While Congressional and General Assembly races got most of the election headlines this week, history was quietly being made in a series of law enforcement races.
On Tuesday the state’s seven largest counties – Buncombe, Cumberland, Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Mecklenburg and Wake – all elected Black men sheriff.
Five – Buncombe, Cumberland, Guilford, Durham, Forsyth – did so for the first time.
In Pitt County — the state’s 14th largest — voters elected Paula Dance as their first Black female sheriff.
Each of the new sheriffs will replace an incumbent white man, several of whom are are long-serving GOP institutions in their counties.
In Wake County, Gerald Baker upset four-term Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison. Harrison had faced a political firestorm after a video was released showing his deputies beating a Black suspect and releasing a dog on him.
He also faced criticism for closely partnering with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to transfer people who have been arrested and are believed to be in the U.S. illegally to federal custody. Critics said that policy made immigrants and Latinx residents of Wake County less likely to work with or seek help from the department.
In Forsyth, Democrat Bobby Kimbrough Jr. defeated five-term incumbent Sheriff Bill Schatzman, a Republican. In comments after his victory, he said his campaign was about building bridges and pledged to serve all the county’s citizens regardless of race.
In Guilford County, Danny Rogers echoed that sentiment. On Tuesday Rogers ended the 24-year reign of Sheriff BJ Barnes, a Republican figure so powerful and popular he was widely considered unbeatable.
As in many of the campaigns, issues of racial profiling, advancement of minorities within the department and immigration — all part of larger national discussions in policing — played their part in Guilford.
“I think the main thing for me is being the sheriff for everybody in Guilford County,” Rogers said in an interview with Policy Watch Wednesday. “Of course, I think our Sheriff’s Department should look like our community. So diversity is going to be important to me all the way through.”
Rogers said he personally knows what it’s like to be profiled by police, to be questioned or pulled over in a car because he seems suspicious as a Black man.
“It’s not a good feeling, by any means, and I think it’s important to have people who understand that and to make sure you’re working the right way with people of all cultures,” Rogers said.
National discussion of racial inequities in policing helped lead to more Black sheriff candidates in primaries this year and those issues playing a larger role in general elections.
In Cumberland County, Ennis Wright has already been serving as sheriff, appointed by the county commissioners after the retirement of his predecessor, Moose Butler. With last night’s election, Wright becomes the first elected Black sheriff in Cumberland. Butler, a Democrat himself, retired two years into his sixth term. He endorsed Wright.
In Durham County, where no Republicans ran for sheriff, Clarence Birkhead essentially locked down the office in the Democratic primary. His opponent, incumbent Sheriff Mike Andrews, came under fire for his position on immigration detainers and an incident in which he said a campaign staffer used the campaign Facebook page to endorse a supporter’s racist views.
As in Wake and Durham, immigration featured heavily in the Guilford County race. Rogers said Barnes’ comments about immigrants and aping of the rhetoric of President Donald Trump didn’t play as well in Guilford as Barnes clearly thought it would.
“I think in some ways he wanted to operate like and sound like the man who’s in office in Washington, D.C.,” Rogers said. “But this isn’t Washington — it’s Guilford County. As far as immigration goes, we’re not ICE agents. We’ll uphold the law, but immigrants in Guilford county will be treated like anyone else who might break the law. We’re going to leave the work of ICE to ICE. That’s for the federal government.”
Rogers, whose campaign also emphasized advancement of Black personnel within the department, said he’d like to see more
people of color not just working in the jails or on patrol but in leadership positions.
“I think when you see different kinds of people throughout the department, including in leadership, you develop the trust in the community that you need,” Rogers said.
In Buncombe County, Quentin Miller’s campaign addressed many of the same racially charged issues head-on. In comments to the Asheville Citizen-Times, he cast his historic election as the beginning of a community reconciliation.
“We now must work together as a community,” Miller said. “We must come together with the local government, with the communities and law enforcement as one. We have to address our issues in that fashion, in that way. And we all must have a place at the table and we must learn to work together to solve our issues and problems.”