Six Democrats are vying for the chance to challenge Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford, a Republican who’s served in that capacity since 1994, in the general election this November. For the first time ever, last week the candidates in the May 2 primary participated in a public debate. In an April 11 forum moderated by Kendall Hale at the Fairview Community Center, candidates Rick Cummings, Van Duncan, Lee Farnsworth, James Grant, J.B. Howard and Walt Robertson pitched their qualifications and proposals before about 75 attendees.
Howard led off and made a point of separating himself from his opponents, who are all current or former employees of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department, “I’m the only candidate who has not been involved in that department,” he said. A former career officer with the state Highway Patrol, since retiring in 1984 he has operated a private-investigation firm in Asheville. His goals for the department, he said, include increased use of school-resource officers and a greatly increased emphasis on mitigating domestic violence. Speaking more broadly, he said he wants to “professionalize the Sheriff’s Department and make it second to none in the state.”
Next up was Robertson, a former career officer with the Asheville Police Department who has worked for Medford in recent years. “I did work for the Sheriff’s Department, but I resigned to run for sheriff,” he noted. “More than anything else, I want to restore the esprit de corps of the department. I want the officers to be involved in their community.” Robertson emphasized domestic-violence intervention and drug enforcement focusing on control of methamphetamine.
Cummings told the audience that he spent 10 years on the Asheville Police force and then gone into private business. “I moved my certification to the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department in 1984 and I have worked under four sheriffs,” he said. He said he would emphasize drug interdiction and search vehicles on interstate highways for that purpose. “If we can get the drugs down 10 or 15 percent, crime will go down with it,” he predicted. In addition, he pledged “to look to make sure all sex offenders are arrested here, and that everyone is safe in their neighborhoods.”
Grant, with 15 years in the Sheriff’s Department, is currently a lieutenant. “I am the most qualified candidate,” he said, noting that in the 2002 election he received 46 percent of the primary vote. “I’m going to put offenders in jail and make sure that they don’t come out of jail the same way they went in,” he asserted.
Farnsworth, currently a captain on the Buncombe force, has spent 29 years in law enforcement, having started with the Asheville Police Department and moved to the Sheriff’s Department in 1978. “Law enforcement is where my heart has been all my adult life,” he said. “In that 29 years I’ve served in every position I can think of in the APD and Sheriff’s Department.” Along the way, he said, he’s learned how to keep spending in check. “My mission is to be financially responsible. I have extensive budget experience in both the city of Asheville and the county.”
Up last, Duncan cited 20 years of law-enforcement experience, including in the Sheriff’s Department, and noted that he currently teaches at the North Carolina Justice Academy in Edneyville. “I think you need new leadership,” he said. “I’ve been out on the trail for 14 months and I’ve heard a lot of stories about ways that the Sheriff’s Department has dropped the ball.” He also noted “a need to revitalize the school-resource officer program, which was once a model for the state.”
Hale then led the candidates through a series of prepared questions covering domestic violence, the budget, gender and racial balance on the staff, interagency communications, crime statistics and how the candidates would deal with meth labs. Questions from the audience touched on video poker, the DARE anti-drug program, domestic-violence charges against some of the candidates, and whether the candidates would support whomever wins the Democratic nomination.
Most of the answers to most of the questions were similar. The candidates expressed unanimous support for increasing domestic-violence awareness and training, hiring minorities and women, improving interagency cooperation, and disappointment in the rate of resolution of crimes by the current sheriff and a perceived lack of interest in cracking down on meth labs.
Still, some answers stood out from the rest, pointing up potential fault lines between the men who are seeking the sheriff’s badge:
• Howard said he plans to train officers to look for peripheral signs of domestic abuse and to conduct proactive intervention by a domestic-violence task force. He noted that there are more domestic-violence calls than calls involving breaking and entering, assault, burglaries and drugs combined. “If you solve the domestic violence, you will solve the other problems,” he opined. “The same people are doing drugs, stealing and beating up on people.”
• Cummings and Farnsworth shared an opposing view — that cracking down on drugs first would solve many of the domestic-violence problems.
• Farnsworth predicted that the meth problem will fade, thanks to the new state law that regulates precursor drugs in pharmacies. “We lost the war on drugs a long time ago,” he also noted, suggesting that community involvement, including education, outreach and enlistment of nonprofit agencies, is the key to reducing drug use.
• Howard suggested that volunteer fire departments might be used as Sheriff’s Department substations to enhance contact with the community and facilitate the department’s response to neighborhood concerns. The idea was opposed by Duncan and Robertson, who said that officers belong in cars, not substations.
• Grant asserted that “we have people who investigate video poker on a regular basis,” but that was countered by Farnsworth, who said that the department currently has only “one person who enforces video poker in Buncombe.” Farnsworth went on to say that he would “work with the [North Carolina] Sheriff’s Association to change the law or do away with video poker in the state.” Howard said he would ask the Buncombe Board of Commissioners to tax video-poker machines to pay for enforcement of the video gambling law.
• Robertson admitted he was accused of domestic violence seven years ago, but noted that “it was settled.” (Xpress has confirmed that, indeed, there is no case file in Buncombe County civil or criminal court records regarding the case.) And Duncan said that he went through a “bad divorce” in 1990, and that “at one point she went to the courthouse and took out [a protective order] against me, but I was never accused of violence, and she later dropped it.”
• Grant was the only candidate among the six who refused to state that he would support whomever was nominated in May 2 primary, insisting that he would be the nominee. All of the others echoed Farnsworth’s avowal of party solidarity: “I will be 100 percent behind whichever Democrat is nominated.”