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Record Number Of Black Sheriffs To Be Sworn In Across North Carolina

NC Sheriffs, Sheriffs, Law Enforcement
Paula Dance for Pitt County Sheriff

North Carolina now has 20 African-American sheriffs across its 100 counties. The state sheriff’s association says it does not keep numbers on race, but it is believed to be the largest number of black sheriffs at one time ever for the state. And several of the new black sheriffs won in big upset victories during the midterm election.

One of the biggest surprise wins was in Wake County, where Gerald Baker is the newly-elected sheriff.

"It's exciting. It's a dream come true," said Baker. 

Baker has spent 28 years in law enforcement, most of that time at the Wake County Sheriff’s Department in Raleigh.  He beat longtime Sheriff Donnie Harrison, a four-term Republican. Harrison is white and Baker is black. Baker says he would like to believe the best man for the job won.

“It’s just one of those things when the citizens and the voters of those counties apparently looked at the person for who they were and not necessarily what color they were," said Baker.

But Baker wasn’t the only black Democrat to unseat a white Republican sheriff. B.J. Barnes in Guilford County would have celebrated his seventh term as sheriff, until he was upset by Danny Rogers. That makes Rogers the first African-American sheriff in Guilford County.

Wake County Sheriff candidate Gerald Baker.
Credit Rusty Jacobs / WUNC
Gerald Baker is the new sheriff of Wake County, unseating longtime Sheriff Donnie Harrison.

And Forsyth County also elected its first African-American sheriff, Bobby Kimbrough.

“The day after when I started seeing the results, I was like, 'Wow, I didn’t realize so many were running'," said Kimbrough. "It was a shock to see.”

One issue that might have secured victories for some of the black sheriffs like Baker is their position on the federal 287(g) program, a controversial program that allows counties that partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to transfer arrestees believed to be non-U.S. citizens to federal custody. Wake is one of just six North Carolina counties that partner with ICE.

As sheriff, Baker said he wants to withdraw Wake County from the program.

Meanwhile, Catawba College Political Scientist Michael Bitzer said this trend in electing democratic sheriffs has been developing and crested in this midterm democratic wave. There is also a new black sheriff in Pitt County, Major Paula Dance.

“Actually, I am the first African-American female sheriff ever elected in North Carolina," said Dance. "I also will be one of five in the United States.”

The election of these African-American sheriffs came in the state’s largest counties which include Mecklenburg, Cumberland, Buncombe, Wake and Durham. The sheriff-elect in Cumberland County, Ennis Wright, was named sheriff in 2016 to complete the post of a retiring sheriff. He won outright in November.

Dance says to win a seat such as sheriff, voters looked beyond issues of race.

“I asked people to not look at my outside but to look at what I bring to them from the inside," said Dance.

And it worked.

All newly-elected North Carolina sheriffs will be sworn in Monday, December 3.

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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