RALEIGH — The district attorney is one of those elected officials whom few people relish meeting – at least inside the courthouse.
Such an encounter typically means someone has been charged with a crime, is a crime victim or is under investigation.
But as Wake County voters head to the polls to choose their first new district attorney in nearly three decades, the candidates in the May 6 primary are trying to introduce themselves to as many people as possible.
The longtime DA, Colon Willoughby, 63, announced in January that he would not seek re-election, and he left office in March. Now, two Democrats and four Republicans have filed for the job as Wake County’s top prosecutor.
With Wake being the home of state government, the county’s district attorney is perhaps the most powerful prosecutor in North Carolina.
Many of the state’s public corruption and government malfeasance cases land in the Wake courts. North Carolina’s district attorneys not only oversee the prosecutors, investigators and administrators in their offices, they also decide which cases to pursue while trying to balance the interests of justice and the communities they were elected to serve.
Hart Miles, a Raleigh defense attorney who grew up in the capital city, said this race should be of great interest to the entire county – even those who are not in and out of the courthouse on a routine basis. Because of that, Miles invited all the candidates to sit in front of his video camera to offer a glimpse of their candidacies for YouTube posts.
“Being in Raleigh all my life, I just think it’s a really important race,” Miles said. “It’s a real unique elected position.”
May 6 primary
A good district attorney, Miles said, should not be beholden to any political party or camp and should have the “good judgment and courage to do that right thing even if it is unpopular.”
Voters in the primary election will narrow the field of Wake County DA candidates to one from each party. The Democrat and Republican winners will face each other in the Nov. 4 general elections.
Some voters already have cast their ballots. Early voting began Thursday and continues through May 3.
The Republican candidates are:
• John Bryant, 60, a lawyer in private practice who is running as a Republican, though he has sought elected office in Wake County before as a Democrat.
• Jeff Cruden, 51, a veteran prosecutor with the Wake district attorney’s office who grew up in Raleigh and is making his first run for office.
• Jefferson Griffin, 33, a Wake County prosecutor and former defense attorney.
• Terry Allen Swaim, 45, a lawyer in private practice since 2007 who also has experience as an engineer and businessman.
The Democratic candidates are:
• Lorrin Freeman, 43, the Wake County Clerk of Court and a former prosecutor in the district attorney’s office.
• Boz Zellinger, 32, an assistant Wake County district attorney who grew up in Raleigh.
For weeks, the candidates have tried to distinguish themselves.
The races have become more heated as the primary draws closer. Advocates for the two Democratic candidates have sparred over campaign literature.
Freeman’s camp has complained about a direct-mail advertisement that raises questions about a bail-bond scheme uncovered in her office that led to criminal charges against two former clerks and two bondsmen.
The mailer, being circulated by the State Employees Association of North Carolina, an organization that endorsed Zellinger, states: “If she can’t manage a couple of clerks in her own office, how can we trust her to put Wake County’s most dangerous criminals behind bars?”
Willoughby, who was still in office when the grand jury handed up the criminal indictments, has praised Freeman for her handling of the bond scheme. He said she asked for an investigation immediately after being notified about the irregularities and did not hinder the criminal probe at all.
Zellinger has distanced himself from the mailer but has expressed his appreciation of the SEANC endorsement.
Freeman, the daughter of Franklin Freeman, a prominent Democrat and former N.C. Supreme Court justice, has touted her administrative experience as well as her work as a prosecutor in the Wake office and with the state attorney general. She has the support of high-ranking Democratic judges, the current and former Raleigh mayors, state Sen. Josh Stein and other high-profile Wake Democrats.
Zellinger, who speaks often about a need for the district attorney’s office to be better connected to community organizations, points out his broader experience prosecuting cases. In addition to the SEANC endorsement, Zellinger received a nod from the Indy weekly newspaper.
Though the Republican candidates have not complained about mailers or campaign literature, they have tried to distinguish themselves in other ways.
GOP talking points
Cruden touts his support from the law enforcement community and the endorsement he won from the Raleigh Police Protective Association, an organization with 550 members who are sworn officers. He also won the endorsement of the Indy for the GOP primary.
Bryant has been a colorful storyteller, talking about his time on the Wake Forest football team and his experience driving trucks.
Griffin says his experience as a defense attorney and prosecutor gives him a special vantage point that he couples with his small-town roots to set himself apart.
Swaim has said he thinks the DA job should not be one held for decades.
“It doesn’t have to be a lifetime,” he said.
Willoughby, the longtime prosecutor who was the boss of four of the candidates, has not publicly endorsed anyone in the race.
He left the following guidance: “My advice to the next D.A. is to remember that you represent the people. You’re not there just for the victims, you’re not there just for the lawyers or the judge, you’re there for the people.”