The Knoxville News Sentinel‘s Natalie Neysa Alund has a very good article and interview with Cocke County’s zealous new reforming Sheriff, Armando Fontes. In the nearly four months that Fontes has been in office, he’s fired a deputy who was allowing marijuana to be grown in his home, and according to a Fontes quote in the Knoxville paper, whose lengthy series on Cocke County corruption chronicles the misdeeds of its public officials in great detail, Fontes has told county Sheriff’s deputies “You’re gonna do your job or you’re gonna learn the phrase, ‘Do you want fries with that?’ ” Cocke County needs someone like Sheriff Fontes, if for no other reason than to clean up a Sheriff’s Department with a reputation not for turning a blind eye to criminal activity, but actively engaging in it. Fontes’ hypothesis about his election-that the good people in Cocke County showed up to vote and have had enough of their community’s nasty reputation-and they’d rather not carry it deep into the 21st Century.
There are still many in Cocke County, though, who prefer things the same old way if for no other reason than their comfort level. Cocke County is just over the bridge from this writer’s residence, so our family visits Cocke County for everything from shopping to poultry shows quite often. Shortly after this past summer’s local elections, we happened to be at a local event and some folks who were immediately behind us apparently didn’t think others might be listening. In bemoaning the election of Sheriff Fontes, one said that the county was “in trouble with that Mexican as Sheriff.” Another chimed in that “he’ll let all these illegal Hispanics get away with whatever they want, and he’ll give Hispanics special treatment and won’t do nothing about them, people will see soon enough.” The bigotry expressed in some of the comments was so vile and so disgusting that all this writer could think was “Holy Mother of Jesus, bring out the burning cross and the white sheets.” What was even more bizarre about the exchange was that another local politician (not Fontes) had just been by making his rounds of shake ‘n howdy with the folks, and had left the scene before this little Klan revival began. I was personally left to wonder, while overhearing the pronouncements of doom at the election of somebody with an ethnic last name, if the elected official who had visited a few minutes before might have stuck up for Fontes if the local “White Citizens’ Council” had bashed the then-Sheriff-elect in such an overtly and truly racist manner in that person’s presence.
Liberals often speak of “hate” when conservatives talk about social or moral issues, but if someone wanted to hear an example of real unsubstantiated racism and hatred, they had to have overheard that conversation in Cocke County that day. I badly wanted to say something to the people whose lips were dripping with hateful talk that they clearly weren’t concerned about others overhearing-let alone a writer who might have something to say about it later-but I bit my tongue.
That overheard conversation did effect my opinion of Sheriff Fontes, however. All I could think was “just for that, you SOB’s, I hope this new Sheriff is in office for the next 20 years, and I hope he picks this county clean of the likes of you. And just for good measure, I hope he’s a good Catholic who has about ten children who all then reproduce in turn, so that a generation from now there might be another Sheriff Fontes and little Deputy Fonteses running around just to spite you.”
Most of all, the whole affair made me want to meet the Sheriff who was going to try and change Cocke County. After all, I reasoned, people like that wouldn’t hate him so much if he weren’t going to do his job.