A race indeed: Three Democrats face off in register of deeds primary

Johnny House photo by Max Cooper
Johnny House photo by Max Cooper

The Democratic primary for Buncombe County register of deeds is picking up right where last year's contentious special election left off: Three different party factions are duking it out, with each candidate claiming they're the most qualified for the job.

On Feb. 23, 2011, the party’s Executive Committee appointed Drew Reisinger to complete the four-year term of Otto DeBruhl, who retired after 33 years at the helm. A 27-year-old party activist, Reisinger narrowly defeated DeBruhl's choice for his successor — JoAnn Morgan, his longtime assistant — creating bitter divisions among the party faithful.

Now, Reisinger faces two challengers with strong ties to DeBruhl — his former secretary, Marie Hall, and freelance paralegal Johnny House.

And despite Reisinger’s significant accomplishments during his 13 months on the job, DeBruhl, Hall and House all now say the incumbent lacks the requisite experience to oversee the office’s multimillion-dollar budget while securing and distributing key public records such as marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, property deeds and mortgages.

Experience counts

"Our current register of deeds has never had a job: This is his first job. He was appointed to this position," House asserts. "And he now has about a year-and-a-half experience in there. I'm sure he's learned something. But I don't think he has the qualifications that I do."

On the campaign trail, House touts his 41 years of paralegal experience, which he says has schooled him in the intricacies of real estate law, title examinations and public records.

"I was raised in that record room," House declares. "The reason I'm running for the register of deeds is I feel like the person in control needs to know what each and every one of those documents do. He needs to know how to move around in those records and in those computer systems so that he can best assist his staff and the general public."

Hall makes a similar argument, saying her 10 years working under DeBruhl gave her a deep understanding of every aspect of the office, from budgeting and payroll to record preservation.

"I've been dedicated to the citizens of Buncombe County for over a decade,” she notes. “I've got the knowledge; I've got the experience. I've got a lot more than Drew," she maintains, adding, "I really enjoy serving the public." She also asserts, "I'm the only candidate who's worked closely with Mr. DeBruhl.”

In fact, however, her former boss says he helped coax House into the race and is advising his campaign.

"I'm not supporting Marie Hall," DeBruhl reveals. "She was my secretary during all that time. And of course, a secretary has to do a lot of things now and then. … But she's not specialized in any particular portion of it, other than secretarial work, and doing whatever I needed done. And she was good at it."

In contrast, says DeBruhl, House's background would be a perfect fit. "He knows the vital records, plates, maps, property records, contracts, the whole spectrum. If you're a paralegal, you're doing the lawyers’ work for them to make the lawyer look good," he says with a chuckle. "Johnny House would probably make the best register of deeds — even a better one than I did."

Reisinger touts accomplishments

Reisinger, meanwhile, has been campaigning hard, arguing that since taking over the office, he's saved taxpayers money while improving service.

"I've loved serving the people of Buncombe County. … And we've been able to excel," he says.

Reisinger's first act was fulfilling a pledge to take a 40 percent pay cut from the $128,850 a year that DeBruhl, one of the highest-paid registers of deeds in the state, had been making. County Human Resources staff independently determined that an appropriate starting salary for the position would be $78,497 — slightly more than what Reisinger had promised to work for. So he donated the $1,187 difference to the Buncombe County and Asheville City Schools foundations.

And despite reducing staff from 22 to 17 (mostly through attrition), which cut his office's annual budget by more than $238,000, Reisinger says customer service has improved.

During his first year, the office made various technological improvements. A redesigned website includes a better search function and enables users to apply for marriage licenses online. In addition, the department now accepts credit and debit cards. And last year, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall joined Reisinger to celebrate the launch of a system allowing residents to securely file documents through a Web browser.

The local office also became the first in the state to provide Spanish translation services — in person, over the phone and online.

"I'm very proud of my work in the past year," Reisinger declares. "We've made significant advances in technology, cost savings and customer service."

Having previously managed Rep. Patsy Keever's successful 2010 Statehouse campaign and worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Reisinger adds:

“I understand some may be unable to look past my age and characterize this as inexperience. However, this is inaccurate and unfair. I would not have been able to accomplish what we have in the last year without my previous professional experiences. These experiences have given me the skills to lead and motivate people, to manage budgetary needs and to prioritize what needs to be done to best serve the people of Buncombe County."

Winner will face Cothran

All three candidates say they’re best positioned to win what looks to be a hard-fought contest against Republican Pat Cothran, a Buncombe County native with 25 years of experience in the land-title industry.

House, a political newcomer who plays guitar in The Nightcrawlers, a local blues band, in his spare time, says his experience — bolstered by the endorsements and support of DeBruhl, District Attorney Ron Moore and others in the local legal community, would make him the most formidable opponent.

"Many of my colleagues — paralegals, real estate attorneys — said we need someone over there that knows what's going on," House reports. "I'm not a politician; I'm a people person. … I don't know the ways and means to move around behind the lines. But these people do, and they're helping me."

But House, who didn't decide to run until hours before the Feb. 29 filing deadline, has a long way to go to catch up with Reisinger’s organization. The incumbent’s victory in last year's special election was due in part to his convincing party leaders that his political experience would serve him well in this campaign — and, so far, his team’s performance has borne that out. Armed with endorsements from the influential environmental advocacy group People Advocating Real Conservancy and from elected officials including Asheville City Council members Gordon Smith, Marc Hunt and Jan Davis and Commissioner Holly Jones, Reisinger’s supporters have been phone-banking and ringing doorbells for several months.

"I'm proud we've put together a team of people working to move us forward from all of Buncombe County," the candidate says. "And we've got the strongest message, in my opinion.  … For the last year, we've been able to save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we've moved the office into the 21st century. I'm the only one who's proven that I can do it."

Hall, meanwhile, is the only candidate working exclusively on the campaign full time — hoping her experience, faith and buoyant attitude will carry her to victory in May and November.

I know the office well; I'm very positive. I just know that I'm the best candidate," she proclaims, adding, "After the primary, we'll all come together."

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning writer and reporter who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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