RALEIGH — The two attorneys vying to be the Republican candidate for Wake County district attorney both came late to the party, and both are seeing red about who is the better Republican.
John Bryant, 60, a lawyer in private practice, is running as a Republican, though he sought an N.C. Senate seat in Wake County as a Democrat nearly two decades ago.
Jeff Cruden, 51, a veteran prosecutor with the Wake district attorney’s office who grew up in Raleigh and is making his first run for office, was a registered Democrat for three decades. Fourteen months ago, he changed his party registration to Republican.
With Wake County voters set to go to the polls on July 15 for the GOP primary runoff, or the “second primary,” Bryant and Cruden are locked in debate about who better represents the party.
The district attorney race is the only one on the second primary ballot in Wake. The Republicans who emerged as the top two vote-getters in the May primary have been sending out campaign literature, organizing small gatherings and trying to get the word out that there is an election and their names are on a ballot in the middle of summer, when many have vacations scheduled. Early voting begins July 3.
Bryant, the second-highest vote-getter in the May primary, raised questions about Cruden in a campaign mailer paid for by Bryant for Wake County District Attorney.
With a drawing of a four-legged creature with two heads – an elephant’s and a donkey’s, the mailer asks: “Is D.A. candidate Jeff Cruden a Republican or Democrat?”
“According to official State Board of Election records, Jeff Cruden voted as a Democrat for ten years. That includes primaries for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bev Perdue, Kay Hagan, Elaine Marshall, Mike Easley, Bob Etheridge, and John Edwards,” the mailer states on the opposite side.
Cruden said he registered as a Democrat when he was 18 after being raised by a grandmother he described as “an FDR Democrat.”
“However, I have always been a Conservative, both fiscally and socially,” Cruden said in a response to friends titled “Setting the Record Straight.”
“I consider myself a lifelong Conservative, and my journey to have been no different from that of Ronald Reagan, Jesse Helms and a host of other individuals who changed their affiliation to more accurately reflect their Conservative ideology,” Cruden further stated.
Bryant, who registered as a Democrat in Halifax County when he was 18, changed his party affiliation in 1996 after a failed bid in the Democratic primary that year for state senate.
“Had he won the Democrat Primary, and subsequently won the General Election, my opponent could be representing us right now in the NC Senate, and would have done so during the administrations of Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue,” Cruden said in his response to the mailer. “Which means he would have been casting votes along Democratic Party lines.”
The Republican primary runoff for district attorney, Wake County’s only decision on the ballot July 15, will decide who runs against Nancy “Lorrin” Freeman, the Democrat who won her party’s primary race.
Freeman, the daughter of Franklin Freeman, a prominent Democrat and former N.C. Supreme Court justice, has far-reaching ties in her party.
Currently Wake County’s Clerk of Court, Freeman has been a prosecutor in the Wake County district attorney’s office.
For many years, Wake County voters have not had a choice for district attorney.
Colon Willoughby, the top prosecutor for nearly three decades, rarely faced opposition at the polls during his terms. In January, Willoughby surprised his staff when he announced he would not seek re-election this year. That opened the door for an array of candidates.
Bryant, an attorney in private practice, said he changed his party affiliation almost two decades ago because of his values.
“I believe in smaller government,” Bryant said Monday. “I believe in less bureaucracy. I believe in more efficiency. … I have a history of being a registered Democrat, just like Ronald Reagan.”
In the weeks since finishing second in the May primary, Bryant has been showing up more in the Wake County courthouse, according to Cruden.
“He’s running to be the Wake County district attorney, but he’s never been a prosecutor in his life,” Cruden said. “I’m running for the office I’ve worked in for the last 20 years.”
Bryant says his prosecutorial experience has been with the N.C. Board of Nursing, for which he has prosecuted hundreds of alleged violations of the Nurse Practice Act for more than 22 years.
Amid all the talk about who is a more loyal Republican, Cruden said he thought the race should be nonpartisan, as judicial races are.
“It shouldn’t matter if you are an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ at all,” Cruden said.
Bryant pointed out that in Cruden’s response “to set the record straight,” the assistant district attorney said he voted in Democratic primaries to support Willoughby.
“It was an honor for me, and many of my fellow ADAs, to be in a position to vote for Colon Willoughby in the primary elections, as he was an outstanding leader of the Wake County District Attorney’s office,” Cruden stated in his response.
But Bryant pointed out that Willoughby has not faced primary opposition for years.
Cruden calls all the talk about who came to the party latest – and why – little more than “a diversion.”
“(H)e is diverting the attention away from the message of ‘Experience does matter,’” Cruden said.
Bryant says his work outside the district attorney’s office sets him apart from his opponent.
“I don’t need him to teach me how to try a case,” Bryant said.
Note: This story was updated July 3 to reflect Bryant’s prosecutorial experience on behalf of the NC Board of Nursing.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1