Notes from the polls: Primary election, May 8, 2018, Durham, North Carolina

May 8, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 8, 2018

Author’s note: About 90 minutes after this post was first published, I added a disclaimer at the bottom in the interests of completely disclosing the relationship with and potential biases I may have had regarding Durham sheriff candidates. MEM

If you check my record as a North Carolina voter, you’ll find that prior to today, I’d participated in nine primary elections over the course of nearly 14 years. As an unaffiliated voter, the state lets me choose which primary ballot I use: Democratic, Republican, Libertarian or nonpartisan.

This spring, the Green Party became the fourth political party certified to place candidates on North Carolina ballots, but this happened too late for the current primary voting cycle. The Libertarian Party has been officially recognized in the Old North State since 2008.

As a Durham County resident, however, Republican and Libertarian ballots rarely afford much in the way of choice. Durham is North Carolina’s fifth most-populous county, but it has the state’s fourth-highest number of registered Democrats. (The Bull City and its surrounding county surpass the slightly more populous Forsyth County, home of the city of Winston-Salem, in terms of the sheer number of Democrats registered here.)

It’s rare that more than one candidate in the Republican or Libertarian parties runs for the same elective office in Durham in a given cycle; frequently, these parties don’t field any candidates for local office. As a result, the only contests that appear on Republican and Libertarian primary ballots are for nonpartisan positions, such as judgeships and school board seats.

Sometimes, these races appear on primary ballots even when there’s just one candidate. Such is the case this year for my school board district, No. 2, where Bettina Umstead was running unopposed.

(Just to be clear: In general elections, all races appear on the ballot, even if there’s just one candidate. The rule for primary elections is different in North Carolina.)

When I went to research my ballot choices, opting for either a Libertarian or nonpartisan ballot would have enabled me to vote in a single contest — for Durham school board district 2. (For reasons I don’t understand, no Republican ballot is available to me this year.) But my usual policy is not to choose a candidate when she or he is running unopposed.

Instead, when I went to vote today, I requested a Democratic ballot, as I’ve done six times before. (Vance County, where I used to live, was and remains a Democratic stronghold, and as in Durham, the Republican Party there was typically quiescent during primary season.)

The Democratic ballot offered candidates in three races: for prosecutor in judicial district 16, which covers exactly the same territory as Durham County; for Durham County sheriff; and for Durham school board district 2.

I backed the incumbent district attorney, Roger Echols. I had no issues with his performance — which I won’t claim to have monitored closely — and I had two reasons to be skeptical of the candidate who was considered his main rival.

I was wary of Satana Deberry in part because she was found to have plagiarized parts of her website from the platform of a Philadelphia D.A. candidate. This got a fair amount of scrutiny in the primary campaign (although I won’t claim to have monitored the campaign closely, either).

However, the main reason I was leery of Deberry was something that didn’t seem to attract much attention: She didn’t appear to have much experience practicing criminal law. Deberry attached her resume to the candidate questionnaire she filled out for the Durham People’s Alliance Political Action Committee; it documented her having worked as an attorney from 1994 through 2006 at the U.S. Department of the Interior, at a “small law firm business,” at a nonprofit’s foreclosure prevention initiative and at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. Since 2006, Deberry has worked exclusively as a nonprofit consultant and executive, mainly focused on affordable housing.

I could happily have voted for Deberry were she running for a seat on the city council or county commission, or for a legislative position in the General Assembly or Congress. She seemed to have laudable views on the criminal justice system, but based on her experience, I didn’t see her as being qualified to head an office that is primarily geared toward prosecuting alleged criminal activity.

The third candidate in this race, defense attorney Daniel Meier, seemed solid enough. However, as stated above, I wasn’t convinced of the need for a new district attorney.

The last voting decision left for me on this day, then, was whom to back for Durham sheriff. This was not an easy decision for me.

I wasn’t thrilled with the challenger. Although Clarence Birkhead is an experienced law-enforcement officer with solid ties to Durham, a matter from his last job as a sworn officer raised a red flag for me. Around the time he stepped down as police chief for the town of Hillsborough to run (unsuccessfully) for Orange County sheriff in 2010, Birkhead was accused of knowingly backdating documents during his department’s reaccreditation process. Birkhead has consistently denied any wrongdoing in this matter, but I noted with interest that the biography he submitted to the Durham People’s Alliance PAC contains no mention of either his leadership of the Hillsborough department or his candidacy for Orange sheriff.

This issue — and this omission from his biography — would not in and of itself dissuade me from voting for Birkhead. But the candidate missed the April 30 filing deadline for his campaign-finance report. He dismissed this as “a matter of having all the information completed,” according to a local newspaper report. But a lack of timeliness appeared to get Birkhead into trouble in Hillsborough eight years ago, and his tardy finance report led me to question whether he has the administrative chops to run the sheriff’s department.

Unfortunately, I had reservations about the incumbent sheriff. The main problem is that there have been six deaths at the Durham County jail since 2013. Mike Andrews was appointed sheriff in 2011, and his responsibilities include running the detention facility. Andrews and his department are also sometimes perceived as being out of step with the local community.

I have a certain bias toward experience when it comes to public office, so my inclination was to back Andrews despite these serious failings. But something emerged today that made me reconsider my support: A member of his re-election campaign appeared to endorse a Facebook comment with racist overtones. Andrews disavowed the sentiments expressed in the comment, and purportedly demoted the individual responsible for approving the controversial post, but it made me question his worthiness.

I considered voting for Birkhead instead, but I remained troubled by the aforementioned issues. I considered not backing any candidate in the contest, but that struck me as a copout. This is especially true because Andrews and Birkhead are the only individuals running for Durham sheriff — the Republican and Libertarian parties didn’t stand a candidate for the position.

In the end, I held my nose and voted for Andrews on the theory that his experience makes him better suited to address problems in the sheriff’s office. But this definitely felt like a case of trying to discern the lesser of two evils.

Disclaimer: As a reporter for The Herald-Sun, I had limited dealings with Andrews, who was then (I believe) chief deputy in the department under Sheriff Worth Hill. Andrews always seemed to be pleasant and professional in our dealings. I have not spoken to him in at least seven years. My two Twitter accounts, @memomoment and especially @MillikenReports, have retweeted the @DurhamSheriff account and have had a small number of other interactions with that account. I do not believe that I’ve ever met, communicated with or written about Birkhead. However, I can’t be completely certain of this because The Herald-Sun’s previous ownership and management neglected the newspaper’s web archive.

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