If the Guilford County Board of Elections members want to play golf together, they finally have a full foursome after two new members were sworn in at a quickly called “emergency” meeting on Thursday, March 29 – but it’s unlikely they’ll be playing golf anytime soon because they now have a ton of work to do.
At the meeting, in addition to getting two new members – Republican Eugene Lester and Democrat T. Anthony Spearman – the board also got a new chairman. Jim Kimel, a Democrat, took over that role from former Chairman Kathryn Lindley, a Republican. It wasn’t a power grab or political jousting on the part of the local board members; it was simply the fact that the new state board of elections’ interpretation of state law led that board to instruct county boards to elect a Democrat chairman to serve from now until July – the month when a new chairman will be elected.
Lindley explained the situation to the board: The chairman’s terms starts and ends in July and the state board has determined a Democrat should serve out the remainder of the current fiscal year. At that time, the board will name a Republican chair for a year.
“The state board has said to us, even though we’re only now appointing for the months of April, May, June, and until we have a meeting in July, we should still hold to that [calendar] and appoint a Democratic chairman,” she said.
Lindley then nominated Kimel – the obvious choice since he’s the only Democratic member who isn’t brand new to the elections board.
In years when the chairman is a Democrat, the vice chairman must be a Republican, and vice versa. After Kimel was voted chairman, Lindley was unanimously voted vice chair.
Kimel began running the meeting but it became clear Lindley was too used to doing so to stop. During one vote she jumped in and took over the process out of reflex. She apologized to Kimel and joked, “You’re gonna have to tell me to be quiet.”
Guilford County Board of Elections Director Charlie Collicutt was apologetic to the new board members because, immediately after they were sworn in, he got right down to business. Some items, he said, were time sensitive. The elections office had only given about 24 hours notice of the March 29 meeting. Unless a meeting is an emergency meeting – as it was – the public must be notified at least 48 hours in advance.
The Guilford County elections board, which had been out of commission for about a month, was already in violation of state statute because it had yet to schedule hearings for three residency challenges made against candidates running in the 2018 election. Two candidates for the North Carolina House of Representatives District 59 race seat – state Rep. Jon Hardister and Democratic candidate Steve Buccini – have had their residency challenged. Hardister has a May 8 primary against Mark McDaniel and Karen Albright. Michael Garrett, the Democratic Senate District 27 candidate running against District 27 State Sen. Trudy Wade in November, is also facing a challenge. Their accusers have submitted affidavits stating the reasons they believe those candidates don’t live in the districts they’re running in. If that turns out to be the case, they would be ineligible to serve as the representative for those districts. The Guilford County elections board has the job of determining if there’s any merit to the claims.
“We have received three challengers of candidates that this board does need to take up,” Collicutt told the four board members in the Blue Room in the Old Guilford County Court House.
He said the hearings for those cases were supposed to be scheduled within five days of receipt of that challenge but added that of course that wasn’t possible.
“You could not do that without a quorum,” Collicutt said.
In light of that fact, the state board of elections – which is now the Bipartisan State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement – sent instructions for the Guilford County board to address the matters “with due haste,” which is what they did. The board voted to approve a schedule that includes eight meetings between the March 29 meeting and the May 8 primary.
The two brand new members – Lester and Spearmen – both said after the meeting that they are excited to be on the board and are looking forward to serving. However, with the intense schedule before them including several hearings, the new members may be wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into. Ordinarily, new members would have months before making decisions in the heat of an elections process. But this board will be playing catch-up for a while since legal battles over the nature of the state elections board have kept many county boards, including Guilford County’s, on ice at a time when those boards are needed to pick voting sites, approve ballots, hear challenges and perform many other functions related to holding an election.
Lester and Spearman were each the top picks of their respective parties to fill the empty slots on the board. The state’s elections and ethics enforcement board appoints members to county boards – usually going with the recommendations of county parties. However, since the state board is brand new with nine new members, no one was sure if that board would honor the wishes of county party officials this time around. But when the state board met and took action on Tuesday, March 29, it took the top choices for all counties across the state to fill empty seats.
Several Democratic leaders said they were very pleased with the appointment of Spearman, a major civil rights activist who’s the current president of the North Carolina NAACP as well as a minister with St. Phillip AME Zion Church in Greensboro. In 2011, he was named the North Carolina NAACP’s Minister of the Year.
Spearman has a bachelor of science degree summa cum laude from Mercy College in Yonkers, New York, and a master of divinity degree from Hood Theological Seminary in Salisbury. He also has a doctor of ministry from the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and he’s proficient in several languages.
Spearman has also worked as a substance abuse counselor at prisons and colleges.
In August of 2016, when the Guilford County Board of Elections was determining early voting hours and some citizens feared the board would limit those hours too much, there was a giant protest in the commissioners meeting room of the Old Guilford County Court House, and Spearman was front and center fighting for expanded voting hours. It’s interesting that he’s now a member of the board that he was protesting two years ago.
Republicans in the county seem very pleased with Lester as their new representative on the board. He’s an attorney who’s handled jury trials in state and federal courts, and has argued cases in the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. He has experience in many types of law including domestic disputes, commercial litigation, personal injury and wrongful death claims. He has also served as a federal criminal defense lawyer.
Before joining the Greensboro-based law firm of Sharpless & Stavola, Lester clerked for Judge P. Trevor Sharp of the Middle District of North Carolina. He earned his law degree from the Wake Forest University School of Law in 1996 after getting his undergraduate degree from Binghamton University in New York State. There he studied business management with a concentration in East Asian studies.
Lester said one goal he has for the board is to make sure election law is implemented fairly and correctly. He said that, in this day and age especially, elections must be handled in a way that is “beyond reproach.”
As for being hit with everything all at once as a new board member, Lester said he’s not worried about it.
“I’m a quick study,” he said.
Collicutt said after the meeting that he’s very glad to have a fully functioning county elections board once again because there’s a lot of business to address for the upcoming election.
Kimel said after the meeting that he had enjoyed being vice chair because he could sit off to the side and watch things unfold without having to run the meeting. Now he’ll have to run those meetings.
“I’m always vice chair of everything,” he said.
Kimel also said that, now that he’s chairman, he would return calls from the media. In the past he has always let the chairman speak for the board.
“I guess I have to now,” he said of returning calls from reporters.