Donald Fleming, Flagler County sheriff from 2004 to 2012, will run in 2016 for a shot at third term
I met with Donald Fleming at his home on the morning of Sept. 3. It’s a modest home on the outside, but on the inside, the home shows evidence of the influence of his wife, Stephanie, who is an event coordinator for Halifax Golf Plantation. Each room is decorated with taste.
Fleming, an imposing man at about 6-foot-5 (he says he used to be 6-foot-6), came to the door wearing an untucked pinstripe dress shirt with jeans. His short-cropped hair is mostly white, and he has rectangular glasses that magnify his eyes. He has a genial and compassionate manner.
Fleming was elected sheriff of Flagler County for two terms, defeating Jim Manfre in 2004 and then successfully running for re-election in 2008. He lost in 2012 to Manfre by just 332 votes out of more than 48,000 votes cast. He said he learned from his mistakes and plans to campaign harder this time around.
He predicts that he could have as many as 300 people come to an upcoming campaign kickoff party. “I’ve gone to meetings at the county, at churches, to get a feel before I declared,” he said. “I feel good. I feel very good.”
After serving eight years as Flagler County sheriff, Donald Fleming lost by just 332 votes out of more than 48,000 in 2012 to Jim Manfre.
As far as the 2016 election? He said, “I’ll win big.”
70 years old
More evidence of his attention to the campaign is that he was well rehearsed on some potential questions for his campaign.
I asked about his age, for example. He turned 70 on May 31. Should that be a concern to voters?
“You ask any senior citizen that — if they can’t contribute to a society,” he said, without hesitation. “They’re not hiring me for my physical ability.” He added that his mother lived until she was 94, and he has an uncle who is 98, so long life runs in the family.
“My health is good,” he said. “I just had a physical, and it was good. I have a torn muscle from spinning my niece in the pool, but other than that, I’m good.”
Fleming was born in Manhattan. His father worked for the railroad for 42 years, and his mother was a homemaker. He lived in a five-story apartment building, with one set of grandparents living on the third floor, and another grandmother living on the fifth floor. “I never hungered,” he said.
About his upbringing, he said, “It was a wonderful childhood.”
He tells a story of his grandfather paying 10 or 20 cents to sit with him in the bleachers to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers host his beloved New York Giants at Ebbets Field. “I was about 7,” Fleming recalled. “The Giants were beating the Dodgers, and my grandfather stood up and yelled, ‘Strike the bum out!’ And he got hit in the head with a tomato.” He laughed.
Fleming was a good basketball player, and he sports were a big part of his life in high school.
In the Army
From April 1967 to April 1968, Donald Fleming served in Vietnam.
“That made a man out of me,” he said. “When you see death, and you see people you know die around you, and see all the destruction that a war causes, and you live it on a daily basis, you just pray to God that you make it through, and you hope for the best.”
He said that he is, once again, the only sheriff’s candidate who has fought in a war. “That’s how it’s always been in Flagler County,” he said.
Married with children
After the Army, Fleming married Sharon. They had three sons, born in 1972, 1976 and 1978. They were married for 17 years, before Sharon died of cancer.
He remarried eventually, this time to Lorraine. Again, after 17 years, she died of cancer.
I asked him how those tragedies have shaped him.
“You try to be strong for the person,” he said. “But it’s hard to sit there and watch, day in and day out. How people slowly fade away. How many times I’ve gotten up … in the middle of the night, going through chemo. … She’d be dehydrated or needed something, and then go through another series of chemo.
“After I lost my wife,” he continued, “I swore to myself that I was never going to do that again.” But, five years ago, he married for a third time, this time to Stephanie, who is 53. “She’s been good for me,” he said. “She’s been my saving grace.”
Family has been a central focus for him for his life, he said. After growing up in a stable family environment, he also recognized the value of stability at home for the officers he has supervised as a police chief and a sheriff.
Fleming moved to Little Ferry, New Jersey, when he was about 17. And after the Army, decided to go into law enforcement in his hometown. He became a street cop for the Little Ferry after scoring 98.2 out of 100 on a combination of tests.
“I enjoyed being a cop on the street,” he said. “If there’s any cop worth his salt, and you ask what he liked the most, it’s working the street. … Your office is your car. There are days that are so quiet you can hear a pin drop, and there are days when you don’t never notice that eight or 10 hours goes by.”
