A Republican leader seeking to protect party purity in judicial races hasn’t always had the “R” next to his name.
Harry Brown has represented Jones and Onslow counties in the state Senate since 2004 and is now the Republican majority leader. But in 2002, Brown ran for a state House seat as a Democrat, losing his primary race by 61 votes. He switched parties after that race.
Now, Democrats are accusing Brown of hypocrisy.
Brown is the primary sponsor of a bill that seeks party purity and could change what voters see on the ballot when they’re asked to elect a justice to the N.C. Supreme Court.
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There are three candidates: registered Republicans Barbara Jackson and Chris Anglin, and Democrat Anita Earls.
Brown’s bill would list a judicial candidate’s party affiliation as of 90 days prior to when they filed to run. That would strip Anglin of his Republican identity on the ballot, since he registered as a Republican in June.
Republicans suspect Anglin is a secret Democrat who seeks to split the Republican vote and secure a win for Earls, which would give liberals a 5-2 majority on the court. Brown was among the most vocal defenders of his bill on the Senate floor, accusing Democrats of not being “sincere.”
In a July 24 committee meeting, Democratic Sen. Terry Van Duyn asked Brown if his bill impugns motive — meaning, it leaves the legislature open to a potential lawsuit — since it would change the ballot appearance after candidates have already filed to run in the judicial election.
“I would say that this probably will correct some motive,” Brown responded.
“One of the key pieces that we as legislators should do is make sure someone doesn’t try to circumvent what we feel like is a fair election and circumvent what was intended law,” Brown said, noting that the 90-day rule already applies to legislators. “Maybe that’s taking place in the state and I think we wouldn’t be doing our duty if we didn’t address that issue.”
On Monday, N.C. Democratic Party spokesman Robert Howard accused Brown of being a hypocrite.
“Majority Leader Brown’s rambling speech (on the Senate floor) showed that the Republican hypocrisy knows no bounds,” Howard said.
“The reality is that legislative Republicans wanted to rig a Supreme Court race and launched whatever argument they could find — no matter how hypocritical — to try to distract from that,” he said.
Reasons for switching
Brown, for his part, said the criticism of him isn’t fair because the circumstances are different.
Brown switched parties because he felt the Republican Party cared more about small business owners, he said, and because he was livid the Onslow County Democratic Party supported his opponent in his Democratic primary. He owns a car dealership and had been president of the NC Automobile Dealers Association.
“As a business owner, I was leaning more Republican anyway. I was conservative,” he said. “My parents were registered Democrats and I was a registered Democrat. But, to be honest, I was voting for both Republicans and Democrats.”
Anglin registered as a Democrat when he launched his practice, his spokesman Perry Woods told the N&O on Monday.
“When he started his local practice, he did a lot of legal aid work, and felt the Democratic Party would be better for his clients, and he liked Obama, so he registered as a Democrat,” Woods said in an email. He did vote for McCrory in 2012, so obviously he wasn’t religious about it.”
Anglin has said he’s running for the NC Supreme Court as a “Constitutional Republican” who’s running to protect the judiciary. He hopes “to be a voice for the many disaffected, conservative, constitutional Republicans who believe the party has left them, and to make the point that partisan judicial elections are a mistake,” according to an op-ed published Monday in The Charlotte Observer.
Another reason Brown says his switch isn’t comparable to Anglin’s: timing.
Brown said he changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican “the day after the (primary) election” in 2002, and then waited two years to run again. Anglin, meanwhile, was a registered Democrat until June.
Asked how Anglin’s timing reflects ill will, Brown said, “I don’t think anyone has to explain it. I think it’s obvious.”
Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat, doesn’t think so.
“We have no basis for knowing what motivated him,” Van Duyn said in an interview on Tuesday, referring to Anglin.
“How can we say that just because he had been a Democrat that the only reason he changed his affiliation was to affect the election, and not because he sincerely believes that what Republicans are doing in the General Assembly is an affront to the judiciary?” she asked.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed Brown’s bill. The legislature, in which Republicans hold a supermajority, is expected to override Cooper’s veto later this week.
This is the first year in decades the party affiliation of judicial candidates will be included on the ballot.