U.S. marshal nominee young but tough

The man who has been nominated to serve as the next U.S. marshal in South Carolina tries to portray himself as just an average small-town sheriff.

When pushed to reveal more, Williamsburg County Sheriff Kelvin Washington offered a hearty laugh and said, "Listen, I'm a plain ol' country boy."

But those who know the 40-year-old say there is more.

"Even though he comes from a small, rural county, he's not a small, rural sheriff," said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.

Lott met Washington several years ago when they served on a racial profiling panel together. Lott said he was impressed with Washington's progressive views on the issue.

"He will treat everyone fairly," Lott said.

President Barack Obama announced Washington's nomination before Christmas. Washington was recommended for the job by U.S. Reps. John Spratt and James Clyburn, the state's two Democratic congressmen. Marshals are political appointments.

The two congressmen recommended three people for the job, and the White House selected Washington from the list, Clyburn said. Washington had expressed interest in the job, he said.

To get the job, Washington must pass Senate confirmation hearings. If he wins approval, he will step into a job that last year had a starting base pay of $98,156. The salary increases to $127,604 after the first 10 months.

There are 94 U.S. marshals, one for each federal judicial district. They are in charge of courthouse security, protecting witnesses, transporting prisoners and hunting fugitives.

In South Carolina, Washington would be in charge of 69 deputy marshals and administrative staff members. Marshals' offices are in Columbia, Charleston, Florence and Greenville.

U.S. marshals come from law enforcement backgrounds where they served as sheriffs, federal agents or prison wardens.

Typically, a person is appointed U.S. marshal toward the end of a career.

Washington is unusual in that he has been nominated in the middle of it, Lott said.

"You can look at his age, but he's experienced because of the years of service," Lott said.

Washington began his career in 1990 as an officer with the Florence Police Department. He served there as a patrolman, narcotics agent and investigator.

Washington, who was born and raised in Hemingway, returned home in 1993 to become the chief investigator at the Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office. He later was promoted to chief deputy.

When Washington started at the sheriff's office, the department was in turmoil.

A newly elected sheriff was replacing former sheriff Theodore McFarlin, who later was convicted on federal conspiracy and perjury charges for his role in protecting local drug dealers while in office.

Washington deserves credit for restoring respectability to the department, Clyburn said.

In 1998, his predecessor, Sheriff Jack McCrea, retired, and Washington was appointed as his replacement.

When Washington was elected to the office in 1999, he became the youngest African-American sheriff to be elected in the state and one of the youngest in the country. He has won every election since.

"The people in that community have high regards for him," Clyburn said.

Today, Washington is one of 12 African-American sheriffs in the state.

Washington, who is married with three teenage children, also serves on boards such as the Williamsburg County Boys and Girls Club and Vital Aging.

He holds bachelor's and master's degrees and works as an adjunct professor at Charleston Southern University and Horry-Georgetown Technical College.

He is a past president of the S.C. Sheriff's Association, where colleagues said he was a good communicator and created new training programs.

Washington was reluctant to talk about the nomination.

And he sidestepped any controversy brought up this week when current U.S. Marshal Johnny Mack Brown of Greenville let it be known he doesn't want to give up the job.

"I have the utmost respect and admiration of Marshal Johnny Mack Brown," Washington said.

Other sheriffs only had kind words about Washington. A search of federal court records found a handful of lawsuits. None of them resulted in any fines or penalties against the sheriff.

Lexington County Sheriff James Metts said U.S. marshals must be able to coordinate with local law enforcement, especially in the role of leading the state's fugitive task force.

"As sheriff, he certainly understands the importance of that," Metts said.

If appointed, Washington said he would miss serving as Williamsburg County's sheriff.

"It'll be a bittersweet transition," he said.

But he looks forward to serving the people of South Carolina in a new role. After all, that's why he got into police work in the first place.

"That's a basic Christian value - serving people," Washington said. "It's a purpose."