Ola Lewis says ‘political gamesmanship’ influenced her decision to run for chief justice
RALEIGH, NC (WECT) – Judge Ola Lewis of Brunswick County said "political gamesmanship" influenced her surprising decision to run for the top seat on the state's top court, though she wouldn't elaborate about the accusation during her first interview since entering the race on the last day of the filing period.
Lewis, a Republican, announced last year that she would challenge sitting Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, in a race that, while technically non-partisan, is certainly influenced by party politics.
But when, Republican Mike Robinson, a Triad attorney, entered the race, the three candidates faced the prospect of a May primary, with the two top vote getters advancing to the November general election.
"Well there was some very careful thought and consideration about my qualifications in the seats that were available. Some would call some political gamesmanship had taken place," Lewis said. "I just decided to weigh my options and my qualifications and decided not to engage in a primary."
Instead, Lewis, Brunswick County's senior resident superior court judge, filed for chief justice against fellow Republican Mark Martin, who as senior associate justice, is the second highest ranking member of the Supreme Court.
Martin was expected to be unopposed, and Lewis' challenge hasn't been warmly received by some Republicans.
WECT obtained a copy of an email 2nd District GOP Chair Joyce Cotton sent Lewis "un-inviting" her to the district's convention next month.
"Unfortunately, you have made a last minute decision that has deceived many of the voters across North Carolina," Cotton wrote.
"I did not deceive voters," Lewis said in an interview. "I will respectfully remind voters that the office of chief justice is an open seat."
But filing for the open seat has left Lewis open to scrutiny.
Rick Henderson, editor of the conservative Carolina Journal, points out that more than a hundred donors gave Lewis nearly $64,000 last year, before her decision to switch races. And she can use that money in her race against Martin.
"They gave money for her thinking she was going to run for one seat and suddenly she comes along and is running for another one," Henderson said. "It wouldn't surprise me - unless she does some really good explaining to them - that someone might actually file a complaint against her."
Lewis said she would return money to any donors who felt mislead.
"Most of the contributions that have come into my coffers were by individuals who know me, love me and support me," she said. "It was not about the seat. It was about me, the individual."
In addition to questions about fundraising, Lewis will have to respond to skepticism about her qualifications.
"The office of chief justice is not a starter position," Mark Martin said in an interview. "There is a steep learning curve for members of the court."
"I am in no way a starter candidate," Lewis said. "I have served this great state as a judge for 21 years."
But Lewis' experience on the bench has been in district and superior court, positions Martin says are fundamentally different from Supreme Court justice.
"History has shown, and recent experience would suggest, that you really want to have someone who leads the court who actually worked on the Supreme Court and learned how it operates," Martin said.
Martin provided a letter from the North Carolina Supreme Court Historical Society stating "there has never been a chief justice elected to the North Carolina Supreme Court without having first served as associate justice of the Court."
But Lewis stressed Martin's rise to chief justice isn't a foregone conclusion.
"I certainly hope my opponent does not feel entitled to be chief justice merely because he has served on a court that continues to decline in productivity," Lewis said.
A factor that could influence the race: current Chief Justice Sarah Parker has to step down in August when she reaches the mandatory retirement age.
Traditionally governors appoint the senior associate justice to serve temporarily as chief. In this case, Martin would be next in line.
Some believe the appointment would provide him an advantage just months before the election, but Martin says "history is inconclusive" on the issue.
"Well I'm certainly not in a position to tell the governor what to do, and I just trust that he will make a fair decision in that situation," Lewis said when asked about the appointment.
A spokesman for Gov. Pat McCrory said his office doesn't comment on appointments, leaving another unknown in a race that's already generating plenty of questions.
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