Voters across North Carolina this week elected a black sheriff in all seven of the state’s largest counties, bringing a new level of prominence to minorities in law enforcement.
Five of those counties — Durham, Guilford, Forsyth, Cumberland and Buncombe — sent black candidates to the sheriff’s office for the first time in their histories. And one of them, Buncombe County in the Blue Ridge Mountains, did so with a 90 percent white population.
Both election analysts and the winners said black candidates were propelled to office largely because they objected to hardline immigration policies and could appeal to voters who felt forgotten or afraid.
In Wake County, Democrat Gerald Baker ousted longtime Sheriff Donnie Harrison, who participated in the 287(g) program to partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for deportations and other immigration law enforcement. Baker’s campaign was aided by ads taken out by the ACLU, which accused Harrison of backing President Trump’s agenda and “stoking racial tensions.”
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But Baker said he found an ally in the Hispanic community from the start.
“They indicated to me very early on in this campaign that they have not voted in several of the last elections because they felt like they didn’t have a voice,” Baker told The N&O on Tuesday.
In Mecklenburg County, the state’s largest, Sheriff Garry McFadden won election unofficially after taking the primary in May because no Republicans opposed him in November. He, too, made opposition to 287(g) a plank in his campaign, and the race became an unofficial referendum on the program.
“I don’t see any documentation where it brings unity to the community,” McFadden told the Charlotte Observer in February. “I haven’t seen any data that says it makes your city safer.”
He added the effect spreads beyond Hispanic neighborhoods and curbs cooperation with law officers. “South Africa, Asia, anyplace,” he said. “You talk to these people and you see fear in their hearts.”
The seven candidates elected Tuesday are men, but black women have also made a mark on law enforcement leadership in North Carolina. Many of the state’s largest police departments have black female chiefs, including Raleigh, Durham, Fayetteville and Winston-Salem.
Across the state this election cycle, minority candidates benefited from widespread voter registration drives and free rides to the polls aimed at boosting participation, said Chaniqua Simpson, a doctoral student in sociology at N.C. State University and fellow with the Electoral Justice League, part of the grassroots Movement for Black Lives.
Internet memes and social media posts advised new or occasional voters to stay in line once the polls closed or to ask for provisional ballots if they were denied access to the polls — both new tools aimed at keeping minority voters from getting turned away, she said.
“We’re energizing voters of color who haven’t voted in midterms,” Simpson said.
In several cases, black sheriffs will replace white incumbents who held office more than a decade.
Sheriff Moose Butler retired in 2016 after serving 22 years in Cumberland County, and he personally endorsed his replacement, Ennis Wright. Appointed by the county commissioners, Wright sealed his first elected term on Tuesday.
But in Guilford County, the transition will not be as friendly.
Sheriff B.J. Barnes was described as “largely unbeatable” by ncpolicywatch.com, a publication of the NC Justice Center, a left-leaning think tank.
In a Facebook post shortly before the election, his opponent Danny Rogers accused him of sending a “racist dog whistle” with comments about busing to the polls, and of being aligned with Republicans who wanted to shorten early voting to curb minority traditions such as “souls to the polls” on Sundays.
But in Durham last spring, then-Mayor Bill Bell told the Herald-Sun that Sheriff Clarence Birkhead’s election continued a swing toward inclusion. In 2016, he noted, the city hired C.J. Davis: its first black woman as police chief.
Josh Shaffer: 919-829-4818, @joshshaffer08