Electing a sheriff – even in one of North Carolina’s largest counties – doesn’t usually draw a lot of attention. But this year’s democratic primary in Buncombe County is different. Voters will select a new sheriff for the first time in 12 years. And law enforcement practices and reforms are center stage in the campaign because of an incident that took place within the county.
The Buncombe County sheriff’s office had nothing to do with what happened last August on Short Coxe Avenue on Asheville’s South Slope. But the incident where a then-city of Asheville police officer beat, choked, and tased an unarmed black man for suspected jaywalking hangs over this particular election like no other issue. Five Democrats are seeking the party’s nomination for sheriff, and community trust in law enforcement is the major topic of the campaign. Chris Winslow is one of the five. He currently works for the state forest service after retiring from the sheriff’s office. “I think our next sheriff needs to be a leader. They don’t need to be just a supervisor, they don’t need time to be spent sitting behind a desk. They need someone who has been out in the community, and has been in touch with the community,” said Winslow during a candidate forum, sponsored by BPR and the Asheville Citizen-Times.
Rondell Lance is also a candidate for sheriff. He's the head of the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge. “There’s trust issues with the black community, trust issues with the Hispanic community, and even the white community," Lance said at the same forum. "I have family members who tell me ‘I think every police member is corrupt except for maybe a few.’ I think at this time the community is looking for law enforcement to step up and show that you are making a difference.”
Another candidate, R. Daryl Fisher, is probably most known for an ill-advised attempt at humor on the campaign trail regarding gun control that went viral in the right wing media-sphere, leading to death threats. When the law enforcement training director at A-B Tech isn’t discussing that, Fisher’s message is similar to that of his opponents. “My vision for the future of Buncombe County is justice for all. And when I say for all, I mean for all of the people of Buncombe County,” Fisher said at the forum.
The candidates are hoping to succeed Van Duncan. The current sheriff has thrown his support behind Randy Smart, a captain and 24-year veteran of the sheriff’s office. Smart notes the talk of the campaign reflects that Duncan’s time has been successful, as the sheriff prior to Duncan - Bobby Medford - is still in prison for federal corruption and extortion convictions. “We’re not talking about crime," Smart says. "We’re not talking about corruption. We’re not talking about all the normal issues from a sheriff’s office. Your sheriff’s office is in a great place. It’s doing a lot of great things. It has a lot of community buy-in.”
But what happened last August on Asheville’s South Slope is what’s dominating this campaign. It only came to light when body camera footage of the incident was leaked to the Asheville Citizen-Times, which published it. Officer body camera footage is not public record in North Carolina, and the candidates in this race generally do not want to change the state law, citing privacy concerns. Quentin Miller is the lone candidate who thinks changes are needed, though he isn’t specific as to what. Miller is currently a sergeant in the Asheville police force, and the only African-American in the race. “We speak about transparency, but we need to move to a place where this is a reality," Miller said at the forum. "I don’t have all the answers, but I believe if we’re going to have the videos, if we’re going to have the body cameras, we have to do something so that this does not become an issue about what happened. I respect concerns about privacy, but if this is not leaked, we’re not having this conversation today.”
The Republican and Libertarian candidates - Shad Higgins and Tracey Debruhl - are running unopposed in the primary, and will face the Democratic winner in the fall. Democrats have done well in recent years in Buncombe County elections, so the party’s nominee would be considered the favorite in November.
Blue Ridge Public Radio will air the forum it hosted with the Asheville Citizen-Times this Friday May 4th at noon. The forum can be watched anytime on the BPR Facebook page. Early voting continues through Saturday May 5th. The primary will be held May 8th. Same day voter registration is only available to those who vote during the early voting period - there is no same-day registration on primary day.