Campaigning for the boss
Posted October 26, 2012
Raleigh, N.C. — Letters to the editor are a standard part of campaigns for local offices such as Register of Deeds or Clerk of Courts.
But in Harnett County, letters signed by the staff of the Democratic incumbents who hold those two offices have raised the hackles of their Republican challengers.
"There seems to be a conflict of interest," said Darryl Black, a Republican running against Kimberly Hargrove, the three-term incumbent.
A letter to the editor in the Dunn Daily Record signed by Matthew Willis, Hargrove's senior assistant, and eight other employees expressed "unwavering support" for their boss.
Willis said he wrote the letter at home and circulated it in the parking lot after work hours.
"You never hear anything negative about this office until the election comes around," Willis said Friday. "We do feel that Ms. Hargrove is the most qualified and experienced person."
Hargrove said she does not ask her staff to campaign on her behalf, but some volunteer to do so. And, she said, some may have good reason to openly support her campaign.
"My opponent is making an issue out of the number of staff I have in my office," she said. "That message worries a lot of them."
Black said in an interview that he thinks the county's Register of Deeds office was big for its size.
In many respects, this is a typical exchange in the court house politics. Tales of sheriff's deputies hauling yard signs in the back of cruisers, county workers working the polls and other sorts of politicking by those who work for politicians go back decades, if not longer, in virtually every county in the state. Still, outside observers say campaigning for your boss can be a dicey proposition.
"There's really no statutory guideline," said Wayne Rash, past president of the N.C. Association of Register of Deeds and the Register of Deeds in Caldwell County. He could not speak for the association on the matter and said he didn't know enough about the Harnett case to comment directly.
State law prohibits state workers for actively campaigning for the boss on state time. It also prohibits a state worker from using their position in supporting or opposing a candidate. So, for example, it would ethically dicey for an employee in the Department of Agriculture to mention their position if they wrote a letter to the editor endorsing the current commissioner. The same rules don't appear to apply on the local level.
However, Rash said it was best if elected officials avoided any appearance of conflicts.
"It's a good idea to keep your employees out of that if you can," he said. With regards to writing letters to the editor, he said, "If the employees came up with that idea and wanted to do that, then the more power to them. If it was something other than that, it would be troubling."
Black said he has heard from current and former employees that some pressure is applied not only to publicly support the current Register of Deeds, but work the campaign events.
Hargrove says that's not true. Any campaigning, she said, happens on an employee's own time and there's never any implication that an employee needs to work for her campaign in order to keep their job.
"That would be a mistake," she said. She also added her own criticism of Black.
"He's getting dirty because there are questions about his residency," she said.
The Dunn Daily Record recently reported a story that low utility usage at Black's Harnett County address raised questions about whether he really lived in the county.
"Me and my wife have been permanent residents for many months," said Black, adding that he moved to the county in November 2011. Black said Hargrove didn't try to raise the residency issue until he raised questions about how the Register of Deeds office fails to protect people's Social Security numbers. "It's just dirty politics," he said.
Danny Moody, the chairman of the local Harnett County Republican Party and candidate for Clerk of Court said it didn't surprise him when the letters showed up in the paper. Moody said he's seen staffers from the current Clerk of Court show up to candidates forums sporting their boss's stickers.
Still, he emphasized, he's not saying Marsha Johnson, the current Clerk of Superior Court, has done anything wrong.
A letter signed by 25 of Johnson's staffers said she was an "outstanding clerk and we are proud to work for her."
Glenn said that if he wins the election, he'll put out the work he doesn't want anyone in the office working for future campaigns.
"To me, that's just wrong," he said. "It does raise questions as to whether they're doing it of their own free will."
Johnson said she didn't ask anyone to write letters or do other work for her campaign.
"They got together on their own," she said, noting that the clerk's race had been much less contentious than the Register of Deeds race in the county. "There is no coercion here whatsoever."
That said, Johnson added, her employees have the same right to participate in political process as everyone else.
"If you think about it, it would be a sad thing if you had staff that didn't want to support you," she said.