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Wide-open race for district attorney in 2014

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey publicly announced plans to retire next year when his current term of office expires. Bonfoey has been the lead prosecutor for the seven western counties for 10 years, directing a team of 10 assistant district attorneys.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Bill Jones has dropped out of the race after his initial announcement.

In the legal community, it’s been known for at least a year that Bonfoey would most likely step down after serving out his current term, but it had not been publicly confirmed by Bonfoey until now. Bonfoey announced his pending retirement in a letter to the chair of the Haywood County Democratic Party, Janie Benson, to read at the party’s annual fall rally held in Canton last Saturday.

Two candidates have already stepped forward: Jim Moore, an assistant district attorney from Waynesville, and Bill Jones, a former assistant district attorney now in private practice, also from Waynesville. Both had planned to run for some time, but Bonfoey’s recent announcement cleared the way for Moore and Jones to make public their own intentions to run.

Both Moore and Jones are Democrats and will face off in the May primary, with a final election in November against any Republican opponent. More candidates for the open district attorney post will likely emerge between now and the candidate sign-up period in February.

Prior to Bonfoey, the district attorney was Charlie Hipps, who held the post from 1990 to 2003, when he died unexpectedly from a heart attack. Bonfoey was named as Hipps’ replacement by then-Gov. Mike Easley and subsequently ran for the seat in 2006 and 2010. 

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Jones was an assistant district attorney for Hipps when Hipps passed away. Despite being out of law school for just a few years at the time, Jones was seen as a rising star in the prosecutor’s office. He went straight to work for Hipps promptly after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill law school and was being groomed as an eventual successor to Hipps. When Hipps passed away, Jones put his name in the ring for the appointment.

When Bonfoey got the nod instead of Jones, Bonfoey offered to let him stay on, Jones said. But Jones opted for private practice.

In hindsight, spending the past 10 years as an attorney in private practice, including as a criminal defender, has been a good thing, Jones said.

“I’ll be honest with you, I think I am much more qualified now. Any district attorney should have been on both sides. I think I understand the whole system now that I have defended as well as prosecuted,” Jones said. “Now is the appropriate time for me to run.”

Originally from Sylva, Jones, 41, is married with two children, 7 and 3 years of age. His wife is a supervisor at the Haywood County Department of Social Services.

Jones said he has always intended to run for the district attorney position again one day. But the time wasn’t right until now.

“First of all, life comes along. I got married. We had babies,” Jones said.

Jones said he believes he can bring efficient and effective leadership to the prosecutor’s office. 

“My reason for wanting to be district attorney is to seek justice. There’s no other right answer to that question in my opinion,” Jones said.

Moore, like Jones, has spent his legal career as a prosecutor and defender —15 years as an assistant district attorney and 12 years in various private legal practices in Waynesville, including a joint practice at one point with his wife, who is also an attorney. Moore worked as an assistant district attorney under Hipps from 1990 to 1996, when he returned to private practice to have a more flexible schedule.

“My kids needed me to be around to coach their ball teams,” Moore said. 

But Moore returned to the prosecutor’s office once more in 2003 when Bonfoey was appointed district attorney. Moore and Bonfoey are long-time friends — Bonfoey is godfather to Moore’s daughter. Moore, 52, is married and has three children: one in high school, one in college and one out of college.

He is originally from Arkansas but followed his wife back to Western North Carolina after law school in 1986. His wife now works for Legal Services as a civil attorney for victims of domestic violence.

Moore said he sees the legal profession in general and the role of district attorney in particular, as a way to help others.

“I’ve seen how the DA can help the community by prosecuting people justly and appropriately,” Moore said.

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