Columbus County Residents Divided Over Sheriff's Race
North Carolina's 9th congressional district is not the only scene of a disputed election in the state. A trial is scheduled for next month to determine if Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene has violated state law by taking office.
The controversy has exposed troubling rifts in the community, according to former Whiteville City Councilman and one-time Columbus County Elections Board member Andy Anderson.
"We're usually a very together county," Anderson said. "I mean, we've cropped the same tobacco together. We've played sports together. It has actually caused a racial division because Sheriff Hatcher happens to be black and Jody Greene happens to be white."
Anderson joined a few dozen other people at the Columbus County Courthouse last week to observe a preliminary hearing in a lawsuit filed by Lewis Hatcher, the Democrat incumbent who, after Election Day, trailed Republican Jody Greene by a razor-thin margin.
After the votes were counted, several voters, including Democrat and Brunswick Mayor Nancy Hill, petitioned the county board of elections challenging the outcome.
The petitions claimed there were suspicious delays in opening polling places in predominantly black precincts, preventing people who had to get to work from voting. The petitions also included claims of absentee ballot tampering by McCrae Dowless, the same campaign operative linked to the Mark Harris campaign in the 9th congressional district.
In the 9th, Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes but the state elections board refused to certify that race and launched a probe into whether Dowless unlawfully handled hundreds of absentee ballots, to the possible benefit of Harris.
An evidentiary hearing on the 9th district investigation will be held after a new elections board is appointed under a law taking effect January 31.
A hearing on the petitions in the Columbus County sheriff race will also have to wait until a new state elections board is formed.
Andy Anderson said he believes, under the law, the outcome of Lewis Hatcher's legal challenge should be clear. Without proper certification, Anderson said, Hatcher should still be sheriff until the state elections board has reviewed several petitions challenging the legitimacy of the contest.
Indeed, under state law and the North Carolina Constitution, an election shall not be certified while such petitions are pending. Regardless, Jody Greene went to Columbus County Superior Court in December and took the oath of office. State Rep. Brendan Jones, whose district includes Columbus County, signed the oath form. Jones has not responded to requests for comment.
State elections board spokesman Pat Gannon said Greene should not have been sworn in and that Hatcher should still be Columbus County sheriff.
Timothy Collier, who, like Andy Anderson is black, also came to the Columbus County courthouse last week to observe the preliminary court hearing in Lewis Hatcher's case against Jody Greene.
Collier, 66, also said he believes Greene's assuming office was illegal without certification.
"You're talking about a county that's hurting for jobs, you're talking about a poor county in a rural area and we can't elect a sheriff," lamented Collier, who is a lifelong Whiteville resident and sits on the City Council.
Columbus County is sparsely populated. Its rural roads are lined with cotton fields and tobacco farms but its textile plants are long gone.
At one quiet country crossroads, where Andrew Jackson Highway intersects with Powell Street in the Columbus County hamlet of Cerro Gordo, you will find a gas station, grill and convenience store where locals convene to chew the fat.
Jimmy Greene, 76, said he is Sheriff Jody Greene's third cousin.
Jimmy Greene said any questions about the legitimacy of his cousin's victory in the sheriff's race are just the product of people unwilling to accept the election results, a mere 34-vote margin.
"All you got to win by is one vote," Jimmy Greene, said. "Am I right?"
In addition to assailing the integrity of the election, the petitions call into question Jody Greene's residency status.
Tax records submitted with one of the petitions show Jody Greene owns property in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Jimmy Greene acknowledged his cousin has lived outside Columbus County but said there is no question about his residency.
"He's got a mobile home and a motor home out there," Jimmy Greene said, referring to farmland Jody Greene owns in Cerro Gordo. "The news media say he's just got a little trailer back there, he's got a motor home there too."
According to state board of elections records, Jody Greene registered with his current Columbus County address in 2012. Neither Greene, Hatcher nor their attorneys would agree to speak to WUNC for this story.
For Tabor City resident Matthew Smith, who is white, the outcome of the Columbus County sheriff's race was clear, too.
Smith, 48, with thick muscled arms and a ball cap atop his smooth, bald head, was waiting for his order of barbecue from the "When Pigs Fly" food truck in a parking lot near the IGA Supermarket.
"I mean my personal opinion is that Jody Greene should get the office. I think that the constituents voted for Jody Greene," said Smith, who crosses the nearby South Carolina border for work in fire and rescue.
Longtime counsel to the North Carolina General Assembly and state elections law expert Gerry Cohen said the vote difference is beside the point.
"He has usurped the duties of the office and has taken the oath of office as sheriff when he has no right to do so until his election is certified," said Cohen, referring to Jody Greene and his swearing-in. "So what he has done is illegal."
And while supporters say Jody Greene is doing a good job, with his department cracking down on drugs and making arrests, critics say the uncertain status may undermine the legitimacy of his actions.
"Greene is unlawfully holding the office of sheriff and it's possible that anything he has done since then is totally invalid, arrests, firings, hirings, his salary," Cohen added.
Ricky Bullard, another lifelong Columbus County resident, local business owner and a county commissioner just re-elected to his fourth term, said says he is careful about getting too deep into contentious issues such as the sheriff's race in his shop.
"We opened a cement barn about 30 years ago, we make over 1,200 different pieces of concrete, we wholesale and retail. Since then, I have opened a butcher shop, fresh custom quality meats," Bullard said.
"Whether you're a Greene supporter or a Hatcher supporter you're my customer and that's your right to have your opinion," said Bullard, who runs a flower shop and grill as well.
Bullard said, in his opinion, though, the votes in the sheriff's race were thoroughly and correctly counted.