Local News

Court Records: Six Durham Political Candidates Have Criminal Pasts

Posted October 5, 2005 9:22 a.m. EDT

— A convicted felon is running for mayor in Durham and he is not the only political candidate who has a criminal past.

About half of the candidates in the upcoming primary election for mayor and city council races have something on their criminal record. Two cases involve protesting, but others may be more serious, including forgery, assault and drunk driving.

Some people say this is bad news for a city already struggling with its public image. Others, however, say they want to judge the candidates on an individual basis.

Evelyn Contre says people should not be haunted by their mistakes, but at the same time she says a criminal record is something voters should really think about.

"You do have to examine what those mistakes were when you elect people to city or state office," Contre said.

By state averages, Durham has an unusually high number of candidates with a criminal record. State Board of Elections Director Gary Bartlett says there is usually one candidate in one race across the state every year.

This year may be unusual, but Bartlett says it is not against the law.

"We've had people who've paid their debt to society and been elected before," Bartlett said.

As long as the candidate in question has served their jail-prison-probation time, they can run.

When confronted with their records at a candidate forum Tuesday night, two candidates were upfront about their pasts.

John Best, who is running for city council, admitted to a DWI charge in 1998 and on-going alimony issues with his ex-wife that landed him in jail for 48 hours.

Jackie Wagstaff explained her side in a case where she was charged with two felony counts for doctoring city checks. She says it was a misunderstanding. She agreed to a plea bargain; and now, she says she wishes she had fought it.

Others appear to have left information out. Shawn Cunningham did not mention he pleaded guilty to an embezzlement charge or explain his history of allegedly writing worthless checks.

Joe Williams did not mention a 1986 assault charge.

When WRAL asked Steven Matherly why he did not mention a series of worthless check charges, he said he forgot about them.

"It was 10 years ago," Matherly said. "I had trouble paying my bills at the time."

Mayoral candidate Vincent Brown, however, was not at Tuesday's forum and therefore, did not comment. Records indicate that Brown served time in prison for forgery.

When members of WRAL's news staff went to Brown's office, one of his office workers told them they were trespassing and should leave.

Some people say the records do not matter.

Jim Fields videotaped the candidate forum and he says he can forgive and forget.

"They have a right to turn their lives around. We all make mistakes," Fields said.

Thomas Edwards has been in Durham for 30 years and he owns a small flower shop. He says he is not worried about public image and he thinks the election process will work itself out.

"What we're going to do is look at everybody," he said. "I'm still proud to be a Durham-ite."

WRAL News spent hours running criminal background checks on 13 candidates in Raleigh -- 10 who are running for city council and three in the mayor's race. A search of state and county records found no criminal convictions for those candidates in North Carolina.