Challenger Clarence Birkhead took an early lead and kept it Tuesday night, putting himself on track to become Durham County's first black sheriff.
Some 31,344 people cast ballots, with Birkhead winning 69 percent of the votes to incumbent Sheriff Mike Andrews' 31 percent.
There are no Republicans running, so barring a successful write-in candidate in November, Tuesday's Democratic primary winner will become sheriff.
In his victory speech at a downtown pub 106 Main, Birkhead vowed to not cooperate with federal immigration officials, clean up the jail, treat inmates with dignity and make sure they have the services they need.
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“We are going to keep our Durham safe,” Birkhead said. “Get guns off the street. Work together for a new Durham, a safe Durham for everyone. Remember: One Durham. One community.”
This is the third time Birkhead, a driver's license examiner, has run for sheriff. In 2010 he ran in Orange County. In 2014 he challenged Andrews, along with a third candidate, in Durham County.
Andrews won that 2014 race, taking 56 percent of the vote to Birkhead’s 39 percent.
But this year’s election endorsements saw Andrews' support wane over concerns about jail conditions, his stance on immigration detainers and other issues.
In 2014, Andrews was endorsed by the Durham People's Alliance Political Action Committee and the Friends of Durham — two of the city's three main political actions committees. This year those two PACs joined the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People in endorsing Birkhead.
Another complicating factor for Andrews was a Monday night Facebook post by the re-elect Andrews page that some community members say appeared to endorse a supporter's racist views.
The post was deleted and disavowed by Andrews by Tuesday morning. Andrews said it was posted by a Facebook moderator who he then expelled from the campaign, but hundreds shared and commented on a screenshot of the post on election day.
“I surely didn’t need it,” Andrews said Tuesday morning when asked how it could affect the race. “I will be honest with you about that.”
Birkhead began his law enforcement career in 1984 in Randolph County as a deputy. He started working as Duke University police officer in 1998. A year later, he became Duke's chief of police, which he remained until 2005.
In 2010, Birkhead resigned as Hillsborough’s chief to run for Orange County sheriff.
Birkhead has worked as a safety and security consultant since 2012. Before then, he served as associate vice president of safety and security at Queens University in Charlotte from 2010 until 2012.
Andrews, who was appointed sheriff in 2011 by a retiring Worth Hill, was seeking his second full term. He has been with the Durham County’s Sheriff’s Office since 1979.
Omar Beasley, chairman of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, called Birkhead’s election “huge.”
“It is history first and foremost,” Beasely said. “It is history. We haven’t had any major landmarks like that take place in Durham in a while.”
With Birkhead’s new position come expectations for him to follow through on promises that included a progressive approach to law enforcement that seeks to reduce gun violence, make immigrant communities feel safer, increase the diversity of the Sheriff’s Office, reduce the number of people and improve the conditions in the county jail.
Birkhead has also said he would de-prioritize misdemeanor marijuana arrests and not honor immigration detainers, which are requests to hold someone for 48 hours after they would otherwise be released, such as after posting bail, so that federal agents can take them into custody.
Former Durham Mayor Bill Bell said Birkhead’s election is a continuation of diversity in the community, pointing to the 2016 appointment of C.J. Davis as the city’s first African-American woman police chief.
It’s a little different because Davis was appointed by the city manager, but Birkhead’s election shows “who the community is willing to elect.”