In the wake of Todd Williams’ historic victory over District Attorney Ron Moore in the May 6 Democratic primary, two unaffiliated candidates are mounting petition campaigns to get their names on the November ballot.
Ben Scales, a local attorney in private practice, and Rebecca Knight, a former Buncombe County District Court judge, are each seeking to collect the 7,331 signatures needed to make a run against Williams in November. But with the June 12 deadline for submitting the signatures to the Buncombe County Board of Elections coming up fast, neither challenger has gathered anything like that amount.
If they’re not successful, Williams will cruise to victory Nov. 4 by default, as no Republican opted to enter the race. Meanwhile, both Scales and Knight say Williams lacks the requisite experience to succeed in the powerful position, which is responsible for prosecuting all criminal cases in Buncombe County and advising law-enforcement officials.
Moore made a similar argument in the run up to the primary, citing his 24 years on the job; nonetheless, Williams crushed the incumbent, winning 68 percent of the vote. But the would-be challengers say they’re trying to position themselves to the right of Williams politically, hoping that the general election would prove to be a whole new ballgame. If given a chance, they maintain, higher turnout and support from moderates and registered Republicans could help propel them to victory.
Todd Williams did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story.
Tipping the scales
Scales says he made up his mind to run for district attorney a year ago but doesn’t “agree enough with either of the major two political parties to affiliate with them.” He adds: “I believe law enforcement should be nonpartisan.”
Scales says he began preparing for the campaign well before the primary but was keeping “a gentleman’s agreement” with Williams not to publicly announce his effort until afterward.
During a lunch that was also attended by Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger (a Williams supporter), Scales says the three men “agreed that the county needed a new DA.” In addition, says Scales, Williams and Reisinger persuaded him to stay out of the primary fray in order not to “muddy Todd’s message” and fragment the anti-Moore vote.
“If I played the spoiler and Ron won, and then … say I don’t come up with the signatures … then we’d be stuck with Ron for four years. … I didn’t want to be the Ralph Nader of that election,” Scales explains. “I remember feeling that there was a lot of pressure being put on me to not run.”
Now, however, Scales’ campaign is working hard to come up with the requisite number of signatures of registered Buncombe County voters. As of June 2, Election Services staff had verified 2,989 signatures — less than half of what’s needed.
In the final days leading up to the June 12 deadline, Scales will be aided by dozens of volunteers from across the state who are affiliated with organizations such as the North Carolina Cannabis Patients Network. Scales helped found the group to advocate for patients who use marijuana for medical purposes. He also recently helped write a proposal, introduced in the N.C. General Assembly by Mecklenburg County Rep. Kelly Alexander, that would amend the state constitution to legalize medical marijuana.
“This is an issue that really resonates with people,” says Scales. “They want sick people to have access to a natural medicine.” His private law practice focuses on defending people facing marijuana-related charges, most of which he considers “victimless crimes.”
And while Scales says he’s not opposed to prosecuting some marijuana cases if he’s elected, “I want to make sure the focus of the district attorney’s office is on crimes where there are victims, and not waste time on crimes where there are no victims. I would prioritize the office to look on a case-by-case basis. … I would work with law enforcement to make sure that the cases that were coming before me were cases that I felt were a good use of their time and mine.”
Scales says his top priority would be domestic violence, “followed in close second by crimes against the environment and natural resources … such as chemical spills and graffiti and littering.” On seeking the death penalty, Scales says he “would be more moderate, almost conservative” compared with Williams.
An Asheville resident since 2002, Scales also maintains that he has more leadership experience than Williams, citing his stints as president of the Preservation Society of Asheville & Buncombe County and leader of the Isaac Dickson PTO. A musician and producer, Scales also helped found the Southeast Regional Folk Alliance, an organization dedicated to promoting the region’s folk traditions.
After serving as a Buncombe County District Court judge for 22 years, Knight says she first contemplated a run for district attorney in 2012 but held off due to health problems. Those issues have since been resolved, but she says it wasn’t until the morning after the May 6 primary, when a group of people she declines to identify encouraged her to get into the race, that she gave serious thought to mounting a petition drive.
“This new opportunity presented itself. I thought about it and decided to make that effort,” Knight explains, adding, “I think the community should have a choice in the election process.”
That didn’t give her much time to organize, however, and Knight says she’s relying on word of mouth to gather her signatures. As of June 2, the Board of Elections had 10 verified signatures supporting Knight’s effort. “I’m getting a lot of really good feedback,” she reports, noting that she only recently launched a Facebook page and sent out an email newsletter seeking help.
But after six successful District Court campaigns and service in various local leadership roles, Knight says she’s hopeful things could move fast. She’s beaten the odds before, having worked as a PE teacher, assistant Buncombe County attorney and assistant district attorney before becoming one of the area’s first female judges in 1990.
Along the way, Knight helped start local teen and truancy courts aimed at helping young people avoid getting enmeshed in the “revolving door” of the criminal-justice system. Most recently, she worked for the county as a consultant, helping develop a domestic-violence-prevention plan that will marshal resources from the district attorney’s office and law enforcement agencies to reduce homicides and abuse.
If Knight is elected, she envisions employing a wide range of programs “to save taxpayer dollars and free up resources that can be used to go after those violent, aggressive offenders.” Her top priority, she says, is “the dangerous, violent, repeat offenders, the sex offenders, the child abusers, the drug dealers. All of those need swift and aggressive prosecution at all stages. We need to make our community safer.”
Knight also points out that she’s the only one of the three candidates who’s actually worked as a prosecutor. “I understand what that job is set up to do: I think that experience is invaluable,” she says. “Neither of them has ever prosecuted a case. I’m the only candidate who has actually prosecuted a death penalty case.”
A registered Democrat, Knight calls herself a moderate on the political spectrum. “I like to address the issues based on the issues and not on a political agenda,” she explains.
And despite the challenges of running as an independent, the candidate says she feels good about the process. “It should be hard, and it should be tough,” she says, noting that it wouldn’t serve the public to have “ballots with 30 or 40 names on them.”
“I’m very satisfied that I’m raising the right issues, that I have the experience and integrity to get the job done,” she continues, adding, “How it turns out is anybody’s guess.”