses to the endorsement from the Owens Campaign, the chair of the Cobb Republicans, and the chair of the Cobb Democrats. We were unable to reach Neil Warren as of the writing of this article.
Response from the Owens campaign
Craig Owens wrote:
I began my career in the Cobb County Police Department as an officer determined to get to know the people like me who call Cobb home.
Learning the heartbeat of the community, keeping everyone safe, and serving with uncompromising integrity are three important principles of law enforcement. This has been my commitment from day one that I uphold.
That’s why when I continued to hear and read about the ongoing violation of these critical principles at the Cobb County Detention Center and the blatant disregard for human life, I decided to challenge the incumbent sheriff.
It’s an honor to receive the endorsement of the Cobb FOP and I know it’s not a decision they made lightly. This Cobb County Sheriff election isn’t about Democrat versus Republican, blue versus brown. Cobb citizens from all parties have expressed that it is more important for them to be properly represented. It’s about bringing truth, trust, and transparency to the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office. It’s about leading with virtue, qualifications, and integrity. It’s about life or death.
I believe the Cobb FOP understands what’s at stake in this election and they came to the same conclusion as so many are coming to – it’s time for a new sheriff in Cobb County.
Response from Jason Shepherd, Chair of the Cobb Republicans
Jason Shepherd wrote us in an email:
The endorsement result may have been a foregone conclusion as Lodge 13 President Steve Gaynor, who oversaw the vote while also serving as Owen’s campaign manager, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution back in December regarding, “It’s time for change.”
However, as noted in the Marietta Daily Journal’s “Around Town” column on December 3, 2019, Gaynor also came under criticism in November 2019 for using the FOP Lodge’s official Facebook page to campaign for Owens posting, “This campaign is not about being a Democrat or Republican, it’s about making things better for the outstanding men & women who work for the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office. The problems at the Sheriff’s Department have been ignored for way (too) long and it’s time for change. So please watch for our kickoff meet & greet fundraiser at the beginning of December.”
Several frustrated members of the lodge reached out to me with their concerns. They wish to remain anonymous fearing retribution from Gaynor and other Owens allies.
One frustrated member informed me, “Even before the lodge had an opportunity to vote, President Steve Gaynor was endorsing a candidate on the lodge’s Facebook page. Then it turns out he is working for the campaign? This just doesn’t smell right.”
Another was concerned about Gaynor’s role in the campaign and the fact he didn’t recuse himself in the vote for the candidate he is working for saying, “Of course it’s a conflict of interest, but nobody will go against Gaynor.”
Another incensed member contacted me frustrated that, “Just a few short weeks ago, Craig marched to the Marietta Square with groups bashing the police, now our lodge is endorsing him. He can’t have it both ways!”
Finally, there are some that just cannot understand why the FOP would endorse someone who is a member of a political party that has dedicated itself to defunding law enforcement across the nation,
“I am beyond belief that the FOP endorsed a candidate for sheriff that is a member of a political party that endorses and enacts policies such as defunding LE, releasing violent criminals without bail, sponsoring and encouraging violent civil unrest,” the member told me. “This candidate can say whatever he wants, but by his affiliation with this bunch, he’s endorsing their actions.”
Before I was Chairman of the Cobb County GOP, I also carried a badge for more than five years with the State Fire Marshall’s Office. My father was a police officer in Miami-Dade when he and my mother met, and my uncle recently retired after 35 years with the Broward County, Florida’s Sheriff Office. This misuse of the FOP for the political expediency of a candidate whose political party wants to tear down our law enforcement officers and departments reeks of the worst kind of back-room politics.
This will not change the votes of Cobb’s law enforcement community who stand proudly with Sheriff Neil Warren.
Jacqueline Bettadapur, Chair of the Cobb Democrats
Jacqueline Bettadapur wrote us in an email:
The police are often criticized for not policing their own. After the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police, the role that police unions play in shielding too many bad cops from discipline and removal has come under increased scrutiny. Too often, a few bad apples have been allowed to remain on active duty and spoil the whole bunch.
That’s why it was so encouraging to see Cobb’s Fraternal Order of Police endorse Police Major Craig Owens for Sheriff over long-term incumbent Neil Warren. Craig Owens is an honorable and decent man who cares about the community he serves. He will not tolerate abuse and criminal neglect of inmates at the Adult Detention Center. He will manage the Sheriff’s Department with the highest of ethical standards and restore truth, trust and transparency to the office. Thank you, Cobb County Fraternal Order of Police for knowing a bad apple when you see one and not letting Neil Warren taint the whole bunch.
Democrats know law enforcement officers serve a critical role in our communities. Here in Cobb County, we supported the millage increase to fund compensation for these valued public servants. Policing, however, should not be the only tool in the toolbox for crime prevention and crime reduction. We need mental healthcare providers, veteran services, childcare assistance, substance abuse treatment counselors, recreation programs and a whole host of other community services to lift people up, so we don’t have to lock them up. Craig Owens knows this and if elected as Sheriff will serve Cobb County with distinction and honor.