Head lice, transgender students, bankruptcy. The race for Wake County sheriff heats up.

Gerald M. Baker, left, and Donnie Harrison
Gerald M. Baker, left, and Donnie Harrison

The race for Wake County sheriff has gotten more heated in the final days before the election, with ads targeting candidates on everything from transgender students to personal finances.

Republican Sheriff Donnie Harrison, who is seeking his fifth term in office, faces Democratic challenger Gerald M. Baker, who worked in the Wake sheriff’s office for 28 years before retiring last spring.

In Raleigh, roadside campaign signs have popped up that say, “Dear Wake County: Sheriff Donnie has compared transgender students to head lice.”

The words “stay woke: vote” also appear on the sign, along with the web address woakcity.com.

The signs apparently reference an email written by Harrison and obtained in September by the Indy Week newspaper.

In the email, Harrison reportedly said all students and school resource officers “should know the policies of the school and school board.” That way, he wrote, parents could decide whether they want their child to use locker rooms that are accessible to transgender students.

“The school sends out messages if a child has head lice so parents can make their own decisions as to what to do with the child, so why not allow them to make the decision on whether their child should be in the dress out room or as well,” Harrison wrote.

Harrison threatened to remove his deputies from schools unless the Wake County school system developed a uniform policy on access to restrooms and locker rooms for transgender students, The N&O reported in 2016. Wake leaves it up to individual principals to decide on a case-by-case basis whether transgender students can use communal restrooms and locker rooms that don’t match the gender on their birth certificates.

Harrison has said he would be OK with whatever the school system decides in terms of letting transgender students use the facilities of their choice. But without a district-wide policy, he has said, it’s confusing for families and also deputies who serve as school resource officers.

Financial trouble

On Friday, the chairman of the Wake County Republican Party sent a news release questioning Baker’s ability to manage the finances of the sheriff’s office.

According to the release, Baker owed $277,000 in legal claims.

“In addition, he’s had two civil actions against him in just the last four years: a homeowner’s association lien for $675 and civil suit for over $14,000,” the release said.

Baker told The N&O on Friday that he had gone through a divorce and fallen behind on his mortgage and taxes. He filed for bankruptcy to prevent losing his house, he said.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Baker said. “My marriage fell apart. I was paying all of the bills when I filed for divorce and I gained control of the property.”

Baker said he makes monthly payments toward the debt.

“I’m not the only one to go through something like this,” he said. “It happens all the time. It has nothing to do with my work with the sheriff’s office or my ability to lead it.”

In the news release, Wake GOP chairman Charles Hellwig questioned whether The N&O would report on Baker’s financial situation, as it had done with an Apex Town Council candidate three years ago.

“The Wake GOP believes that if the financial troubles of a town council candidate were newsworthy in 2015, then certainly the more recent and far more alarming financial troubles of a candidate for sheriff are just as newsworthy,” Hellwig wrote.

Use of force

An online publication that focuses on criminal justice published an article Friday saying Wake County deputies are more likely to use excessive force against African-Americans since Harrison was first elected in 2002.

The article by The Appeal cited Open Data Policing, a project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham. Data show that blacks make up just over a fifth of Wake County’s population but account for 55 percent of use-of-force incidents involving Wake deputies.

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