All of North Carolina’s county sheriffs races are on the ballot in 2022, and many candidates are there for the first time. Twenty local sheriffs across the state have decided not to run again, with six of those opting for retirement.
“When you count up all of the folks that will be elected for the first time in November, there will be around 31 to 35,” said Eddie Caldwell, of the N.C. Sheriff’s Association. “If it ends up being 31, that will be normal. If it’s up around 35, that will be a bit more than normal.”
Recent calls to defund the police, and criticism of law enforcement have added to the stress of the job, but the recruitment and retention crisis that is plaguing so many industries is equally tough on sheriffs. It’s due in part to the length of training and level of salaries.
“One of the issues particularly in retention is the pay,” said Caldwell. “When you’re paying people, in many counties, not all, the same as what they could make at Target or Bojangles, there isn’t a lot of incentive to work as a retention officer.”
In the Western part of North Carolina, eight long-time sheriffs decided not to seek reelection this year. Voters in Avery, Cherokee, Clay, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Transylvania, and Rutherford counties are casting ballots for new sheriff candidates. In Macon, no Democrats ran in the primary, so Republican Brent Holbrooks is slated to succeed long-term Sheriff Robert Holland there.
In Jacksonville, Onslow County Sheriff Hans Miller announced he would not seek re-election either, throwing his support behind Chief Deputy Colonel Chris Thomas, who is also running unopposed in November.
In Gaston County, Sheriff Alan Cloninger not only announced he would not run again, he also said he was changing his political party from Democrat to Republican.
“The present Democratic Party has left me,’ he said in a statement. “There is no home for a conservative Democrat in today’s Democratic Party. Therefore, today I will be changing my party affiliation from Democrat to unaffiliated voter… Some of the new Democrats in Washington attack and degrade all law enforcement officers who risk their lives every day to protect the people.”
In the capital city, Willie Rowe defeated Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker. Rowe took 75% of the vote to Baker’s 25% in a runoff to May’s Democratic primary. In November, Rowe will face Republican candidate and former Wake County Sheriff Donny Harrison. Harrison won the GOP primary in May with 80% of the vote. Harrison congratulated Rowe the morning after the runoff.
“Willie and I have run against each other before in 2014,” Harrison said. “Clearly, voters in Wake County are looking for a change in the management and operations of the Sheriff’s office. Now that the general election is set, I will mount a vigorous campaign detailing my plans for a safer Wake County for everyone.”
Baker’s one-term tenure was riddled with lawsuits and criticism over his management. He was also one of the N.C. sheriffs who openly refused to cooperate with Immigrations and Custom Enforcement on ICE’s detainer requests for violent crime suspects in custody who may be in the country illegally.
Mecklenburg County sheriff Garry McFadden and Buncombe County’s Quentin Miller, both Democrats, also refused to cooperate but they won their re-election primaries. McFadden is running unopposed in November.
In the short legislative session this year, the N.C. General Assembly passed a bill along party lines that would have required N.C. sheriffs to hold a suspect accused of serious felonies, assault on a female, assault with a deadly weapon, or domestic violence if the sheriff cannot confirm the suspect’s citizenship status. The sheriff would be required to hold the suspect for 48 hours or until ICE takes custody.
Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, saying was an effort by Republicans to score political points.
“As the state’s former top law enforcement officer, I know that current law already allows the state to incarcerate and prosecute dangerous criminals regardless of immigration status,” Cooper’s veto statement read. “This bill is unconstitutional and weakens law enforcement in North Carolina by mandating that sheriffs do the job of federal agents, using local resources that could hurt their ability to protect their counties.”
Bill sponsor Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson, who is running for Congress after defeating Rep. Madison Cawthorn in the May primary, disagreed.
“With the stroke of his pen, Gov. Cooper just gave Sanctuary Sheriffs permission to shield an illegal immigrant who rapes or murders a North Carolinian,” Edwards said. “Keeping violent criminals off our streets should be a shared priority, but this veto proves that Gov. Cooper isn’t interested in increasing public safety if it goes against his liberal donors’ wishes.”
Under a new law that took effect in 2021, a candidate no longer has to be resident of the county in which they are running for sheriff for at least a year before the general election. House Bill 312, also changed that people are not eligible to serve as a sheriff in North Carolina if they have ever been convicted of a felony, unless the candidate has received an unconditional pardon of innocence for their felony. Prior to that law, a candidate could serve if their conviction had been expunged.