DURHAM — Editor's note: Two men are circulating petitions for the right to challenge Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong -- the winner of the May Democratic primary -- in November. Today, a look at Durham County Commissioner Lewis Cheek. A profile of Republican Party Chairman Steve Monks will appear Wednesday.
DURHAM -- Sitting in the conference room of his South Durham law office, Lewis Cheek cultivates the image of the measured man -- wearing a somber suit, choosing his words deliberately.
He is careful not to criticize Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong too directly for his handling of the rape allegations involving three members of the Duke University lacrosse team. Instead, Cheek tries to steer the conversation to what he would do if elected -- making tactfully veiled references to Nifong's oft-criticized public statements in the early days of the investigation, as a national media maelstrom descended on the Bull City.
"If I had been the one up on the courthouse steps in front of all those cameras, I would not have commented about that case or any other case," Cheek said in an interview last week.
Cheek, 55, said Monday he is still weighing whether to run for Nifong's job, but his actions indicate a man already in the race. About 25,000 Durham voters received a letter last week asking that they sign a petition to place Cheek's name on the November ballot as an unaffiliated candidate. With the signatures of 6,303 Durham voters needed to meet a tight June 30 deadline, Cheek's campaign said it had already received more than 2,000 forms in Monday's mail, many with several signatures each.
The son of a local surgeon, Cheek is well known to Durham voters -- as are his past struggles with alcohol. He served two terms on the Durham City Council and is in the middle of a four-year term as a county commissioner. He has never lost an election. Jackie Brown, a Democratic activist who helped guide Nifong's primary victory over former Assistant District Attorney Freda Black, is now Cheek's campaign treasurer.
If elected, Cheek said he would ask N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper to assign a special prosecutor to the lacrosse case.
"What I would ask from that special prosecutor is that he or she ensure that justice be done. And if justice means dismissing charges, so be it. If justice means prosecution, so be it," Cheek said.
Nifong rebuffed questions about his potential challengers. "At the moment, I'm the only person who's qualified to appear on the ballot," he said.
Early in his career, Cheek represented indigent clients on relatively minor criminal charges. Mostly he has been in civil court, typically representing corporations, doctors and insurers against personal injury and malpractice claims.
Lisa Williams, a criminal defense lawyer in Durham, said Cheek appears to be a qualified civil litigator. But in criminal plea negotiations, he could be vulnerable to savvy defense lawyers.
"So the question becomes, who on his staff will be running the DA's office while he's learning?" Williams said.
Cheek registered as a Democrat when he was 18 and has maintained that affiliation, though finance reports show strong Republican support.
He angered some of those backers in 2002 by casting the deciding vote to grant medical benefits to same-sex domestic partners of gay and lesbian city employees. Cheek said that stand shows how he approaches decisions and why he is well-suited to serve as DA.
"I listen to everything people have to say, and then I make my own decision based on what I feel is the right thing to do," Cheek said last week.
One decision, he said, was to talk publicly about his battle with alcohol. Cheek has been in residential treatment facilities for substance abuse three times, most recently a 28-day stay in 2000 while on the council. Cheek said it has been years since he's had a drink, though he can't say exactly how long.
"It is a disease that will always be with me, and it's something I'm dealing with on a continuing basis," Cheek said. "A lot of people look at addiction as a character flaw. That's not the case. It is a medical condition."
His personal bouts with addiction have affected his public views, said Cheek, who as a county commissioner has pushed for greater government support for treatment centers. It's an insight he would also bring to the DA's office, where many criminal cases are the result of drugs or alcohol.
"Someone can't go out and rob 20 people and then tell the judge, 'It's not my fault. I have an addiction,' " Cheek said. "But I think if we had more treatment, we could keep more people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place."
Brown, the campaign treasurer, said she does not fear Cheek's alcoholism will be used against him in the DA's race. A previous opponent, Joe Bowser, brought up Cheek's drinking in a 2004 commissioner's race. Cheek still unseated the two-term incumbent and board vice chairman.
Brown said she is confident Cheek's problems with alcohol are in the past.
"If it was an issue, I wouldn't be at his side," she said.
(Staff writer Ben Niolet contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Michael Biesecker can be reached at 956-2421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.