PENDER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Primary election day in Pender County is May 8 and the Pender County Sheriff Republican race is competitive with seven candidates vying for the position.
A primary election is to narrow down the Republican and Democratic candidates to just one for each political party in advance of the general election.
The current Pender County Sheriff, Carson H. Smith Jr., has held the position for 16 years. Smith was first elected in 2002, and he is not running for re-election this cycle.
Lawrence Fennel is the only Democratic candidate for Pender County Sheriff, so he automatically advances to the general election.
If you are not registered to vote and did not register at least 25 days in advance of this election, you can register and vote at the same time during the early voting time period, which runs April 19 – May 5.
The seven Republican sheriff candidates are listed below in alphabetical order. WECT interviewed each candidate on-camera about their qualifications, goals as sheriff, and what they believe sets them apart.
Brown cites his experience in law enforcement, public relations, and administration as qualifications for sheriff.
"I've got 23 years as a sworn law enforcement officer with Pender County. I've also got 38 years public relations. I've got 30 years of fixed operations management," said Brown. "And most importantly, I've got 28 years of financial budgets and planning. And to make sure I'm a good steward of your taxpayer's money, that will help me a lot."
If elected sheriff, Brown promises to be accessible to citizens.
"One of the biggest things I'll bring to the office is I will be a visible, working sheriff," said Brown. "If someone wants to talk to the sheriff, they'll get the sheriff. If they can't come to me, I'll go to them."
Brown points to his 23 years with the Pender County Sheriff's Office, saying he has never desired to work in another agency.
"I love this county. I love the people of this county, I've been working for them for 23 years and I want to continue working for them," said Brown.
Burton believes his experience working in law enforcement, fire, and EMS qualify him to work as sheriff.
"With a professional career background in public service, EMS, law enforcement, and fire rescue -- what I would say is my last six years of my career has uniquely developed me to step into the role of sheriff on day one," said Burton. "Your sheriff is an administrator...I've got the budget experience, administrative, personnel, oversight…I feel confident that the other candidates don't have that senior level of administrative experience that I do."
If elected sheriff of Pender County, Burton plans to hire more uniform patrol officers, address the opioid epidemic, and increase school safety.
"The top priority if I'm honored to be the next sheriff of Pender County would be expand the uniform patrol division," said Burton "Pender county is exponentially growing, so we want to have our uniform patrol folks to grow and expand as the population grows."
"Everyone is dealing with the opioid problem," said Burton. "I want to develop more personnel in the division of narcotics to focus on manufacturing, trafficking, the large drug dealers. With the emphasis on understanding that families still deal with the opioid problem, with the addiction."
Burton said he has three young grandchildren in Pender County schools and their safety is paramount.
"I retired specifically for the reason to run for sheriff. It demands that kind of time and commitment," said Burton. "And that's what I want to do for the citizens of Pender County. I want to make Pender County a little better than I found it when I finally retire."
Cina cites his education and experience in law enforcement, teaching, and community involvement as strong points in his candidacy for sheriff.
"I have an associate's and a bachelor's degree in criminal justice...I spent 17 years of full-time law enforcement locally in the Wilmington Police Department and the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office," Cina explained. "I spent a decade teaching law enforcement not just to the police academy, but also to the detention officer school."
Cina said he has served on the Juvenile Crime Prevention Committee, the Tourism Development Authority Board, and the Cape Fear Fair and Expo Board.
If elected sheriff, Cina said he will focus on increasing community involvement which would help address the school safety and the opioid epidemic.
"The top two issues in our community obviously are the opioid epidemic. And obviously are the school safety issues," said Cina. "But the first thing that I would address which would help me with both of these issues is our community involvement. I'm looking at several volunteer programs as a citizens academy and veterans on patrol."
Cutler said his experience in law enforcement with the Pender County Sheriff's Office and the NC State Highway Patrol qualifies him to lead as sheriff.
"I have a little over 27 years of full-time law enforcement experience," said Cutler. "The majority of my law enforcement career has been right here in Pender County. I have worked the road here in Pender County for the majority of my career. I know the county. I know the people in the county. I would like to be their people sheriff, their community sheriff."
