Endorsements that weren’t surface in sheriff’s race

by Jordan Green

With both candidates for Guilford County sheriff at the mercy of the voters’ whims in the heated final sprint before Election Day, lining up endorsements took on paramount importance. This being a contest for the top law enforcement position in the county, public support from other law enforcement professionals – from the previous sheriffs down to the rank and file – became especially coveted.

The only problem is that some of those who were purported to have supported each of the candidates, Republican incumbent BJ Barnes and Democratic challenger Berkley Blanks, were not really supporters or did not give permission for their names to be used in the campaign.

At a Nov. 1 debate sponsored by the Greensboro Jaycees the candidates exchanged insults and flung accusations. Blanks sometimes gripped the arms of his chair while Barnes spoke, then waved an arm in exasperation as he delivered his rebuttal. Barnes, the bigger man, sat stock still, listening with a faint smile of amusement, and then quietly attempted to demolish his opponent’s credibility.

At one point Blanks charged that Barnes has not worked well with law enforcement leadership in the Greensboro Police Department or with the US Marshals Service.

“What a fairytale,” Barnes said before alluding to a full-page campaign advertisement he bought in YES! Weekly and another weekly publication. “Look at the deputies, captains and sergeants that are supporting me. I have a great working relationship with these people.”

Blanks charged that a number of the 29 veteran law enforcement officers listed as supporters in Barnes’ advertisement have actually come out in support of the Democratic candidate, expressing their preference either with yard signs or campaign contributions.

One of those was John Leonard, a part-time driver with the Greensboro Auto Auction who retired from the Greensboro Police Department in 1995.

“I did not authorize that,” Leonard said. “I supported [Barnes] in a past election. My sister is a paralegal and I would like to know whether there’s some kind of action I can take. It’s false advertising’… I don’t take kindly to my name being used without my permission.”

Leonard said he posted two Blanks signs in his yard before the primary election, and planned to erect them again in the final days before the Nov. 7 general election.

Barnes said in an interview following the debate that another retired Greensboro police officer, Bud Harris, compiled the list and “talked to each of those officers.” He added that he was surprised to hear that Leonard objected to be included on the list, as no one has called him to complain.

Some Blanks supporters have also complained that a list of quotes from elected officials included in the advertisement – three out of five of them from prominent Democrats – constitutes a misrepresentation since they might be taken for endorsements. The quotes are listed under the heading: “This is what leaders recommending Sheriff Barnes for National Sheriff of the Year said.” Barnes said he had spoken to all the officials and had no complaints.

One Democratic official indicated that he was caught off guard by the advertisement.

“When I was in private practice, long before I ever considered winding up in the District Attorney’s office, a friend of mine asked me to write a letter supporting BJ Barnes for some award or other,” said District Attorney Doug Henderson. “It is not an endorsement. I was not asked or advised that that quotation was going to be there. I’m a Democrat. Sheriff Barnes is a Republican. I don’t endorse a Republican – or a Democrat.”

Greensboro City Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson, also a Democrat, said as a member of the Simkins political action committee she is prohibited from endorsing anyone not supported by that group, but she had no problem with her quote being used by Barnes. Ed McDonald, spokesman for Republican US Rep. Howard Coble, also said he thought it was reasonable for Barnes to use his boss’ quote.

During the Jaycees debate Barnes did not hesitate to level similar charges of misrepresentation at Blanks.

“There were letters of recommendation and endorsements that were sent out supposedly supporting Berkley, but they weren’t really supporting Berkley,” he said. “Some newspaper people are very upset about that, and I can understand why.”

Several Guilford County newspapers received faxed letters on Oct. 17 headlined “Berkley Blanks for Sheriff,” and signed in typeface with the name of Walter A. “Sticky” Burch, the Democratic sheriff of Guilford County from 1986 to 1994. Burch asked YES! Weekly and other newspapers to discard the letter.

After the debate Blanks acknowledged that he faxed the letters himself.

“Sticky’s old and he didn’t understand that the letter’s going to be faxed,” he said, adding that Burch contributed money to his campaign – an assertion documented in his campaign’s third quarter campaign finance report.

Sandy Russell, who ran against Barnes in 1998, said she was the author of the letter. She said she asked Burch to write a letter of endorsement for Blanks at a campaign function.

She said she recalls that he told her: “You write it. Let me read it, and I’ll sign it.”

Later she called him and read the letter over the telephone, Russell said.

“I said, ‘Is that okay with you?'” she said. “He said, ‘No it sounds fine.’ I asked him, ‘Do you want me to bring it by your house?’ He said, ‘No.’ ‘Are you sure?’ I’m not sure where the confusion comes from.”

Barnes expressed indignation about the letter.

“Sticky Burch’s mind is just as sharp as yours or mine,” he told YES! Weekly.

The following day Burch contradicted Russell’s account.

“She did all of that except she said [Blanks] was coming by and he didn’t,” the retired sheriff said. “As far as Mr. Blanks is concerned I don’t think he was aware that he was supposed to talk to me.”

He added: “Frankly, I didn’t want to do it.”

While competing for the law enforcement vote the two candidates have engaged in a bare-knuckled brawl over the reputations of their respective backers in the African-American community. Barnes bragged about his endorsement from IMPAC, also known as the Independent Minority Political Action Committee, which Barnes described as “a group of professionals in the African-American community.” Blanks received the endorsement of the Simkins political action committee, a consortium of established black leaders, in the primary election, and contributed $500 to help the group cover the cost of mailing out their recommendations. Barnes, in turn, noted that he decided against participating in the Simkin’s PAC’s endorsement process.

Blanks e-mailed IMPAC on Nov. 1 telling them he would he would decline to participate in an online candidates forum hosted by the group.

“We have had a relationship with Blanks before,” said Karl Brustmeyer, treasurer for IMPAC. “It seems like he has turned his back on us.”

Jerry McClough, the group’s president, added: “We would like to work with [Barnes] and his team. We want to keep our people out of jail.”

Blanks expressed scorn for the endorsement at the Jaycees debate.

“IMPAC is run by two guys who are felons,” he said. Brustmeyer has previously acknowledged that he spent four years in federal prison after pleading guilty to drug-related charges.

As the Jaycees debate escalated, Blanks indicated he was enjoying the fireworks.

“I like it when it gets like this because I’m good when it gets this heated,” he said. “I can handle it.”

Barnes was quick to respond.

“It doesn’t speak much for your character, Blanks.”

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