JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Lakesha Burton will not participate in a private debate against opponent T.K. Waters in front of members of the Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police on Monday, Burton’s campaign announced.
The police union was set to use Monday’s debate, moderated by News4JAX’s Kent Justice, to decide which candidate it will endorse. That endorsement was expected to be released by the end of the week.
Now, Burton’s campaign said that a lack of “transparency of format and execution” and clarification has led to Burton’s decision.
The surprise move comes one day after retired Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Assistant Chief Burton challenged fellow sheriff’s candidate -- former JSO Chief of Investigations Waters -- to a series of three public debates hosted and moderated by independent, nonpartisan local organizations.
Following Burton’s announcement, the Fraternal Order of Police issued a statement saying Waters will still address its members and answer questions.
“It’s unfortunate Lakesha Burton has decided to cancel at the same time she is calling for three more public debates with TK Waters,” FOP5-30 tweeted. “To be clear, the Fraternal Order of Police obtained a professional moderator (Kent Justice) for this debate. The candidates were given the format of the debate at the same time via text message, phone call and email. For the Burton campaign to insinuate the Fraternal Order of Police has not been transparent during this process is a blatant lie. We encourage our members to attend the debate and listen to TK Waters answer your concerns.”
Waters also issued a statement Monday and called Burton’s last-minute decision a slap in the face to officers.
“It is a shame that my opponent has chosen to dodge a debate hosted by the very men and women the next Sheriff will be charged with leading,” Waters said in the statement. “This last minute withdrawal is nothing more than a slap in the face to our officers by Lakesha Burton, coming less than 24 hours after she called for more debates. It’s now clear that Burton is more interested in participating in political stunts than participating in dialogue with the men and women she seeks to lead. I look forward to sharing my vision for the future of the agency with the Fraternal Order of Police and will continue to fight hard for every vote through November 8th.”
Burton said she still wants to hold the public debates she proposed Sunday.
On Sunday, Burton’s campaign called on nonpartisan, independent local organizations including Jacksonville University’s Public Policy Institute, the League of Women Voters and the Jacksonville Bar Association to host and moderate the proposed public debate series.
“The issues in the race for sheriff are among the most important issues facing our city,” Burton said. “I’d like to debate them with Mr. Waters in a public, fair and nonpartisan setting so all voters can make informed decisions about which candidate has a better plan and the ability for addressing Jacksonville’s crime problems and community relations.”
In one of the key primary races on the ballot in Duval County last week, neither candidate received 50% of the vote plus one. That means Democrat Burton and Republican Waters will face off in the general election in November.
“These conversations should take place in a manner that furthers voters’ understanding of the important issues at stake in this election,” Burton said. “I look forward to debating Mr. Waters in settings that allow the public to clearly understand the differences between how he and I would address crime and community relationships in our city as Jacksonville’s next sheriff.”
Following her announcement that she was pulling out of Monday’s debate, Burton sent an email to the rank-and-file members further explaining her decision.
“While I recognize the intention of the program is to provide the FOP members with a platform to discuss agency specific concerns, I do not feel the event was designed to ensure an impartial forum where a truly transparent discourse can happen,” Burton wrote. “These conversations should take place in a manner that highlights the clear contrast between how the candidates will lead the agency, address crime and foster community relations.”
“Over the last 14 months, I have met with hundreds of you to answer your questions. That being said, I want to reiterate that I will continue to have the hard conversations. I urge any JSO member who wishes to ask me questions about my vision for the JSO to connect with me. I will personally discuss your ideas and/or concerns with you. Only through real conversations where we hear one another and value one another can we truly change how things are for the better. That is my promise to you and that is why I want us to go FORWARD TOGETHER.”
Early voting starts in October.