If elected sheriff, Cutler said he plans to address school safety and the opioid epidemic.
"I think the number one concern from the community that I have learned in the recent months is the opioid crisis that we have going on in our community," said Cutler. "I would like to create awareness programs to attack this problem. Step up enforcement and also assist in some recovery programs as well."
Cutler said the community is concerned with school safety, and he wants to increase the number of school resource officers in Pender County schools.
"I would also like to see more multi-agency and community training exercises going on," said Cutler. "Maybe even on a Saturday, to get teachers, principals, fire department, law enforcement agencies to come in and even students, to stage some mock exercises."
Spivey said his ability to relate to people, consistency and relatively young age (30) are factors that qualify him for sheriff.
"I've never wanted to leave law enforcement, I've always wanted to progress throughout my career. I think that that is one of the biggest things is how consistent are you going to be. And also you've got to look at the willingness to lead," said Spivey. "You've got to be able to relate to everybody. And I think that's where I'm really going to hit home at is I can relate to both sides and all ages and all generations."
Spivey said if he is elected sheriff he would increase the number of SRO positions, increase school safety, address the opioid epidemic, and focus on training.
"We are fighting with the opioid issue we have all over the place. I think training is going to be big with the opioid issue. You can never learn enough about the drug problem that we have," said Spivey.
"We've also got to look more into school safety," said Spivey. "We can put a body as far as a law enforcement officer into schools, but also we've got that training point too. I think you've got to have that tactical mindset, you've got to be able to eliminate that threat."
Stokes said his law enforcement experience and time as a school resource officer qualify him to work as sheriff.
"I've worked for the sheriff's office for seven years. April 20 made my seventh year. I've worked in the school resource officer aspect of the sheriff's office," said Stokes. "Before that, I'm a licensed electrician, and I did electrical work."
The opioid epidemic, jail overcrowding, school and church safety, officer training, mental health, and community relations are all issues that Stokes pledges to address if he were elected sheriff.
"The opioid crisis now is a big issue. We've got a narcotics unit. I'd like to increase the number of that unit," said Stokes. "We've got one K9 for the whole county now. I want to increase the number of K9 units we have."
Stokes said a drug court, highway drug patrols could help to deal with drug problems.
"I think the drug court would get [drug users] into court-mandated rehab and drug testing for a lengthy period of time versus putting them in jail and letting them get out and they're still addicted to their drug," said Stokes.
"I think training for our school resource officers is a big deal. Especially dealing with active shooter training. I'm CIT certified," said Stokes. "Dealing with mental illness in the schools…suicide awareness, my school I've had, in my 7 years, probably 5 kids commit suicide. I think that's a big thing."
Stokes said social media transparency can help the sheriff's office publicize new hires, ask for the public's help in finding suspects, and publicizing community events.
To train officers, Stokes hopes to send deputies to highway patrol driving school and increase firearms training.
"When we qualify, that's our firearms training once a year," said Stokes. "I think that needs to be upped. We need to practice more and get more time on the range, four times a year or even more."
Ward points to his experience in law enforcement and as a county commissioner as qualifications for sheriff.
"I'm currently with the sheriff's office now. And my experience with the sheriff's office 20 years – July will be 20 years," said Ward. "One of the greatest experiences I've had was working within the commissioners. I was elected as a commissioner of Pender County years back."
Ward said he would focus on improving patrol response times, organizing the sheriff's office internal organization, and increasing law enforcement salaries.
"One of the first things I would like to do is internal housekeeping," said Ward. "Currently right now, we are understaffed. We need more personnel."
"Our salary is becoming an issue and we have to look at incentives to keep our personnel to make sure they don't receive the training and move elsewhere," said Ward.
"One of the things I would say that makes me the best candidate is that right now I'm working with the sheriff's office," said Ward. "One thing I can see is it's good to know what's going on in day-to-day operations. You have a big area to cover and with the limited resources you have. Sometimes that puts a barrier on things you want to do."