Raleigh, N.C. — Kim Westbrook Strach, a longtime investigator with the State Board of Elections, will take over as the board's director on May 15.
Strach replaces Gary Bartlett, who has served as the state's top elections professional for nearly 20 years.
The board made the move at a meeting Wednesday morning after five new members appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory last week took their oaths of office.
"She was a probation officer in Kinston," said board member Josh Howard, a Wake County Republican who was selected as chairman of the board. "You've got to be tough as nails to do that."
Howard thanked Bartlett for his two decades of service. He likened the move to a sports team hiring a new general manager, who then wants to hire a new coach.
In raw political terms, Bartlett has served under state boards appointed by Democratic governors Jim Hunt, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue. Although he is known nationally as an election expert, some Republicans see him as a partisan, and it was unlikely that they would have allowed him to stay in place.
Investigations under review
State law calls on the governor to appoint a new board by May 1 of the year after an election. McCrory picked from nominees offered by the state's Democratic and Republican parties. The new board is made up of three Republicans and two Democrats.
Wednesday's meeting was mainly an organizational affair, with members taking their oaths and selecting Howard and Strach.
The five new members of the board will soon have to make a decision whether to press forward with a campaign finance investigation related to contributions from people in the video sweepstakes industry. Some of those donations went to McCrory as well as other high profile Republican leaders.
"Until we have a chance to meet with staff and review their comments, it would be inappropriate to comment at this time," Howard said.
Howard was handed a copy of the complaint, filed by Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, only minutes after being sworn in.
"I think that's an appropriate response," Hall said of Howard, adding that the board's staff is already reviewing documents related to the case. A formal nod from the board would ratchet-up the investigation, but staff members don't need their approval to collect information.
"I think we just need to watch carefully," Hall said.
Partisan divide on display
The state board oversees the work of county elections boards throughout the state, sets policy and conducts investigations. It is also responsible for gathering campaign finance records and ensuring that elections run smoothly. While the board sets policy and hears appeals of other decisions, the director and her staff carry out the daily work of running elections.
Although board members act unanimously on many matters, the board is made up of political partisans, and those political differences were on display almost immediately Wednesday.
Howard and fellow Republicans Paul Foley of Forsyth County and Rhonda Amoroso of New Hanover County were sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby, a Republican who just won re-election. Democrats Joshua Malcolm of Robeson County and Maja Kricker of Chatham County were sworn in by Chief Justice Sarah Parker, a Democrat.
"I wouldn't read anything into the different justices," Howard said after the meeting, noting that he goes to church with Newby.
Asked how he might assure all voters, Republican and Democrat, that the board would act for the good of all, Howard said, "Watch our record as we move forward."
The board parted on substance as well as style Wednesday. Malcolm and Kricker objected to appointing Strach, saying they had not had a chance to meet her or review the qualifications of other potential candidates.
"I am concerned about this rush to bring forward a new director without our actually meeting the potential candidates," Kricker said.
Both Kricker and Malcolm advocated for keeping Bartlett on staff until June so that the board would have more time to review replacements.
"She (Strach) seems like a very capable, competent person," Malcolm said, adding that the quick appointment, "is doing a disservice to this board, and I think it's doing a disservice to her, quite frankly."
Board Republicans said they were confident in Strach's qualifications and saw no reason to wait.
"This board has a lot of work to do," Amoroso said. "Waiting another two weeks or a month, we'll probably come back back with the same conclusion."
Strach has a reputation in political circles as a tenacious investigator who helped dig up evidence that won sanctions against high-profile officials such as former Gov. Mike Easley and former House Speaker Jim Black. She is married to Phil Strach, a lawyer who has done work for the North Carolina Republican Party, although she herself is an unaffiliated voter.
Hall called her "a good choice....I respect her work."