Much like the lunchtime cliques a few hours prior, the debate audience took to separate sides of Booker T. Washington High School’s cafeteria. Supporters of incumbent Sheriff David Morgan sat on one side, while supporters of challenger John Powell sat on the other. Both camps sported a good number of campaign t-shirts.
The Escambia County Republican Party hosted a candidate forum last night between the two GOP candidates for sheriff. The debate attracted about 200 people, as well as GOP candidates vying for various local offices.
Eyeing an August primary, each candidate was given an opportunity to tout their successes and convince voters they’re the right man for the job. Morgan told the audience they should “stay the course,” while Powell tried to convince them that a change in leadership is needed.
“We do business differently at the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office,” Morgan said, arguing that he had cleaned house upon taking office in 2008.
Powell, meanwhile, said that the house needed cleaning again. This time, by him.
“We’re at a crossroads right now,” he said. “We have to make a decision how we’re going to handle things here in Escambia County.”
Several times, Powell drew parallels with the city of Pensacola. He cited the election of Mayor Ashton Hayward and paired it with the revitalization of downtown. The candidate said Escambia County should follow the city’s lead and embrace change.
“We’ve got to make changes now if we want Escambia County to be progressive,” he said. “We’ve seen what change can do—look at downtown.”
Morgan told the audience he had the thick skin required of an elected official and quoted Gandhi.
“I’m a hard-headed Missouri boy—only child—I play well by myself,” the Sheriff said. “One of my favorite quotes is from Mohandas Gandhi: ‘I may stand alone, but the truth remains the same.’”
Each candidate also took the opportunity to sling a little political mud. Morgan alluded to Powell being thrown out of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Powell accused the incumbent of hiring employees with known domestic abuse issues. Both men questioned the others’ respective qualifications.
“You can submit any information you want to to UCR and make the crime rate look any way you want it,” said Powell, charging that the Sheriff has not cut crime as much as recent stats indicate.
Morgan bristled at that notion.
“That’s a federal crime,” he said, asserting that the numbers coming out of his office were accurate. “I encourage you to please report that.”
The night’s forum also included a question-answer session with the audience. Most of the questions gave the opponents opportunities to further distinguish themselves from each other and take a few more jabs.
“Look at the future of Escambia County,” Powell urged. “What can it become?”
Morgan urged voters to look at his record and said that his opponent “lives with his dad.” The Sheriff also mentioned—without elaborating—that Powell had some issues in his past and had been “smart enough to get his record expunged.”