Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — The question about how much campaigning local courthouse employees should be doing for their boss’ election has arisen in Harnett County as Democrat Register of Deeds Kimberly Hargrove battles to keep her job against Republican challenger Darryl Black.
“They’ve worked the polls,” Black said, referring to early voting sites. “From what I understand, it was widespread throughout the office.”
Indeed, a letter of support for Hargrove was sent to the Dunn Daily Record signed by Matthew Willis, Hargrove’s senior assistant, and the eight other members of her staff. A similar letter was sent to the paper by the clerk of court’s staff supporting incumbent Democratic clerk Marsha Johnson.
Willis said that the letter of support for Hargrove was typed after hours and on his own computer at home. The staff signed the letter after hours and outside the office, in the parking lot, Willis said.
“Nothing [political] is done between 8 and 5 o’clock in this office,” Willis said of the campaign efforts. “No one’s pressuring anyone to do anything.”
Black called the relationship between the office staff and campaign “very incestuous.”
Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said that there is a law governing campaigning by state employees, but not on the county level.
“On the state level, employees cannot electioneer a campaign on state time,” Bartlett said. “A state employee cannot be coerced into giving contributions.” However, state employees can work in campaigns on their own time, he said.
A former employee of the Harnett County Register of Deeds office said that in a previous election, Hargrove had encouraged her staff to work in her campaign.
“She pretty much wanted us to help out as much as we could,” said Sharon Laplante, who said she worked in the register of deed’s office from 1996 to 2009. She said that there were sign-up sheets requesting members of the office staff to go to parades, work at booths during events, and go door-to-door campaigning.
“The sign-up sheet came during hours, but all of the campaigning was after hours,” Laplante said.
Laplante said that no one demanded that she work as a condition of continued employment in Hargrove’s office.
“You were told that you need to do this because if the other candidate wins, we’d all lose our jobs,” Laplante said.
Bartlett said he hears reports similar to that a lot, particularly in local courthouse races. “I hear that among sheriffs all the time,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett questioned the ethics of such statements.
“I think that’s a back way of trying to make them toe the line, in other words support them,” Bartlett said. “I do not think that that is ethical.”
Bartlett recommended that elected officials steer clear of recruiting their employees for campaigning purposes unless the employee initiates the effort and volunteers to campaign for them.
Willis said that Hargrove isn’t making such a claim.
“I think everyone here does understand that it is a political office, much like the sheriff’s department,” Willis said.
Willis added that employees are aware of Black’s statements regarding the size of the staff in the Harnett County register of deed’s office, and wonder if some positions might be eliminated if Black gets elected.
Black, earlier in October, issued a press release which said that the office staff per capita was 75 percent higher in Harnett County than staffing letters in nearby counties. He suggested that the office was not operating as efficiently as it could be.
Barry Smith is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.