“Have you ever watched that television show ‘The Waltons?’ They were upper class compared to us,” Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said. “I never was a big Waltons fan. I worked shift work when that was on television.”
As head of Escambia County’s sheriff’s office, Morgan is a long way from his farm-boy days in Missouri. Nothing is simple.
“It’s almost like living in a Salvador Dali painting—everything is askew and nothing is distinct,” Morgan reflected. “In politics, I can tell you the first casualty is truth.”
In his journey into the political arena, the sheriff relies on advice his grandfather gave him back in Missouri. It’s advice that knows not the boundaries of time or space.
“He told me one time, ‘It’s hell dealing with an honest man. Make sure you’re that honest man,’” Morgan recalled.
The sheriff says he never had political ambitions, prior to holding his current post. He enjoyed a career in the Air Force, worked as a private investigator and a bit in real estate. Then his mother-in-law lit the fire.
“She basically said one night, ‘You’re qualified—when are you going to stop complaining and do something?’” Morgan recalled. “I decided I could do a better job, that’s why I ran for office.”
And here he is. In his second term. And by definition and by law the sheriff is powerful.
“On the low end of the spectrum I can take your freedom from you, I can take your life,” Morgan noted.
But what does such power mean? And what does it demand?
“Let me use what we were taught in the military—I’ll define power as respect,” the sheriff explained. “By virtue of the rank you are bestowed, the law dictates that you are bestowed with a certain amount of responsibility. You have the power to order men and women to their deaths. Tremendous amount of power.”
But the sheriff goes on to say that power, and respect, must be earned. This is something that he attempts to instill in his officers.
“As I tell my officers, you don’t demand respect from anyone, because what you’re demanding is fear,” Morgan said.
Mohandas Gandhi—whom the sheriff is fond of quoting—took a similar approach: “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.”
“I don’t think I’d use that term, ‘love,’” Morgan clarified. “But I think it’s the earning of the respect. Again, power derived from fear is always short lived.”
The sheriff said he knows his power—as an elected constitutional officer of the county—is derived from “the people.” It is a power that is also beholden to the people.
“In Missouri we have a saying: ‘Dance with the one who brung you,’” Morgan said. “The people, you always answer to the people.”
Recently, the sheriff was standing in line at a pharmacy. A man standing nearby introduced himself and said he appreciated Morgan’s service.
Out in the parking lot, the sheriff saw the man again. He called Morgan over to introduce him to his aging mother. The elderly woman also wanted to thank the sheriff.
These are the people the sheriff owes his power to. These are the people he serves.
“How do you betray that trust? Here’s an elderly woman who can barely speak, telling me how proud she is of me, and then I’m gonna go off and be a jerk? How in your face can you be?” Morgan said. “To be honest with you, I don’t know how you can betray that trust. Pretty powerful stuff, huh?”
In an effort to hold himself accountable to the people, the sheriff holds himself up to the same standards he holds everyone else to: “We all know, the hair on the back of your neck stands up when you’re about to do something you really wouldn’t want everyone knowing about. Well, don’t do it. You need to make sure you’re conducting your life in the harsh light of day.”
The sheriff said he considers this—keeping the people’s faith—a daily task. Although he’s safely on the other side of an election, the work continues. Earning respect—maintaining that power—takes tending.
“It’s never earned,” Morgan explained. “It’s always evolving. Respect is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
Is it also a relay race? Is Morgan grooming a successor?
“I’ve got a couple of people at the sheriff’s office that have tremendous potential,” the sheriff said.
But that doesn’t mean Morgan’s necessarily ready to hand over the power. Though he considers himself a “term-limit guy,” the sheriff said he hasn’t ruled out another run.
“Funny you should mention that. Even though I just started my second term, a week doesn’t go by that I don’t get asked that question,” Morgan said. “I believe in rotation in government. I would prefer not to run for a third term. But I also understand duty.”
But that decision is a ways down the road. There’s plenty of political battles to fight before possibly ramping up for another campaign.
“Not an easy decision,” Morgan said. “Politics are brutal. I love the job, but I hate the politics.”
And how will Morgan spend his time on the job? How will he ensure that his power is worth the weight of his badge, that it actually merits respect?
The sheriff points again to the people.
“It’s important you stay grounded and never forget what got you where you are,” Morgan said. “The day you wake up and think the stars revolve around you, that this office couldn’t exist without you, is the day you need to resign.”