As a young officer at Little Ferry, he worked on a case in pursuit of the Ice Man, a serial killer who put cyanide in people’s drinks. Fleming recalls working the late shift and observing a man standing next to a hot dog stand near midnight near a used car lot where 55-gallon drums were stored. “He used to sit there and laugh,” Fleming said. It turned out that the laughing man was the Ice Man, and he had killed someone and put the body in a 55-gallon drum. “We didn’t find him until it started to stink over there,” Fleming said.
Police chief and management style
In 1987, Fleming became chief of the Little Ferry Police Department, and he remained in that position until 2001, improving the agency by updating the computer equipment and instituting neighborhood watches, crime suppression teams, SWAT teams, K-9 teams.
He describes his style in terms of McGregor X vs. McGregor Y. The style of X is, “Do it my way, or else.” The style of Y is, “This is my idea but does anyone have a better idea?” Fleming said he subscribes to the latter style of leadership.
“Everyone buys into the program,” he said. “That worked for me. We tapped into everybody’s resources that we could.”
Family is also a major consideration. At Little Ferry, he was raising three sons and helping out as a coach for their sports teams and trying to be involved as a father, he was sensitive to the deputies’ family needs.
“If you look at the statistics, law enforcement, firemen, air traffic controllers, dentists — all have the highest divorce rates,” he said. “I always believe that the family is the No. 1 branch in a tree. If that branch is strong, then the other branches will follow. I didn’t want to have someone who is going through a bad break up — I’d want him to have support. If you don’t, the guy’s going to fall apart on the road.”
"You just have to set them in the right direction."
Donald Fleming, on his style of managing deputies
He describes the typical model of leadership as a pyramid with the leader at the top, and all policy flowing down to the deputies on the bottom. But really, he said, the deputies are the most important because they have 87% of the contact with the public. “That’s how the public sees the agency,” he said. “It’s the people who meet up with the people on the streets. They’re the ones who formulate the agency into what it is. You just have to set them in the right direction.”
How big is Little Ferry’s agency?
I’ve heard people criticize Fleming for having come from an agency that is very small. He responded by describing Little Ferry as a centrally located small town, surrounded by other municipalities, 10 minutes from major bridges in New York City and a race track and an arena and major highways. The agency, he said, “might have 32 or 33 people, but it was a very busy 32 or 33 people.”
But, he said, the criticism doesn’t hold up because he was also sheriff of Flagler County for eight years, so he has led both a small, busy agency as well as a larger agency.
By contrast, he said, Jerry O’Gara worked at Rikers Island, but was never a cop. “In all due respect,” Fleming said, “you can’t be unless you’ve been. The current sheriff (Jim Manfre) is a great example of that. He has no idea what goes on in the streets.”
As Flagler County sheriff
Fleming was elected sheriff in 2004 and was re-elected in 2008. He takes pride in the fact that he had stability in his command staff; the same core leaders remained in place for most of his eight years. He brought the Crime Suppression Team concept to Flagler county, and that resulted in 70 felony arrests in the first year. He also expanded the K-9 program and the SWAT team’s equipment.
He also is proud of giving the deputies raises. In his first term, he negotiated for raises that totaled 33%, he said. In lean times, in his second term, he didn’t lay off officers because he didn’t want to create hardships for their families.
“Those are the decisions you have to make,” he said. “Sometimes they’re controversial, but you do what you feel is best.”
Why run again in 2016?
After losing the election in 2012, Fleming returned to his private investigation business. He attributes his loss not to the Fischer case or the Hammock Beach membership (see the boxes higher up on this story) or anything else — only to politics. He didn’t campaign well enough, he said, adding that he prefers not to get mixed up in the Republican Party’s turmoil in Flagler County. But, “I’m ready to campaign a little bit harder this time,” he said.
Anticipating a tough campaign, Fleming said of Manfre: “You don’t need to drag me through the mud; I don’t need to drag you through the mud. But if you want to, let’s go. I’ll put my camouflage on and go for it.”
Since the 2012 loss, he said, he has been encouraged by many people — including deputies at the Sheriff’s Office — to run again, to put an end to Manfre’s reign.
“I can’t tell you how many times over the last three hears that I’ve had my doorbell ring and a deputy — two or three of them — in an unmarked civilian car come in with a six-pack of beer, saying to me, ‘This guy’s crazy! What are we going to do?”
Fleming believes his tenure as sheriff — success at lowering the crime rate and boosting deputies’ pay and treating everyone like family should be the focus of the campaign.
“Those are the issues,” he said. “Let’s run on the issues.” Referring to Manfre, he said, “You don’t need to drag me through the mud; I don’t need to drag you through the mud. But if you want to, let’s go. I’ll put my camouflage on and go for it.”