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Having run the Henderson County Sheriff's Department for almost two years carrying out a pledge of reform and professional standards, Charlie McDonald might have gone into the election season confident that no one would oppose him.
No, he said in an interview, he always expected opposition.
Families had not even put away the Christmas decorations before the candidates started popping up.
A Democrat, Marty Katz, and a Polk County deputy, Robert Sieber, had opened campaign accounts already.
Then suddenly last week, McDonald had two more rivals — Michael Brown, who has run twice before, and Erik Summey, a former sheriff's detective who is now Fletcher police chief.
"One of the things I noted was that as an incumbent sheriff you really try not to be distracted by those things," said McDonald, who was appointed in February 2012 after Sheriff Rick Davis resigned the previous December amid questions about an insurance claim to a female deputy. "I figured more likely than not we would be challenged."
No matter what, Henderson County seems to get up for a good sheriff's race, and candidates oblige voters' appetite for a good race by filing.
The May ballot — and in Henderson County the Republican primary in May invariably does decide local offices — will contain choices for three seats on the Board of Commissioners, judges and other constitutional offices. But no race has the power, the appeal and the intrigue of a good sheriff's race.
"Some of it is just ambition. People feel like they'd make a good sheriff," said state Rep. Chuck McGrady, who has observed sheriff's elections since he moved to the county in the early 1990s. "And this sheriff not having been elected, it feels like if you're going to take an opportunity you better do it now."
"I wasn't puzzled until Erik Summey got into it," he added.
Law enforcement connections
George Erwin was the last sheriff who presided as the county's top law officer for a stable 12-year stretch. Erwin stunned the local political scene when he upset six-term incumbent Ab Jackson in 1994. Erwin won re-election by comfortable margins twice before deciding to leave the job, handing the office to his chief deputy, Eddie Watkins, before the 2006 election.
It's the nature of sheriff's election politics that rivals tend to know one another well.
McDonald is married to Erwin's sister, Jennie. Both McDonald and Summey worked for Erwin when he was sheriff. Brown, a former probation officer who is now a State Highway Patrol trooper, ran against him in 2002 and ran again in 2006, when Davis, with Erwin's endorsement, was elected sheriff.
"When I decided to retire I sat down with all the command staff and the guys that were interested in running and we had a roundtable discussion," Erwin said. "I told them you need to work it out what you're going to do. My recommendation is just one of y'all run. Someone said 'you need to pick one of us,' and I said, 'I'm not picking anybody.' Unfortunately (in Davis) we made the wrong choice of who to support."
Davis left his job on medical leave in November 2011 and resigned the following month after the county paid to settle a discrimination claim a female deputy brought against Davis.
Morale was low when McDonald came, the new sheriff has said, and he has worked to restore trust in the department and its personnel process.
Davis declined to swear in Summey when he took office. In 2008 Davis brought on Griffin, the longtime Hendersonville officer who finished second in the 2006 primary, and named him captain. When McDonald produced the list of deputies that would be sworn in, Ben McKay, who had been a captain, was not on it.
Sheriff's Department politics giveth and taketh away.
After Griffin applied for the sheriff's appointment in 2012, McDonald demoted him to lieutenant. The second place finisher in voting by the Republican Executive Committee, retired Highway Patrol officer Frank Stout, fared far better. McDonald hired him as a captain, later promoted him to major and, just last month, promoted him to chief deputy.
"That happens from time to time," McGrady said. "You either bring your rival really close or you send them into obscurity."
The sheriff's job is powerful, and not just because of the prestige. It has the power of numbers.
"It affects more people," McGrady said. "You get a really a powerful state senator and he has only one or two people that report to him and he has the ability to hire and fire. A sheriff is the only one that has a patronage system with deputies and their spouses and children and their parents. It's sort of old school in terms of the ability to make decisions" about the lives of employees who also happen to be voters.
"What's always striking to me is when you get a new sheriff, everybody gets sworn in again. When you get a new county manager that doesn't happen. You get a new library director and everybody keeps their job."
There's enormous power in that. The dark side of that power is an atmosphere of anxiety and fear during an election. There is no question, say observers of the local political scene, that the power, however negatively it might be viewed by good government types, gives an incumbent sheriff an edge.
