Voters who choose a Democratic ballot in Buncombe County face a Goldilocks-like decision for district attorney: Is incumbent Todd Williams too hard on crime, too soft on crime or just right?
Criticizing Williams from the first of those positions is assistant public defender Courtney Booth. She has said Williams’ “law-and-order office” has failed poorer residents and communities of color, arguing that practices such as cash bail are discriminatory.
From the other side comes Doug Edwards, a prosecutor and former assistant district attorney. Edwards, endorsed by the N.C. Police Benevolent Association, has attacked the incumbent for dismissing nuisance crimes such as trespassing and solicitation.
And Williams, who was elected as district attorney in 2014, is running on his record. He says that under his tenure, the county has seen stable or decreasing numbers of homicides, robberies and incidents of gun violence.
No Republicans have filed for the district attorney race, meaning that whoever wins the Democratic primary will run unopposed in the general election. (Attorney Joe Bowman will appear on the Democratic ballot but announced March 14 that he was suspending his campaign to support Booth.)
The name of each candidate is linked to their responses in the post:
Occupation: Attorney (assistant public defender)
Previous candidacy or offices held: None
Key endorsements: Did not answer.
Amount of money raised: $5,350
Top three donors: Michael Casterline, Albert Messer, Todd Lentz
What unique perspective do you bring to the office of district attorney? I am a mom and have been an assistant public defender for over 16 years. I would be the first woman to hold this office. I am a humble yet strong person who is not interested in political gain but stepped up to reform our criminal justice system to pursue justice and safety for all. Our courthouse sits in Asheville, and Asheville has the progressive values to support the Reform DA movement that is happening across the country.
Besides prosecuting crimes, what is the most important function of a DA? It’s not about getting convictions. It’s about pursuing justice, and per the oath, to apply the law fairly, all while taking into account how the system has historically failed persons of color, the working class and working poor. It’s about using resources wisely to prioritize and prosecute violent crimes and ensuring swift justice to make a victim or victim’s family as whole as they can be made.
How should the DA approach collaboration with local law enforcement offices, especially the Asheville Police Department? The DA has to be transparent and communicate their expectations with law enforcement. A DA’s discretion is independent and serves as law enforcement’s checks and balances. A relationship that is too close is too entangled and incestuous to make an independent decision and to truly pursue justice, without the taint of close relationships interfering. I am supportive of our law enforcement and will remain collegial but separate.
What specific role should the DA play in promoting public safety? Violent crime has risen in the city, and public safety is a priority. Prioritizing the prosecution of violent crime, in light of the backlog of cases coupled with an understaffed police department, is key to achieving public safety. Vowing to identify any type of overpolicing of neighborhoods is key to restoring trust in law enforcement and will likely result in an opportunity to protect and truly serve our community. I want safety for all, not just some.
Previous candidacy or offices held: None
Key endorsements: International Association of Fire Fighters Local 332, Asheville Fire Fighters Association; AFL-CIO WNC Central Labor Council; International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART); North Carolina Police Benevolent Association.
Amount of money raised: Did not answer.
Top three donors: Did not answer.
What unique perspective do you bring to the office of district attorney? I am the only candidate that has successfully obtained a conviction for first-degree murder by jury trial. My opponents are trained as public defenders; I am trained as a prosecutor. These are entirely different skill sets needed for keeping our community safe. I have spent my career prosecuting violent criminals and protecting citizens against some of the most dangerous people in our community. I’ve worked alongside victims and understand the impact crime has on them and their families.
Besides prosecuting crimes, what is the most important function of a DA? The most important function of the DA is to ensure public safety and fairness to both victims and defendants. The role of the DA is to serve as an advocate for victims and ensure their voice is heard. The DA also is responsible for ensuring that the rights of defendants are protected. Decisions made have a tremendous effect on victims and defendants and must be given a great deal of thought and consideration.
How should the DA approach collaboration with local law enforcement offices, especially the Asheville Police Department? The roles of law enforcement and prosecutors are mutually dependent. Prosecutors rely on law enforcement to gather facts and evidence necessary to hold offenders accountable. Law enforcement officers rely on prosecutors to advise them and support their efforts to keep our community safe. As district attorney, I will work to restore trust and relationships to help build morale and confidence within the DA’s office and law enforcement agencies throughout our county.
What specific role should the DA play in promoting public safety? The district attorney promotes public safety by prioritizing crimes that have the most impact. As DA, I will prioritize crimes against children and the most vulnerable in our community. I am particularly concerned with the high rate of crime against African American women. We must find solutions to address the victimization rates of women in all neighborhoods. Domestic violence and crimes against children should be taken seriously, and offenders must be held accountable.
Occupation: District attorney
Previous candidacy or offices held: Elected DA in 2014, took office in 2015, reelected DA in 2018
Key endorsements: Drew Reisinger, Buncombe County Register of Deeds; former state Sen. Terry van Duyn; state Rep. John Ager; James “Fergie” Ferguson, civil rights attorney; Frank Goldsmith, civil rights attorney
Amount of money raised: Roughly $25,000
Top three donors: Moe Davis for Congress, Teresa van Duyn, Patricia Williams
What unique perspective do you bring to the office of district attorney? Capital defender (death penalty cases) during 14 years as a public defender. Ran against and defeated the 24-year incumbent, who wrongfully convicted young Black men; I now serve on the innocence commission that cleared them. I’ve earned national recognition for effective, sustainable justice reform. Promised and delivered child advocacy and family justice centers. Trauma-informed, evidence-based approach to victim services and second chances for nonviolent offenders. Successful prosecution of violent crime (murders, rapes, assaults). Secured freedom for those wrongfully incarcerated.
Besides prosecuting crimes, what is the most important function of a DA? To deliver sustainable justice reform, because that’s what’s necessary for the long-haul systems change of achieving justice and equity — ending disproportionate incarceration, education, health and employment outcomes. This requires constant improvement of the process and procedure of seeking justice. I created anti-bias grand jury measures. I established a conviction-integrity review to uncover biased punishment. This is my life’s work, and it’s the responsibility of every DA. My duty is to ensure justice through protection of everyone in our community.
How should the DA approach collaboration with local law enforcement offices, especially the Asheville Police Department? I am in constant collaborative communication with APD. I partner with APD on mutual goals and responsibilities to identify safety threats and to secure accountability for violent crime. I credit this approach and community action with an 18% reduction in shots-fired calls and bucking the trend of spikes in homicides. My office also consults with APD to seek solutions to nuisance crimes. “Unhoused diversion” decriminalizes poverty and diverts nonviolent offenders to treatment and assistance, which is more effective than incarceration.
What specific role should the DA play in promoting public safety? The DA has a duty to ensure justice through equal protection of all community members. We cannot and should not allow public safety and prosecution to differ based on a person’s race, identity, wealth, life experience, neighborhood, etc. This positions the DA as an advocate for just accountability that fosters trust. That requires just consideration of charges and prosecution strategies, and alternatives if appropriate. This includes accountability for the public and law enforcement officers and providing trauma-informed victim services.