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National Perspective | RACE

Issues Become Black and White in Contest for County Sheriff

A white lawman has long ruled over the black majority in Florida's Gadsden County. Now he's being challenged by a black police chief, and an unfamiliar tension has taken hold.


QUINCY, Fla. — For 29 years Gadsden County Sheriff W.A. Woodham has laid down the law in this rural corner of the state with a style that combines paternalism with punishment. And even though he is white, and this is the state's only county with a black majority, Woodham has never had much trouble getting reelected.

"We treat people the way they would like to be treated--black, white, pink, green, Hispanic," he said.

But today, the longest-serving of Florida's 67 county sheriffs will face off in a Democratic primary with the black police chief of Quincy, the county seat. And this year, race is an issue.

"We are only 18 miles from the state capital, but we are 50 years behind when it comes to civil rights," said Police Chief Rodney Moore, 35. He has accused Woodham of allowing drugs to spread unchecked in the black community and trading enforcement favors for votes--charges the sheriff disputes.

Moore insists he has a chance for an upset despite his arrest two weeks ago on felony ticket fixing and bribery charges, which he calls "bogus and politically motivated." On Friday, he was suspended by the city manager.

Official Levels Charges of a 'Good Ol' Boy' Fix

"Many people in the African American community felt there was going to be some 'good ol' boy' fix on this election," said state Sen. Kendrick Meek, who spoke over the Labor Day weekend at a rally for Moore.

"We are concerned about some unusual goings on around here," Meek told about 100 supporters gathered Saturday in a historic black church near the town center. "When he wants to run for sheriff, suddenly he becomes a criminal."

Indeed, the racially charged rhetoric of the election campaign has infused this oak-shaded Deep South town with unfamiliar tension. "This racial stuff is just not credible," said retired social worker Helen Woodward, a member of the local historical society. "We've never had a problem."

Although Quincy was named an All-American city by the National Civic League in 1996, the judges emphasized that the Gadsden County seat was being honored for "recognizing its problems" as much as for any success in solving them. And problems remain.

Although about 30% of the county's 51,000 residents live below the poverty line, the county also boasts several millionaires, descendants of tobacco planters who back in the 1920s took a local banker's advice and bought Coca-Cola stock. Today, at least two dozen residents with shares worth a total of about $450 million live in Quincy, some in graceful Victorian homes with stained glass windows crafted in 1896 by Louis C. Tiffany.

Blacks won majorities on the Quincy city and county commissions in 1996, but the races remain divided. With most white students attending private academies, the public schools are 85% African American. Average test scores are the lowest in Florida.

State Atty. Willie Meggs, whose office is prosecuting the chief, said neither race nor the election has any bearing on the case against Moore, a former state trooper named police chief in June 1998. Based on information that Meggs said was provided by both black and white Quincy police officers, Moore is accused of ordering traffic tickets dismissed as favors. He also is charged with bribery, which stems from an allegation that the chief improperly retrieved a $200 hunting rifle from a pawn shop for his cousin.

Woodham, 59, acknowledges that Moore has been "more vocal, more negative and has more signs up" than any previous challenger, but even without holding any campaign rallies, "it looks like we're in pretty good shape" to win an eighth four-year term.

In half-page ads in two county weekly newspapers, Woodham said he has not responded to his opponent's attacks because he abhors "the untruths and misleading or false information involved in negative campaigning." He then urges voters to ask one question: "Do you want qualified, quality management and leadership in the most important law enforcement position in the county, or do you want a question mark?"

The sheriff said he has aggressively pursued drug cases and has set up a countywide drug task force. He notes that his opponent has refused to join the effort.

Woodham said Moore has deliberately tried to inject race in the election. "The black community has supported me in the past, and I don't see any reason they're not going to support me this time," Woodham said.

Moore Promises 'Basic Law Enforcement'

If the police chief does pull a primary upset and goes on to become sheriff in this heavily Democratic county, Moore said residents will see quick changes. "I'm going to implement basic law enforcement in the county," Moore said. "Right now there is none."

Although Moore said that blacks have the voting power to put him in office, he knows that old habits and new fears can surface in the voting booth.

"If you travel the back roads of this county, you see people who live in Third World conditions," he said. "They ask me, 'You running for high sheriff? I don't want any trouble.' They act afraid. I've had people tell me they fear their house being burned down if they put my bumper sticker on their car. And that's not a good message to hear."

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