Lexington, N.C. — For 10 years, Gerald Hege was arguably one of the most well-known sheriffs in the country.
From his pink jail cells to prison work crews dressed in old fashioned black and white stripes, the sheriff in Davidson County was a regular on national television shows. A hot sauce was even named after him.
Then the man known for driving a black police car adorned with spider images got caught in a web himself.
In 2004, Hege pleaded guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice. The plea deal kept him out of jail, but cost him his job.
Six years later, Hege is running for sheriff again, but there is a catch: State law prohibits a convicted felon, including Hege, from carrying a weapon.
He is not the only candidate with a criminal past running for the office of sheriff across the state:
- In Avery County, candidate Robert Nub Taylor was convicted of obstruction of justice as a clerk of court.
- McDowell County’s Mark Stewart and Cleveland County candidate David Morrow each have felony drug convictions.
- Wilkes County candidate Willie Tharpe has a felony conviction for receiving stolen goods.
- Former Washington County Sheriff Stanley James was convicted of embezzling, but is running this year in an effort to reclaim the position.
- Ryan White, a candidate for sheriff in Dare County, has pending felony drug charges in two counties.
“The gun issue is not our primary motivating factor. It’s an ethics issue,” said Eddie Caldwell, spokesman for the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association.
The NCSA is pushing for a bill in the state legislature to keep felons from becoming sheriff.
Salvation’s Way is also campaigning against the felon candidates.
“The constitutional qualifications are not our main focus," said Melisia Prout, head of the group. "It’s the statutory qualifications you cannot get around. The fact that a convicted felon cannot be in care or control of a firearm, that statue does not say unless elected sheriff."
Hege said he doesn’t need to carry a gun to hold the office.
“There’s no general statute that I’m aware of that requires a sheriff to carry a firearm. The president of the United States don’t carry one. The governor don’t carry one, so I don’t think one sheriff not carrying one is going to upset anybody," he said.
Hege’s opponents argue that the sheriff is actually in charge of the guns carried by more than 140 Davidson County deputies.
Hege says it's a stretch to say he can't even be around firearms.
“I don’t know of any statute that says a felon cannot be around a firearm. I mean, I go to Walmart all the time,” Hege said. “Walmart has guns. I go to Walmart. Convicted felons go there everyday.”
The Davidson County Board of Elections will hold a full hearing after the May primary to rule on Hege's eligibility.
“Regulations in North Carolina prohibit a convicted felon from becoming a deputy sheriff or any other law enforcement officer in our state,” Caldwell said. “The sheriffs believe that same standard that applies to the deputies ought to also apply to the office of sheriff.”
The state Senate will consider a bill in the upcoming session of the General Assembly to ban felons from running for sheriff. If the bill passes, the issue would appear on voter ballots in November.