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Barnett: A varied group vies for Wake County DA

April 26, 2014 

Some in Wake County might have forgotten that the office of district attorney is an elected one. Colon Willoughby held the post for almost 30 years. If he wanted, he could have stayed another decade or so.

But Willoughby, 63, left office in March to go into private practice, and his absence has brought a rush of DA candidates into the May 6 primary. It’s an impressive and diverse group of would-be Willoughbys. The odds appear high that Wake will get a worthy successor to the man who earned respect from his fellow Democrats and Republicans as a fair-minded prosecutor and a capable administrator. The Wake DA also serves in a special role as the prosecutor of cases involving politicians and government officials in the state capital.

Generally, The News & Observer doesn’t endorse candidates in primary elections, and we’ve chosen not to support a candidate in the current, crowded field. However, Jim Jenkins, the N&O’s deputy editorial page editor, and I conducted interviews with all six candidates. Here are observations that may help voters reach a verdict.

Two Democrats will face off in the primary. Lorrin Freeman, 43, the clerk of Wake County Superior Court for the past seven years, has the strongest administrative and political credentials. She’s vulnerable to claims that she lacks courtroom experience, but she is a former assistant district attorney who held her own during her years with the Wake District Attorney’s Office.

The job of DA is actually two jobs. Administering a caseload and managing more than 40 assistant district attorneys is one. The other is prosecuting cases. Freeman is well-equipped for the first part. She oversees 160 employees in the clerk’s office and plays a role in managing the courthouse. She says criminal justice is her passion, and her record shows she performs well in trials. If elected, she intends to prosecute cases herself.

“I want to put to rest this issue of whether I can try a case,” she said.

Freeman’s opponent is Boz Zellinger, a 32-year-old assistant district attorney who, despite his youth, is running on his experience. (His first name is an acronym for his full name: Benjamin Oren Zellinger.) During his seven years with the District Attorney’s Office, he has prosecuted major murder cases and serves in the DA’s Special Victims Unit. But Zellinger’s politics hardly fit the stereotype of the hard-nosed prosecutor.

He’s a progressive Democrat who said, “I come from a social justice background.” He wants to improve the way the criminal justice system treats the mentally ill and juveniles. A Wake County native, he wants the district attorney to be in touch with the community and working to prevent crime as well as prosecuting criminals.

“If we sit back, in 10 to 15 years we are going to be overrun by crime,” he said.

On the Republican side, voters have a range of good choices. Jeff Cruden, 51, is a senior assistant district attorney who would bring the most prosecution experience to the job. He’s a strong presence in the courtroom and clearly can lead and teach a team of assistants. “A lot of that I’ve been doing already,” Cruden said. “I think we’re the gold standard.” But converting him to a manager and political office-holder will cost the county a fine day-to-day prosecutor.

For journalists, it’s hard not to root for the election of John Walter Bryant, a lawyer in private practice. A former Wake Forest football player who drove a truck before he decided to go to law school, Bryant, 60, is the most colorful and quotable candidate in the field. He says he’s running to “give something back to the community” after a successful career defending clients. He said of the other candidates, “I’m pretty confident I’m the only one not looking for a raise and promotion in this job.”

Jefferson G. Griffin, an assistant Wake County district attorney since 2010, is only 33 but he doesn’t lack for confidence. He’s looking to run the DA’s office after only four years in it, and he closed his interview by declaring, “I’m going to win this election.”

Griffin emphasizes that he was a criminal defense attorney before becoming a prosecutor and that he’s the only candidate who has served in both roles. “You need to have done both to know the power of the government,” he says.

Griffin describes himself as a conservative, but he wants to do more than crack down on law breakers. He supports creating a special court for veterans, doing more to keep the mentally ill out of jail and coming up with more alternative sentencing. “We’re not social workers, and I know that,” he says, “but we’re going to have to be part of the solution.”

Terry Allen Swaim, 45, a defense attorney in private practice, rounds out the Republican field. A Wendell-based attorney, he’s an animated talker who emphasizes his experience in business. He worked as a heating and air conditioning contractor while earning a degree from N.C. State and then going to Duke Law School. He wants to make the court system more efficient and “customer friendly.”

Swaim doesn’t think experience in the District Attorney’s Office is a must to have the job. “Only someone outside the system,” he said, “can see what’s needed in the system.” He’d like more use of electronic processing instead of literal paperwork.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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