The Republican-controlled State Board of Elections Wednesday chose Kim Westbrook Strach, a veteran campaign investigator, to be the elections board director.
She will replace Gary Bartlett who had been elections director under the past three Democratic governors.
The elections board vote was 3-2 along party lines, with Democrats voting in opposition saying they had not time to examine Strach’s credentials and thought there should be a longer transition for Bartlett.
The move came just several days after Republican Gov. Pat McCrory named a new elections board, a move that typically occurs when there is a change in political parties.
Strach, who is currently deputy director for campaign reporting, had worked on the state elections campaign staff for the past 13 years. She played a leading role in a wide-range of investigations of such political figures as former House Speaker Jim Black, former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, former state Reps. Thomas Wright and Michael Decker and former Governors Mike Easley and Bev Perdue. All but Decker are Democrats.
Josh Howard, a Raleigh attorney who was chosen Wednesday as the new elections board chairman, called Strach experienced and “tough as nails.’’
“Kim has spent many years investigating the powerful,” Howard said. “That is not easy to do.’’
But now Strach and the new Republican-lead elections board face a complaint that 60 campaign contributions totaling more than $230,000 had been made from an indicted sweepstakes company owner to GOP Gov. Pat McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate leader Phil Berger and others.
Howard said he had just received the complaint, made by Democracy NC, a Durham-based watchdog group, and that he was not yet prepared to comment on it. Strach said last week the staff will “thoroughly investigate” the matter. Bob Hall, executive director of the group, said the elections board staff had already begun to look into the complaint.
The state Board of Elections, three Republicans and two Democrats, was sworn-in Wednesday, as the state’s election machinery officially changed hands to the Republicans for the first time in two decades. The Democrats had held power so long that Howard was a 19-year old Duke undergraduate camping out in Krzyzewskiville, and Paul Foley, a new board member from Winston-Salem was a 15-year old high school student the last time the GOP controlled the board.
Although the first meeting was amicable, the Republicans were sworn in by a GOP judge and the Democrats by a Democratic judge. And they split on hiring Strach, although the Democrats said their opposition reflected their frustration in being shut out of the hiring process, not with any specific criticism of her.
Strach is known as a dogged investigator – though the 1993 Miss Kinston has never fit the stereotype.
Howard said some of her toughness may have come from her job as a probation and parole officer in Kinston before becoming an elections official.
He noted that she has won support across the ideological spectrum, winning an award from Common Cause for her work. He said that Strach is registered unaffiliated.
“I think she is a good choice,” said Hall of Democracy NC. “I respect her work.’’
During the investigation of former Gov. Bev Perdue’s campaign finances in 2010, Democrats said that Strach should have recused herself from the case because she is married to Phil Strach, a Raleigh attorney who is former legal counsel to the state Republican Party.
Howard said that Gary Bartlett had done “important and effective work for the past 20 years. But even when a sports team gets a new general manager they get a new head coach.” His term ends May 15 and Howard asked to stay until then.
Howard, 39, a member of the Wake County election board, is experienced in investigative work, having spent much of his career working as a federal prosecutor in North Carolina.. He was also junior counsel in the Independent Counsel’s Office in Washington during the investigations of President Bill Clinton, including the Whitewater probe and the investigation into Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. He also served at the Department of Justice where he assisted in the confirmations of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court. He is the son of U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Howard.