North Carolina’s heated campaign season may have finally come to blows.
Republican NC House District 1 candidate Bob Steinburg has been charged with assault after an altercation with his opponent’s campaign manager Thursday night in Hertford.
The incident happened following a candidate forum at which Steinburg appeared with his Democratic opponent, Bill Luton. The alleged victim of the assault is Luton campaign manager Russ Haddad.
Reached by phone Saturday, Steinburg confirmed the charge, but told WRAL the Luton campaign is to blame for it.
“It was a setup. This is all they’ve been doing, my opponents – trying to get something on me personally,” Steinburg said. “Unfortunately, I took the bait.”
According to Steinburg, he was trying to have a “private conversation” with Luton after the forum when he noticed Haddad was taking phone video of it. He says he told Haddad to stop taping three times before grabbing for Haddad’s phone – “swatting at it, really,” Steinburg said.
Asked whether his response was appropriate, Steinburg said, “It was for me. I’m a man.”
“I’d warned him three times - get it out of there, get it out of there, get it out of there,” he added. “This is an innocuous event that was staged for their behalf. That’s it. That’s what happened.”
He says he was informed by a police officer on the premises that Haddad had filed a complaint with the magistrate. He says the officer encouraged him to come down to the magistrate’s office “so they wouldn’t have to serve papers.”
"Like a dog gets scruffed"
Russ Haddad declined to speak on the record about the event, deferring to his boss, Democratic candidate Bill Luton.
“Based on the facts, the magistrate found probable cause,” Luton said. “But because this is a criminal case against him, there’s really a limit to what we can say.”
Sources who witnessed the altercation say the incident started immediately after the forum, when the candidates were shaking hands. Haddad showed up to record the conversation between Steinburg and Luton after it was clearly becoming heated.
Those sources say Steinburg grabbed Haddad by the neck "like a dog gets scruffed" and tried to wrestle his phone away from him.
Luton didn't confirm or deny those accounts.
“It’s important to know the context in the race," Luton said. ”I’ve really been hammering away at these party politicians that put party above all else. Maybe he took it personally. But that’s no excuse for his embarrassing behavior.”
Luton declined to share Haddad's video of the incident. “Since it’s potentially criminal evidence against Mr. Steinburg, we’re speaking to counsel about whether to release it.”
The court date is set for November 14th.
Part of a pattern?
Steinburg said he has “a very good feeling” the charge will be dismissed, and he doesn’t believe it’ll hurt his campaign.
“This is an isolated incident,” he said. “I’m 64 years old. I’ve been in positions of leadership all my life. Never anything of any tarnish at all.”
“I don’t think it’s going to make any difference in the end in terms of how this race turns out," he added. "I don’t think I’m going to be judged on this one incident.”
As it turns out, however, this isn't Steinburg's first run-in with police after a heated conversation.
In 2005, Steinburg was arrested at a Chesterfield County Planning Commission meeting and charged with disorderly conduct after refusing to leave the podium when asked to do so.
In a video clip of that incident posted on YouTube, a police officer coming to escort Steinburg away can be heard telling him, "Get your hands off of me."
"Get your hands off of ME," Steinburg tells the officer before he's escorted away.
Planning Commission leaders later dropped the charge against Steinburg. But he followed up with a federal lawsuit against them, seeking punitive damages for infringement of his First Amendment rights. That case was dismissed, as was the appeal.
Steinburg did not immediately respond to our request for a comment on the earlier arrest.