Democrat Lorrin Freeman won easy victory in her party’s Wake County district attorney’s race Tuesday. A runoff is possible on the Republican side, where Jeff Cruden edged out his closest competitor, John Bryant, in a near-tie.
Unofficial returns showed Freeman with 57.83 percent of the vote, leading Democratic opponent Boz Zellinger, who had 42.17 percent.
“We’re just very excited to have the support that was shown today,” said Freeman, 43, “and we’re committed to continuing with the same integrity and independence that’s been a tradition of the office.”
Cruden led the field of GOP candidates with 33.68 percent of the vote. Bryant had 32.66 percent.
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A potential runoff looms because no candidate carried 40 percent of the vote. Bryant said Tuesday night that he had yet to make that call.
“I have an idea, but I don’t have a decision,” he said. “I had a lot of people help me get as far as I got.”
Other GOP challengers trailed: Jefferson Griffin with 22.74 percent and Terry Swaim with 10.93 percent.
This election marks the first time in nearly three decades that Colon Willoughby was not on the ballot for Wake district attorney. He held the position for the past 28 years.
Willoughby, 63, announced in January that he would not seek re-election, adding later that he would not serve the remainder of his term.
On March 31, he stepped down to return to private practice. Ned Mangum, a Wake County district court judge, stepped down from the bench temporarily to take the helm until a new top prosecutor is elected. Mangum’s seat on the bench is guaranteed because he seeks it without opposition.
Throughout the campaign, the candidates tried to distinguish themselves for a job sometimes described as the most powerful prosecutor in the state.
North Carolina’s district attorneys not only oversee the prosecutors, investigators and administrators in their offices, they also decide which cases to pursue. Many of the state’s public corruption and government malfeasance cases land in the Wake courts.
Freeman, the daughter of Franklin Freeman, a prominent Democrat and former N.C. Supreme Court justice, touted her administrative experience as well as her work as a prosecutor in the Wake office and with the state attorney general.
Zellinger, 32, pointed out his broader experience prosecuting cases and talked about establishing programs that would connect the district attorney’s office to community organizations.
Cruden, 51, touted his support from the law enforcement community and the endorsement he won from the Raleigh Police Protective Association, an organization with 550 members who are sworn officers.
Bryant, 60, has been a colorful storyteller, talking about his time on the Wake Forest football team, his experience driving trucks and bringing that perspective to the office.
Griffin said his rural Nash County roots coupled with experience gained as a defense attorney and prosecutor give him a special vantage.
Swaim said he wanted to bring a better “customer service” strategy to the district attorney’s office. He suggested giving defendants appointments for court instead of the calendar calls that bring hundreds into the same courtroom at the same time with no advance notice of the specific time they face the judge or jury.
For weeks, the candidates tried to distinguish themselves at meet-and-greets, forums, private gatherings and in mailers.
The race among the Democrats generated a dispute over campaign literature.
Freeman’s camp complained about a direct-mail advertisement that raised questions about a bail-bond scheme that led to criminal charges against two former clerks from her office and two bondsmen.
The mailer, circulated by the State Employees Association of North Carolina, an organization that endorsed Zellinger, stated: “If she can’t manage a couple of clerks in her own office, how can we trust her to put Wake County’s most dangerous criminals behind bars?”
Willoughby, who was still in office when the grand jury handed up the criminal indictments, has praised Freeman for her open and prompt handling of the bond scheme. She asked for an investigation immediately after being notified about the irregularities.
Zellinger distanced himself from the mailer but expressed his appreciation of the SEANC endorsement.