Gerald Baker’s win in the Wake County sheriff’s race on Tuesday came as a surprise to many people who figured Sheriff Donnie Harrison would cruise into a fifth term in office.
Baker, a Democrat who spent 28 years as a deputy in Wake, raised about $15,000 for his campaign. Harrison, a Republican with deep Wake County roots, raised nearly $200,000.
On social media Baker’s campaign has 16 Twitter followers and 98 Facebook likes, perhaps a sign that he lacks name recognition. (He is no relation to the late John Baker, a former NFL defensive lineman who served as Wake’s sheriff for years until Harrison unseated him in 2002.)
Harrison’s popularity was evident in his previous re-election bids, earning as much as 66 percent of the vote.
But Baker’s success this week likely reflects a larger “blue wave” in Wake County, where voters tilted heavily Democratic, and also his liberal stance on a controversial immigration program. He won more than 54 percent of the vote Tuesday, according to early returns.
Democrats claimed all but one of the state legislative races in Wake County, and they kept all seven seats on the Board of Commissioners.
“I hope Baker does a fantastic job, but I don’t think what happened was reflective of Donnie (Harrison),” Charles Hellwig, chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, said Wednesday. “The Democrats came out to vote and took Donnie with them.”
Baker, who grew up in Southeast Raleigh, won many of the precincts within the city and also some in western Wake. Harrison, who lives in Fuquay-Varina, won many precincts in suburban towns and rural areas.
“People recognized there was a need for new leadership in the office,” Baker said Wednesday during a news conference outside the sheriff’s office. “We knew we had to put out signs and there were things we knew we had to have.”
Baker said his biggest priority when he takes office in January will be to end Wake County’s participation in the 287(g) program, a federal initiative that allows local law enforcement agencies to partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Leading up to the election, the American Civil Liberties Union spent $100,000 to air a radio ad that accused Harrison of “pushing Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda, tearing families apart and stoking racial tensions.”
Wake is among six North Carolina sheriff’s offices that participate in 287(g). Through the program, a suspect who is already detained for a criminal offense can be run through a national database. If it becomes clear the suspect is in the country illegally, ICE can request a detainer and take the person into federal custody.
Viridiana Martinez, director of the North Carolina-based immigrant advocacy group Alerta Migratoria, said many people had urged Harrison to stop the program, which Wake has participated in for about a decade.
“(Harrison) lost because he refused to protect and serve black and brown families,” Martinez told The News & Observer on Wednesday.
Between 2013 and 2017, the Wake sheriff’s office processed nearly 11,000 people through the 287(g) program. Of those, 1,483 people were deported, according to previous N&O reporting.
Immigration became a flashpoint in the weeks leading up to the election. Rep. George Holding recently made a public announcement supporting Harrison’s stance on 287(g). Holding, a Republican who represents parts or all of Wake, Franklin, Harnett, Johnston, Nash and Wilson counties, won re-election Tuesday.
William P. Saenz, communications coordinator with El Pueblo in Raleigh, said Wake’s agreement with ICE is the single leading cause of family separation and deportation in the region.
“We ask that Sheriff-elect Baker keeps his promise to end this partnership and that he prioritizes the reunification of families, as well as the respect and dignity of all who call Wake County home,” Saenz wrote in an email to The N&O.
Meanwhile, Baker said the biggest factor in his victory was his accessibility to voters and willingness to listen to their concerns.
“We kept pounding,” Baker said. “Just pounding and letting people know what we are going to do.”
Rebecca Llewellyn, chairwoman of the Wake County Democratic Party, said she was pleased with Baker’s victory.
“It seems that a lot of people underestimated his campaign but we never did,” Llewellyn wrote in an email to The News & Observer. “He really connected with volunteers and voters in a sincere and open manner. I believe that he will run the sheriff’s office with that same transparency.”