Who will be the next Wake County District Attorney?

The Wake County Courthouse is in a buzz over the decision by seven-term District Attorney Colon Willoughby to not seek re-election this year. Willoughby has been a fixture in the Wake County legal community and North Carolina politics. Generations of prosecutors and defense attorneys have worked in a courthouse shaped largely by Willoughby.

The question now becomes who will throw their names in the hat for this year’s election.

The minimum qualifications to be the elected District Attorney in North Carolina give some guidance. The District Attorney must be an attorney duly authorized to practice law in North Carolina courts (Art. IV, Sec. 18 of the North Carolina Constitution). The District Attorney may not engage in the private practice of law while in office. The District Attorney must be 21 years of age and a registered voter, and otherwise eligible to vote for the office filed for (North Carolina State Board of Elections).

Candidates file their paperwork with the North Carolina Board of Elections (as opposed to the Wake County Board) between February 10, 2014 and February 28, 2014, along with a $1,207 filing fee. In lieu of the filing fee, the candidate can supply a signature list of registered voters supporting his or her candidacy.

In addition, regular campaign finance reports need to be made. A person cannot switch parties within 90 days of filing for candidacy. A person can run as an unaffiliated candidate. Unlike judicial elections, which are putatively non-partisan, the District Attorney is a partisan race with candidates running as Democratic or Republican.

Colon Willoughby, as is true of many politicians of his generation, ran as a Democrat, which is not to say he is a liberal, but simply to say that, with the exception of federal elections, the Democratic Party dominated North Carolina state politics for 100 years since the 1890s.

Beyond these qualifications, what would I expect from this election?

Colon Willoughby ran unopposed the last several times out, so we can’t learn a lot about a 2014 District Attorney race in Wake County from recent local history.

A lot of lawyers are talking about particular lawyers, assistant district attorneys, or judges who might be well known around the courthouse. This is probably misguided.

While it’s an off year election, it’s still a partisan election, so unlike a judicial election in which party is obscured by the fact that judges technically run non-partisan campaigns, voters will be able to see a (D) or an (R) next to the general election District Attorney candidate. Party will matter a lot more, even if straight-ticket voting, a key to the Democratic Party’s stranglehold on state elections since 1925, was ended in 2013.

First, I expect a Republican candidate will have a better chance. (I’m a Republican and the former vice president of the Goldwater Institute, but that’s really irrelevant to this discussion.)


This is an off-year election in which we have a Democratic president. President Obama doesn’t have awful poll numbers – right now he’s polling at 41 percent – but typically the president’s party takes a hit, especially in the second term, as the opposing party’s voters come out in stronger numbers, and his own party’s voters, demoralized by his failure to accomplish a lot, stay home.

President Obama got 54.94 percent of the vote to Mitt Romney’s 43.50 percent of the vote in 2012 in Wake County. Obama did better in Wake County than nationally, where the split was 51 to 47 percent in favor of Obama.

But, Holding (Rep.) beat Malone (Dem.) and McCrory (Rep.) edged out Dalton (Dem.). Wake County is a classic swing county with a lot of moderate Republicans who could be persuaded to vote for Obama over Romney, but who otherwise would pick a Republican congressman (Holding) in an open seat and who voted for McCrory who positioned himself as a moderate technocratic candidate who had done good things for Charlotte.

These are the same types of Republicans will vote against Obama’s party this fall. Consequently, they will also pick a Republican over a Democrat in local races that are open.

So my guess is that the next Wake County DA is a Republican. The Republican will have to win a primary, which in an off-year is going to be dominated by party loyalists. Since these are low turnout elections, someone who has done work in local politics, or who is willing to ramp up quickly in local party politics will be able to get the party diehards to support him or her.

That person could be a sitting judge with experience in law enforcement or prosecution. That person could also be a former local politicians who perhaps was the mayor. Someone who has a successful practice may have a tough time walking away from it, which cuts out a good chunk of the private bar.

The person is also going to have to raise some money? How much?

Durham County’s races in 2006 involved modest amounts – $10,000 to $20,000 which seems like a paltry amount. If you can’t raise more than $20,000, how can you be expected to run an office with 40-odd ADAs and millions in budget?

Raising money is a test that says, yes, I’m capable of going out there and managing a campaign, and getting people to support me, and getting things done.

I can’t imagine running a campaign on $20,000 in a million person county where buying ad time can make the difference. You’d want to go out and raise a quarter of a million, which isn’t a lot, but enough to put on some ads.

Charlotte’s Republican District Attorney Andrew Murray raised about $200,000 in 2010.

So, who will be the next Wake County DA? My guess is a Republican attorney (duh!) with some law enforcement or criminal law background (probably a prosecutor, but may be a former prosecutor in the private bar) who can raise a quarter of a million dollars. Age does not matter. Colon Willoughby took the office in his late 20s on an appointment.

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.