The heated race to determine Buncombe County’s next register of deeds ended Feb. 23 when the local Democratic Party’s Executive Committee elected Drew Reisinger to succeed Otto DeBruhl, who retired Jan. 31.
The committee — made up of Buncombe County precinct chairs and vice chairs, Democratic elected officials and other party leaders — chose Reisinger, a 27-year-old party activist, over both longtime Assistant Register of Deeds JoAnn Morgan and current local party Chair Charles Carter.
After no candidate collected 51 percent in the first round of voting, the deliberations continued late into the night. Carter was eliminated after garnering 19 percent of the vote compared with Reisinger's 41 percent and Morgan's 40 percent. After that, it took a good while for everyone to vote again and for those votes to be counted. In the second round, Reisinger defeated Morgan 53 percent to 47 percent.
After being sworn in by the county commissioners March 1, Reisinger will fulfill the remaining two years of DeBruhl's term. He’ll oversee an office with a multimillion-dollar budget and responsibility for securing and distributing public records such as property deeds, birth certificates, death certificates and mortgages.
"It's a fantastic opportunity for me and my wife," Reisinger gushed after winning the job. "I couldn't be happier about the direction we can take this register of deeds office in. It's an exciting time."
In his pitch for the position, Reisinger promised to save taxpayers money by modernizing the office and giving himself a hefty pay cut.
At the time of his retirement, DeBruhl (who’d held the position for 32 years) was one of the highest-paid registers of deeds in the state, making $128,850 a year. During the committee meeting, Reisinger vowed to slash that figure by 40 percent when he takes up his new duties March 2, telling the party faithful that it would help him hold onto the post in the 2012 election.
"We can't underestimate the public perception of our county government — you've read the news reports about the income of the county commissioners," Reisinger explained. "I'm willing to get ahead of the curve. I offer new leadership and immediate taxpayer savings. … I want to offer the highest level of service at the lowest cost."
A party divided
Paired with a grass-roots campaign of reaching out personally to committee members, Reisinger's message proved sufficient to win. But his slim margin of victory capped a sometimes contentious race that highlighted a split between the party's old guard and youth contingent.
When DeBruhl announced his departure, he made it clear that he wanted his assistant of 32 years to take the helm, declaring, “There is not a more qualified register of deeds in the state of North Carolina than JoAnn.” During her campaign, Morgan stressed that her years of experience would help ensure the security of public documents, telling the committee, "We need to continue running the office as smoothly as it has been."
Buncombe County Clerk of Superior Court Steve Cogburn echoed those sentiments when he officially nominated her, asserting, "The thing that separates JoAnn Morgan is experience and knowledge."
Morgan also had the strong backing of current office staffers, all of whom signed a letter of support that was waiting on committee members’ chairs as they walked into the local party headquarters. "Some people see JoAnn's age as a liability," it read (she is 70). "But to us in the office, we just see her years of valuable experience."
Earlier last month, Morgan had alleged that both Reisinger and Carter were motivated more by personal economic reasons than by a desire to serve the public.
“I’m not looking for a job,” she asserted. “I know Charles Carter wants it very bad because of his business, and he needs an income. Drew, of course, is in the same boat.”
Both men denied the charge.
“We’re doing very well with the coffee shop,” countered Carter, who owns Mountain Java on Merrimon Avenue. “I’m not going to get into the name-calling or into trying to bring anybody down. … It has no place in this.”
However, as the election drew near, Carter dismissed Morgan's experience and criticized Reisinger's call to lower his salary as a "political stunt."
“I’ve never seen Drew manage anything more than Patsy’s campaign,” Carter asserted. “I saw some of the effect on Gordon Smith‘s campaign, but I didn’t see much more than that. And JoAnn, I’ve never seen her manage, because she’s always been Otto’s assistant and just kind of executed what he did.”
Doug Jones, a former Democratic candidate for Statehouse, cited Carter’s prior stint as a state senator, emphasizing that the local party chair "is the only one of the candidates who's run and won countywide repeatedly."
But though Reisinger was unemployed at the time of the vote, he and his allies stressed his years of experience as a political organizer. He recently managed Patsy Keever's successful Statehouse campaign and worked to elect Asheville City Council member Gordon Smith, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler and President Barack Obama.
"I've seen him keep his head and motivate his team in pressure-cooker situations," said Tom Sullivan, who serves on the N.C. Democratic Party’s State Executive Committee. Singling out Reisinger among the 150 or so committee members, Sullivan declared, "There's the future, right back there."
But that vision didn't seem to sit well with DeBruhl.
"I just feel like [Morgan] didn't get what she was due," he said after the final results came in. "They turned down a trooper. I thought that as much as she's done for this party and for the county and for the city, that there wouldn't be a race. … I'm surprised."
After the vote, Morgan said she intends to resign when Reisinger takes over.
Carter, meanwhile, summed up the night’s events by saying, "That was democracy in action. I wish the best to Drew."
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.