"You have a couple hundred deputies and 50 reserve officers," Erwin said. "In the past I've seen it that they don't get on board with the sheriff. There is that patronage, and an incumbent does have somewhat of an advantage. I've told people when you get in politics you have to give people an excellent reason to change."
If voters don't sense something is wrong, he said, they're unlikely to throw out the incumbent. A challenger has to answer the voter who says "give me a good reason why I should switch," the former sheriff said. "It has to be compelling. That all comes into play. I know with Charlie, being sheriff was not high on Charlie's list. He was recruited to come in. He didn't seek the position, people asked him to apply for it. Others, of course, Brown, this is his third time in running."
'Part of the process'
When he was off the list of officers to be sworn in by newly elected Sheriff Davis, Summey wasn't all that surprised.
"I wouldn't say a victim," he said, when asked about it. "North Carolina is an at-will state. They do have that authority and they do have that right, and that's something that occurred to me. That's part of the process."
Summey landed on his feet, even prospered.
Tim Christol, whom the Fletcher Town Council had hired to clean up the troubled Fletcher department, hired Summey as a captain. After Christol returned to his home state of Tennessee, the town appointed Summey chief. (McKay, another rival that Davis vanquished, is now a detective with the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office.)
Over time, though, wounds heal.
Davis and Summey worked together as top officers.
"It's just one of those things that can happen," he said. "I don't think it's right. I don't think it's fair but that's their right. You either get sworn in or you get the other letter that comes in. Being on the other side I understand it.
"I'm going to look at the employee work record," he said. "Everybody has the right to support who they want to support. I would prefer to look at the employee's work record, and look at the performance aspect not the political aspect."
There's a government efficiency angle, too, he said.
The county has invested 15-20 years of training in an experienced officer. It would be pennywise to let that go for the way a deputy voted, he said.
Security and safety
Brown, in announcing his candidacy for the job last week, promised to "implement a policy that will shelter the employees of the department from demotion or dismissal without due process."
In an interview this week, he said deputies need more protection against politics.
"I think people get passionate about the sheriff's race because they want to feel secure," he said. "People want to feel secure in their homes and in their businesses. They want a leader they can trust to bring that security not only to the community but to the men and woman that work at the sheriff's department.
"We've had five sheriffs in the last 10 years and that's remarkable. The men and women of the Sheriff's Department deserve a sense of security along with the people," he said.
Brown's charge hits McDonald in an area that he probably emphasized more than any other — professional standards and fairness in hiring, promotion and disciplinary action.
"He has really no idea what we've put in place in the last two years," McDonald said of Brown. "Really for the first time in my involvement with Henderson County we actually do have processes in place that are used by professional law enforcement and other organizations around the nation. I really don't see him as a credible voice in what we've done."
Brown said he thinks his past two runs for sheriff have made him better known and have helped prepare him for what he hopes will be success on the third try. His grandfather was chief of detectives and his father was a deputy, both under Sheriff Jackson.
"I've got a long history and a family history in law enforcement, being the third generation, so it's definitely in my blood," he said. "I've got a diverse background, from probation and parole work and then going to the State Highway Patrol. I also have a formal education, with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.
"We accomplished a lot in our last campaign but there's more to be done. If I'm fortunate enough to be elected, at least the employees can say, 'Hey, Michael Brown's going to be around for a while. I can see myself retiring here.'"
'It's a big deal'
Whatever candidates say about the power of the office, and whether they would misuse it or not, the campaign is sure to be hard-fought because the stakes are high and the prize is big.
"I think the sheriff has, as far as public safety, the third highest budget in the county," Summey said. "It's 25 percent of the budget. It's a lot of money. It's a big department, responsible for the jail, the courts, serving civil papers and answering calls for service. I think in the history of the county it's always been kind of a hot topic because it is very important position to lead a department of almost 200 employees. It's a big deal."
Erwin said called it the highest elected position in the county, and it is the most visible one.
"The office of sheriff is the oldest law enforcement office in history," he said. "It goes back to I think 1056 AD. George Washington's father was a sheriff. There's been a lot of prominent people throughout the country that have been sheriff.
"There's the story about Howard Baker (of Tennessee) telling his mother he was going to run for the United States Senate and she said, 'Well, that's kind of foolish. If you want the power you ought to run for sheriff.'"