Former 16-year sheriff Donnie Harrison has greatly outfunded and outspent opponent Willie Rowe in the race for Wake County sheriff, campaign finance reports show.
Four years ago, Harrison, a Republican, also had the financial advantage overt his then-Democratic opponent, Gerald Baker.
But Baker pulled out an upset win, becoming part of a wave of Black sheriffs elected in North Carolina’s largest counties Baker gained big support from activists and Latino voters, mainly for his opposition to the federal 287(g) program, under which Harrison’s office collaborated with federal immigration officials to detain and deport immigrants for about a decade.
This year, Baker lost his party’s primary to Rowe, a retired major in the Wake County Sheriff’s Office. It sets up a rematch of the 2014 contest for sheriff, when Harrison defeated Rowe to win his fourth term.
How much money each campaign has
As of the most recent reporting period, Harrison’s campaign had raised five times as much money as Rowe and had roughly 15 times more cash available than Rowe heading into the race’s final months.
Here’s what filings for the most recent finance reporting period through June 30 show, according to the N.C. State Board of Elections.
Total contributions from individuals: Harrison received $348,577.93. Rowe received $67,263.72.
Total expenditures: Harrison spent $263,306.53. Rowe spent $58,673.60.
Cash on hand at end of reporting period: Harrison had $213,678.73. Rowe had $13,717.29.
In an interview, Harrison said he has needed that much money to effectively campaign in a county with 41% unaffiliated voters and where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans.
“This is such a large county,” the former sheriff said. “You got people moving here every day. And they don’t know who Donnie Harrison is.”
Wake County is the most populous in the state, and is part of the 13th Congressional District seen as a key 2022 battleground district. Combined with the state’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race, politicians are making robust voter-outreach efforts.
Harrison hopes that well-funded campaigning can get first-time voters to the polls to support him.
“That’s just politics: You can raise the money, get the message out, and you hope you get the voters out,” he said. “That’s the key is so many people don’t vote, they just won’t vote.”
Who donated to the candidates?
Notable Harrison donors include John Kane, CEO of Kane Realty Corp., who made a $2,500 contribution in the spring, and David Clancy, the retired president of Raleigh construction company, Clancy & Theys, who gave $1,000.
Kurt Lieberman, the owner of Tar River Arms, a large gun store in Wake Forest, also donated $1,000.
Former Wake County Sheriff’s Office employees have donated to him, as well as the Republican sheriffs of Sampson and Gaston counties.
Rowe received $5,600, the donation maximum, from former Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane.
Alan Bumgardner, assistant to the police chief of the Dunn Police Department, contributed several thousand dollars in separate donations.
Wake sheriff election finances
Over 23,000 more people voted in the May primary for the Democratic candidates for Wake sheriff than for the Republican candidates, according to the State Board of Elections.
Harrison believes he will get a boost from voters dissatisfied with Baker, who has been the subject of several lawsuits and a recent controversy regarding his actions in the aftermath of the August 11 killing of Ned Byrd, one of his deputies.
Harrison sailed through his primary, winning 80% of the vote in a three-person field. He said his campaign saved leftover money from his 2018 re-election campaign, but could not confirm how much. Filings from after the 2018 midterms show that his campaign had about $114,000 in leftover cash.
As for Rowe, his campaign spent about $60,000 trying to beat the incumbent in the May primary and then again in the July runoff.
He said he feels hopeful his campaign will be successful through messaging and volunteers, despite lacking his opponent’s capital.
“We’ve raised over $100,000 (so far). That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what Harrison has,” said Rowe. “But, I think, just enough to get us across the finish line. We would have liked to raise more. But at a time when people are going through financial hardships, I find it not in the best interest to be asking people to give us money.”
The money his campaign does have is getting put to use to reach voters, although the campaign will be “very thrifty” with how it’s spent, he said.
How 2018 Wake election played out
Just a few weeks out from the November 2018 midterms, Baker’s campaign had just over $3,400 in cash. His campaign raised just over $17,000 in the entire election.
Rowe shares the same progressive rhetoric as Baker on immigration, but he won’t be able to count on one source of support that rescued Baker’s campaign four years ago.
The ACLU of North Carolina spent over $100,000 airing radio ads that attacked Harrison’s use of the 287(g) program and accused him of “pushing Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda, tearing families apart and stoking racial tensions,” The N&O reported previously.
This effort helped push Baker across the finish line with nearly 55% of the vote that November.
The ACLU isn’t making the same investment in this race because its national office prioritized spending on political ads in the Wake District Attorney primary race criticizing incumbent Lorrin Freeman’s policies and record, Bowes said.
“We’re always trying to inform the voters, especially new voters, about the important policy positions of district attorneys and sheriffs, and that continues to be a priority,” said Bowes. “Anytime we can draw national investment we feel lucky and excited to do so, and even where we don’t have that large national investment, we are continuing to use the resources we do have at the state level to do the same kind of (outreach).”
The ACLU of NC recently published Wake County polling results from Public Policy Polling, which is affiliated with the Democratic Party, that paints Harrison’s policies unfavorably.
The group is also investing in mailers and other media distributed in Wake that scrutinizes the powerful role that sheriffs play in public policy and at the state legislature, Bowes said.
Recently, Harrison called 287(g) “obsolete” and said he won’t be reinstating it. He said that the county’s jail system now has a rigorous identity verification system, which he says is why he adopted the federal immigration program in 2008.
But the ACLU is publicly skeptical of Harrison because of his ties to the NC Sheriff’s Association, said Bowes.I The association has supported Republican legislation that would force local sheriffs to allow ICE officers to interview and detain individuals in jail.
In a joint statement with Latino advocacy nonprofit La Fuerza, Advance Carolina and Emancipate Votes, the ACLU of NC called Harrison’s reversal a “step in the right direction,” but said “we cannot forget the harm caused by policies he implemented when previously in office.”
The topic remains relevant in the race, having been discussed by the candidates in recent public forums. In one forum in Raleigh, Harrison did not declare his opposition to future legislation that mandates ICE collaboration, while Rowe did.
The election is Nov. 8. Early voting begins Oct. 20.