Wake County DA Race: Caretaker or Candidate?

Colon Willoughby will be stepping down from the post he has held for nearly three decades on March 31. For many people in the Wake County Justice Center, April 1 will be the first time they have ever worked with a District Attorney in the county other than Willoughby.

The discussion over hors d’oeuvres at Republican Jefferson Griffin’s well-attended fundraiser this evening centered around what Governor Pat McCrory might do. Several attendees in the know suggested that news of Willoughby’s early retirement caught McCrory’s office off-guard. It certainly came as a surprise to the courthouse.

In the next ten days, McCrory will appoint an acting District Attorney. McCrory has a choice between appointing a caretaker who is not a candidate and appointing a current candidate to the position.

Howard Cummings, who has been in the office since 1989 and serves as Willoughby’s first assistant, is an obvious choice to serve as a caretaker interim District Attorney. As Willoughby’s deputy, Cummings is a highly competent prosecutor who would keep the day-to-day business of the office out of politics during the seven month campaign until the November general election. Bill Pittman, a former special superior court judge who recently joined the office, would be another logical choice.

Willoughby essentially recommended the caretaker approach in his resignation letter to the governor earlier today.

Your selection of a district attorney to manage this office during the election cycle could demonstrate your sensitivity for keeping partisan politics out of the Wake County criminal justice system. Our office and the citizens of Wake County are proud of our history of accomplishing that goal.

Cummings echoed those thoughts, telling The News & Observer “I’d like to think whomever is appointed is someone who could promote stability through the rest of his term so the voters will be able to decide.”

There’s a lot to recommend such a course. Wake County’s court system has benefitted from a District Attorney who has largely remained out of partisan politics for nearly thirty years.

However, the governor might appoint one of the Republican candidates to the office, recognizing that doing so would give that candidate an advantage in the primary.

Why would the governor do this? Two reasons… First: to create an advantage over the strong likely Democratic nominee in Lorrin Freeman. Second: to avoid a rogue candidate in Allen Swaim from winning the Republican primary and the general election in a year that strongly favors the Republicans.

That leaves three Republican candidates for the governor to choose from: Griffin, a relatively young, strong campaigner who is felony assistant district attorney; Jeff Cruden, a felony assistant district attorney who has served in the office since the 1990s; and John Bryant who has been a private defense lawyer who has an uncertain ability to win elective office, having run and lost three campaigns for different elective offices in the past two decades.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.