• 86°

Don’t overlook races for sheriff

by John Hood

RALEIGH —  In the 1969 parody Support Your Local Sheriff!, James Garner plays a skilled but somewhat-disreputable gunslinger who stumbles his way into the job of sheriff in a Colorado frontier town. During one escapade, the mayor, played by Harry Morgan, shakes his head and remarks that “I guess you know what you’re doing, Sheriff.”

“I don’t know what I could have said to give you that idea, Mayor,” Garner’s character replies.

In the real world, sheriffs aren’t necessarily newcomers to law enforcement and don’t typically improvise their job performance. Many run for the office after working as police officers or deputy sheriffs, or after service in some other government post. Some are so effective in earning public trust that they stay in the job for decades.

Indeed, a recent Elon University poll revealed that sheriffs are better known than many other state and local pols. Asked to name the offices held by various leaders, most of the 625 voters interviewed correctly identified Mike Pence as vice president (89 percent), Roy Cooper as governor of North Carolina (82 percent), and Richard Burr (62 percent) and Thom Tillis (56 percent) as U.S. senators.

On the other hand, only 11 percent knew Phil Berger was the president pro tem of the North Carolina Senate, and just 8 percent knew Tim Moore was speaker of the North Carolina House. Berger and Moore wield significant power in Raleigh, obviously, but aren’t much known elsewhere — except perhaps in their own communities. Even back home however, only 22 percent of respondents correctly identified their state representatives, while 17 percent recognized their state senators.

By comparison, nearly half (46 percent) correctly identified their county sheriffs. Why are sheriffs more recognizable than state legislators? I think there are at least two reasons.

One is that for most North Carolinians most of the time, politics is not first and foremost in their minds. They are working, rearing children, reading or watching TV, volunteering, exercising, worshipping, or otherwise pursuing their private interests. Government is a provider of services, not the source of meaning to their lives.

The national political story is certainly compelling to many, to be sure. But they often watch it as more as a spectacle, as a reality-TV series, than as a serious effort to address public concerns or a worthy continuation of America’s great mission to establish self-government in a representative republic. Viewers know the characters. That doesn’t mean they take the current political show seriously.

Governors are often familiar to state voters, as well, and usually viewed with less disdain. They lead very publicly during times of crisis, help set the state’s agenda, and garner attention as they perform various ceremonial and economic-development duties.

At the local level, sheriffs are a bit like governors. They represent entire counties, while many other local officials are elected to represent districts, wards, or municipalities. Sheriffs also often act as public leaders during local emergencies and controversies.

The latter brings me to my second point: sheriffs are prominently associated with a local service that virtually everyone cares a lot about: public safety. Not all sheriffs prosper from the attention. In recent cycles, we’ve seen incumbent sheriffs defeated for reelection because they took actions that lost the confidence of key constituencies in the community, exhibited insufficient attention to public safety, or in a few cases revealed shocking levels of incompetence or corruption.

As we move into the 2018 election cycle, don’t be surprised if — in counties as disparate as Mecklenburg, Henderson, Cabarrus, Ashe, Davidson, Surry, Cumberland, Vance, and Pender — sheriff races prove to be more heated, and more interesting, than the congressional, legislative, or judicial contests. In fact, the outcomes of some supposedly higher-profile party primaries or general elections might actually be affected by differences in turnout between counties with competitive sheriff races and counties without them.

In Support Your Local Sheriff!, the James Garner character ends up becoming governor. In real life, the office isn’t often a steppingstone — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t politically important.

–––

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30p and Sundays at 12:30p on UNC-TV.

Currituck

Currituck-Knotts Island ferry route to suspend service Tuesday through Friday

Hyde

Hyde County Courthouse bell project made possible with community support

Crime

Newport News man arrested on charges related to Currituck County road rage incident

News

Sunday night wreck in Frisco results in fatality

News

Feeling sleepy? Bear cub takes a break at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

News

North Carolina gas prices fall slightly over past week

Lifestyles

Fishing on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Crime

North Carolina man charged with murder in drive-by shooting of teen girl

Hyde

Airplane flips after landing at Ocracoke airport

Crime

North Carolina police investigating drive-by shooting that claimed life of 12-year-old

Crime

Virginia man arrested for domestic assault in Rodanthe

News

William B. Umstead Bridge speed limit temporarily lowered for purple martins

Crime

Virginia man arrested in Nags Head after traffic stop

Lifestyles

Outer Banks Anglers Club to hear from artificial reef coordinator at next meeting

Crime

Former North Carolina resident sentenced to prison for bribery, visa fraud, tax charges

Hyde

Drone trial delivers supplies to Ocracoke Island

News

Comments open on proposed Buxton and Avon nourishment projects

Currituck

Shingle Landing Park opens in Moyock

News

Retired magistrate called back to active duty

Lifestyles

New bicycle exhibit opens at Roanoke Island Festival Park

Crime

North Carolina man sentenced to five years in prison, three years of supervised release for firearm charge

Crime

Two men dead after interstate shooting in North Carolina

Lifestyles

Hundreds gather to witness release of two sea turtles at Coquina Beach

News

Major North Carolina hospital systems to require staff to get COVID-19 vaccine