Sheriff Michelle Mitchell has worked in the Richmond Sheriff's Office since 1987. But it was in 1993 that she made the jump to the office's top spot, becoming Virginia's first female sheriff.
Today, two four-year terms later, she's ready for another run. When did she decide? "That decision was made for me when I won the last election," she says, laughing.
During the past year, Mitchell has grabbed headlines for a flap over unused vacation pay and whether she was allowed to give it to herself. She's fought City Council for a new jail. Three of her sheriff's deputies were suspended for working at an illegal nightclub. And she even got her own stalker.
Through it all, she's earned a reputation for being media-shy. But Style talked with her recently about her re-election bid.
Style: How do you think the recent sheriff's deputies' indictments and the controversial vacation-pay policy which you've done away with how much of an effect will they have on your re-election?
Mitchell: I think they will be nominal. Again, if you look back at my record, I think my record speaks for itself. I think the fact that I've been here for eight years and we have remained incident-free and we've remained escape-free. I think that at the forefront of everybody's mind is the fact that I have done the job I've been charged to do, which is to keep the inmates within my custody and control, and to keep the public safe. So again I don't think that at the end of the day that's going to be a significant issue.
Style: Which one?
Mitchell: I don't think either of the two. I think with the deputies, if you take a look at the number of people we employ here, which is almost 500 individuals, and I would dare say that 60 percent of all my officers that work here are involved in off-duty part-time work. I think that we've been very fortunate that we have not had a lot of officers who have been charged with any type of crimes related with off-duty employment.
Style: What has been your biggest accomplishment as sheriff?
Mitchell: I think my biggest accomplishment during the past eight years is keeping this facility safe and keeping the citizens of Richmond safe. We have gone eight years without any type of serious riot or any type of escape.
Style: What has been your biggest disappointment in your eight years?
Mitchell: I think my biggest disappointment has been the fact I have not been able to convince city government that we need a new jail, and that the conditions here are to the point that they are unsafe. I think that's the thing that bothers me and vexes me the most.
Style: What do you think you can accomplish for the city in another term as sheriff?
Mitchell: I think there are two things I want to accomplish. One is, of course, getting a new jail, which is something we desperately need. The other thing I'd like to accomplish is bringing more services and programs for the inmates that are incarcerated here at the Richmond City Jail.
Style: During your past election bids, you haven't talked much to the news media. But within the past few months you have been talking more. Do you think you've been treated fairly by the media?
Mitchell: Umm, I don't think I've been treated unfairly by the media. I think the problem is, I'm like this I only want to say [things] one time. I think with the media you all have the tendency to want to pick the issue to death. Once I make a statement that's it for me until I make a new statement or until something new develops, or until there's something else you all need to know, or something else we need to shed light on.
Style: Recently a man was charged with stalking you. Has that issue been resolved?
Mitchell: That person, he is still in jail. For now that issue has been resolved, but that was very, very bizarre for me. I've been in the sheriff's department for 14 years and have always had inmate contact, and I've never in my life had anybody to have delusional ideas about me. So that was very, very strange and very, very frightening.
Style: Do you feel safe and do you think women in the city should feel safe?
Mitchell: I think anytime you're involved in any type of stalking situation you never feel safe, because I think most people and I do have enough sense to realize that this person is not going to be in jail forever. This is a person that I realize will be in my life, and I'll just have to be very, very cautious and very, very careful. I think women who are involved in stalking situations really do have to live with a certain degree of fear and uncertainty in their lives. I'm not excluded from that group anymore.
Style: How much of an effect do you think the department's over-budget problems will have on your campaign?
Mitchell: Well, I think it's an educational process. Out of our budget which I think this year is 22 million dollars 17 million dollars is reimbursed by the state Compensation Board. Approximately between 4 [million] to 5 million dollars is actually money that is paid by the taxpayers of Richmond. I think what people really need to realize is that 17 million dollars of the 22 million basically goes for salary. We have 4 [million] to 5 million dollars to actually operate the Richmond Sheriff's Office. I think if people sit down and really take a look at all the services we have to provide, I don't think that's going to be an issue. For us, our inmate cost per day is $34.02. If you take a look at Henrico, their average cost is $89.25. Chesterfield is $47.25, and Petersburg is $46.47.
The reason I tell you that is because our population averages about 1,500 inmates a day. The rest of these facilities are 400 inmates or less. So I really think if the taxpayers and the citizens of Richmond sit down and try to understand all of the issues at hand, I think they really get a very, very good bang for their buck. We are one of the cheapest jails in the state of Virginia. So that has to come from some type of good fiscal management.
Style: What do you think are your chances of winning?
Mitchell: Well, I don't take anything for granted, but I think my chances are pretty darn good.
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