In northwest Wake County, five attorneys have been knocking on doors, going to forums and meet-and-greets, sending out email blasts and using social media to let voters know a Superior Court election is happening.
In Wake County’s judicial District 10C, a northern region of the county that includes Rolesville, Wake Forest and the area around Falls Lake, voters will see more than just congressional and state Supreme Court races on their June 7 primary ballots.
Five candidates are vying for the Wake Superior Court seat that became vacant at the start of the year, when Judge Paul Gessner stepped down from the bench with seven years left in his term to provide legal counsel to the Wake County Sheriff’s Office.
Gessner’s job move triggered a special election, giving potential candidates until early February to file for the nonpartisan race.
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The candidates, in the order their names will appear on the ballot, are:
▪ Rebecca “Becky” Holt, a Wake County assistant district attorney, who is registered as unaffiliated.
▪ Hoyt Tessener, a personal injury attorney with the firm Martin & Jones, who is registered as unaffiliated.
▪ Karlene “K” Turrentine, who practices municipal, business and administrative law with Turrentine Law Firm, who is a registered Democrat.
▪ Ronnie Ansley, an attorney and registered Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for a District Court seat in 2014.
▪ Michael Denning, a Wake County District Court judge and registered Republican who has served since 2010.
Early voting for the June 7 primary has begun and runs through June 4. Voters in the race will winnow the candidate field to two, who then vie for the one seat on the November ballot.
Even in a typical election, it can be difficult for judicial candidates to get their messages across to people who don’t work in the judicial system and have been able to steer clear of the courts.
But this year, with legal challenges to General Assembly laws and congressional districts, and a primary scheduled because of court rulings, the five candidates for the open Superior Court seat have found it even more challenging to explain to voters what’s at stake and when they cast ballots.
“While campaigning, I spend a lot of time explaining the race,” Holt said.
Judicial candidates, who typically refrain from talking about their stands on hot-button political issues, often sound similar on the campaign trail. Each talks about the need for impartiality, looking at each case and the facts associated with it and participating in a system in which justice is supposed to be blind to color, gender and partisan influence.
Many concerned about the courts, though, have said they worry about racial disparities, the influx of money from politically connected groups and a growing sense that partisan politics has infected the judicial system.
Holt and Turrentine are the only women seeking election to a Wake Superior Court bench that hasn’t had a female resident judge since 2005.
Both said they thought it was important to add a female perspective to the mix of Wake’s Superior Court judges.
“We as women have a distinct perspective,” Turrentine said, listing the ability to multi-task and knowing what it’s like to do the same jobs as male peers but receive lower pay.
“As a country, we’re highly divided on party lines, on color lines, on sex lines,” Turrentine said. “By bringing one of what we don’t have to the table will help our community.”
Voter registrations from the district show it leans slightly toward the Republican Party, with unaffiliated voters making up the next highest group, and Democrats just a few percentage points behind.
Holt, a prosecutor on the high-profile Jason Young and Ann Miller homicide cases, said she thinks her 27 years in the Wake County District Attorney’s Office gives her courtroom experience that would make it easy for her to quickly transition to the bench.
Ansley touted a number of experiences that distinguish him from his opponents – from his humble beginnings that led him to a dorm at N.C. State University, the first place he had an inside bathroom, to being a regular at the Wake County Courthouse practicing criminal, civil, juvenile and family law.
Before Denning became a district court judge, he was in private practice with Kieran Shanahan, a former member of Gov. Pat McCrory’s Cabinet. Earlier, Denning worked in the insurance industry for Michael Malone, the brother of Chris Malone, a Republican in the state House of Representatives. Chris Malone was on the Wake County school board when a Republican majority pushed for a school assignment plan that rankled the NAACP and others.
On Friday, several candidates said they discovered that when they did a Google search of their names, they often found a Google ad with their names at the start but that was linked to www.judgedenning.com.
Denning could not be reached for this story.
Tessener, a Raleigh resident, said he’s been practicing law for 27 years, most of it in Superior Court. He said voters often ask him his party affiliation, and when he tells them neither, they say they are worried the courts have become too partisan.
“They tell me they think all judges should be nonpartisan, and I tell them that’s what I am,” Tessener said.
There have been some rumblings on the campaign trail about Tessener renting an apartment in the district but having a home south of the residence near Cameron Park.
Tessener said when he found out that Gessner was leaving the bench early and a seat in the district would open up, he and his wife rented an apartment in the district with plans to find a house there.
Tessener has found voters to be perplexed about voting again so close to the March primaries.
“They say, ‘We just did that,’ ” Tessener said.
Rebecca “Becky” Holt
Education: Davidson College, bachelor’s degree, 1984; UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law, 1987
Professional experience: Prosecutor in the Wake County District Attorney’s Office since 1989; Associate with Yates, Fleishman, McLamb & Weyher, 1987-1989.
Education: N.C. State University, bachelor’s degree in textiles, 1983; Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law at Campbell University, 1988
Professional experience: Personal injury attorney with Martin & Jones for 24 years; associate at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, 1988-1992; worked at JP Stevens and Co. textile business from 1983-85
Karlene “K” Turrentine
Education: N.C. Central University, bachelor’s degree; N.C. Central University School of Law, 1998
Professional experience: Principal attorney at Turrentine Law Firm, has served as Warren County’s county attorney, clerked for Judge Robert C. Hunter at the N.C. Court of Appeals and was interim director of the Land Loss Prevention Project in Durham, a nonprofit law firm that protected farmer’s rights.
Education: N.C. State University, bachelor’s degree, 1984; Mississippi College School of Law, J.D., 1991
Career: Founded James R. Ansley law office, practices criminal, civil, juvenile and family law
Education: UNC-Chapel Hill, bachelor’s degree in English and Medieval History; Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law at Campbell University, 2007
Career: Wake County District Court judge since 2010; litigation associate with the Shanahan Law Group; case manager and field investigator with MJM Investigators in Wake County; Vance International Security as an Executive Protection Agent, U.S. Marine Corps, 1984-94