Wilson sheriff's race raises questions of race, favoritism
Posted April 30, 2010 4:54 p.m. EDT
Updated April 30, 2010 6:55 p.m. EDT
Wilson, N.C. — The sheriff's race in Wilson County is heating up, with questions about the incumbent's ties to a defense attorney and rising racial tensions.
Sheriff Wayne Gay, 63, has been in office for 28 years, the second-longest tenure among North Carolina sheriffs. Challenger Calvin Woodard, 38, is a State Bureau of Investigation agent and a former Wilson County deputy.
Because no Republicans have filed for the sheriff's race, the Democratic primary next Tuesday is the de facto election for the post.
On Friday, Gay, who is white, accused Woodard's supporters of handing out pamphlets that could divide the community down racial lines.
"I regret that this has come to the point where it's dividing the community, where it's become a black-and-white issue," Gay said.
Woodard said his group of supporters is diverse. "It's not a one-man, one-race campaign I run," he said.
"I became a part of his vision, and he inspired me. So, I wanted to support his candidacy for sheriff," Woodard supporter Tom Futrell said.
Gay's coalition also claims to be diverse.
"I think he's done more for diversity in this town than any other sheriff in any other department," Shelton Barnes said.
Gay, who also is in charge of animal control in Wilson County, is the third-highest-paid sheriff in North Carolina, making $144,500 a year.
Woodard has raised questions in the campaign about Gay's ties to local defense attorney Allen Thomas. Both men own a portion of State Insurance Services. The State Treasurer's Office awarded the company a no-bid contract in 2001 to provide supplemental insurance policies to retired state workers.
Gay insists there is no conflict of interest in the deal.
"I respect Allen. He respects me. He's never asked me to do anything unethical to help him or his clients," he said.
Thomas did defend Wilson County Deputy Eddie Smith four years ago against a charge of driving while impaired. Smith got into an accident and registered a blood-alcohol content of 0.11. Under North Carolina law, a driver is considered drunk with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08.
Smith pleaded guilty to driving left of center in the case.
"That's between the defense attorney and the district attorney. I don't have anything to do with that," Gay said.
The North Carolina State Bar doesn't have any ethics rules prohibiting lawyers from partnering with a public official in a business, said Alice Mine, assistant executive director of the State Bar.
Woodard also has asked why property seized by deputies in criminal investigations isn't being sold, with profits going to the school system.
"I do know there hasn't been a public auction in 10 years," he said.
"You're talking about junk," Gay responded, saying anything of value has been auctioned off.
Between $300,000 and $400,000 in stolen property remains in a warehouse for people to claim, the sheriff said. Also, Gay's department paid to store some pieces of heavy equipment until the court cases were resolved. If they weren't claimed, they were forfeited to the storage facility in lieu of paying the rent, he said.
Woodard said that, if elected, he would be more accessible and focus on crime prevention.
"I would get out there and lower the crime rate – stop gang violence and juvenile violence," he said.
Wilson County had a rate of 486 violent crimes and 3,824 property crimes per 100,000 residents in 2008, according to state statistics. The rates are higher than neighboring Wake County.
Gay maintains that he has experience and a track record of innovation, such as cutting jail expenses by putting non-violent child support offenders on house arrest instead of behind bars. His department also worked with federal agents on a major drug investigation over the last four years, he said.
"I think my reputation is excellent," Gay said.