District Attorney race: No rest for the weary
Few put as much thought into their to-go morning coffee as Jim Moore.
Most of us grab whatever’s on the way, whatever’s cheapest, or whatever brew we like the best.
But in the eight-week countdown to Election Day, nothing’s that simple anymore for Moore.
“I try to get my coffee everywhere so no one misses me for too long and wonders why I haven’t been in lately,” Moore said. Holding up his still steaming cup, Moore explained his pick that morning had been Duvall’s diner in Waynesville, where a group of Friday regulars are known to loaf over breakfast, giving him the chance to shake a few hands.
Meanwhile, Ashley Welch is a creature of habit. Breakfast at the same spot each morning. A Diet Pepsi at the same gas station when traveling between counties. But now, her rapport with the cashiers over the years has come full circle.
“There will be someone in line behind me and they say ‘Hey guys, you need to vote for her.’ They even put my cards out and use my pens,” Welch said.
The race between Welch and Moore for district attorney is shaping up to be one of the most-watched and hardest-fought races of the election season. And they have the campaign schedule to prove it.
Several times a week, they crisscross the seven mountain counties in a never-ending quest to see and be seen.
“It is an insane schedule. You really find out what you are made of. It feels like to me I am running a marathon,” Welch said.
It’s a daunting district for campaigning. It’s so spread out, it takes a full day of driving to make a circuit through all seven counties. Throw in side-trips to a far-flung corner or two, and it’s a sun-up to sun-down endeavor to reach voters.
“I am actually the model for the Energizer bunny. I have a little slot in my back for batteries,” Moore joked.
When the two were hunting for dates to appear at a candidate forum together, the pickings were slim. So they had to turn to a Sunday, the only day they take a break from campaigning — for now.
“Sunday afternoon was the only day she and I both take off and weren’t already booked,” Moore said. It will now go down in local history as the first candidate forum hosted on a Sunday.
Welch and Moore aren’t only up against the geographic challenge of a sprawling district.
“The majority of people don’t have a reason to be in the courthouse, so for most people district attorneys aren’t on their radar,” Moore said. “Unless you have an opportunity to go out and explain what a district attorney is, a lot of people don’t understand why it’s important.”
Moore makes a habit of scanning bulletin boards at the post office, checking flyers people have posted.
“It snowballs to where there is literally something you could do every day and every night, and most of the time multiple events,” Moore said.
Moore has been in campaign mode for nearly two years, having announced publicly his intentions to run for DA in 2012.
“It is going to a lot of events and meeting a lot of people and frankly with a full-time job it is hard to get to that number of people. So that’s why I started early, to be able to get to that and still do my job,” Moore said. “It is two full-time jobs.”
Despite the labor-intensive campaign, both candidates say their day jobs as assistant district attorneys still come first, and they aren’t shirking their work, although it is often sandwiched between morning meet-and-greets, mid-day lunches and evening engagements.
“I am confident that neither she nor I have changed our schedules for trial because of our running for office,” Moore said.
“When we are campaigning crime doesn’t stop,” Welch said. “I am still on call 24 hours a day. I have actually had to step out of campaign events in the evening to field phone calls, and they aren’t calling about little stuff. It’s homicides, rapes, arson … things of that nature. That has not stopped.”
It means every campaign event she commits to comes with a caveat.
“There is always a chance I have to back out of some campaign event because I have to go respond to a crime scene,” Welch said.
Moore likewise said the call of duty has pulled him off the campaign trail.
“It happened this week. I had planned to be at Hands Across the Borders, a three-state check point,” Moore said.
But a loaded court docket in Haywood County district court kept him tied up until well after 5 p.m. processing cases.
“I could have said, ‘Let’s continue this one, let’s continue that one’ to get out of there, but I didn’t,” Moore said, adding that Welch had been able to make the event.
So far, the two have kept the race friendly, at least as far as races go. They are both in similar assistant prosecutor roles these days, which is running point on the major crimes and big cases throughout the seven western counties.
“A lot of the big trials in the past couple years specifically she and I did together,” Moore said.
The district attorney has 11 assistant prosecutors and gets to pick their own team. When asked whether they would let the other stay on if they won, both were hesitant to say. Moore said with eight weeks still to go in the election, it’s hard to say what turns it might take. And, the losing candidate may not want to stay on board, even if it was offered, Moore said.
Welch said it was too soon to start making promises about who would serve on her assistant prosecutor team. She’s fielded numerous propositions from attorneys asking for a job if she won, and said those decisions will all come later.
“That kind of puts the cart before the horse,” Welch said.
Since they work in the same field — encountering the same peers in the court room, law enforcement circles and the legal community — they try to leave their campaigns at the door. They say they don’t want politics to be a distraction for their own coworkers or make anyone they work with feel awkward.
“When we are in the courtroom we aren’t campaigning. We are doing our job,” Moore said.
A rare situation
It’s unique — rare even — for two assistant prosecutors to be pitted against each other in a contested district attorney’s race. Usually, the district attorney is running for re-election himself or has a hand-picked protégé coming along behind him.
Should another assistant prosecutor emerge from the ranks to run, they would promptly be shown the door.
In this race, however, District Attorney Mike Bonfoey isn’t running himself and isn’t picking sides, at least not publicly.
Bonfoey said he hasn’t let Welch or Moore slide with a lighter load.
“Their campaigns aren’t interfering with their work,” Bonfoey said.
Bonfoey can sympathize, however, having been in their shoes once.
“When you have an election and a full-time job, it’s like two full-time jobs. It is tough going to work all day and then going out campaigning at night,” said Bonfoey, recalling a contested D.A.’s race he had in 2006.
It’s a particularly bad time for the two heavy-hitters in the prosecutors’ office to be pre-occupied. There are 15 murder cases pending in the seven western counties at the moment.
That’s more murders on the docket than anyone in the legal system can remember in recent history.
It’s not because there’s a backlog, per se. It’s due more to a high number of murders committed in the past three years.
As his two best prosecutors, the murder cases would typically fall to Welch and Moore, either as the lead prosecutor or in an assistant’s role.
But none have come to trial this year, and won’t for the next two months. That apparently wasn’t an attempt to keep Moore’s or Welch’s caseload light, however. Three murder cases had tentatively been planned for trial this year, but all were delayed for other reasons — namely delays in getting forensics back from the state crime lab or the need for additional time by the defense, Bonfoey said.
No room for politics
Balancing their real job with campaigning isn’t the only challenge Moore and Welch face. Running for office while in a high-profile job — one where you’re rendering decisions in emotional cases where lives are at stake — takes a strong constitution.
“People are going to try to put pressure on you to make a decision because you are running for office. You have to be able to withstand the pressure of it,” Welch said. “You have to have the strength to be able to separate it. You have to know when you go to work in the morning you are there to do your job.”
Nonetheless, the questions are there, like white noise always in the background. If you make a plea deal, will you look soft on crime? If you take a case to trial to look tough, what if the gamble fails and the criminal gets off? Do you dismiss a case for fear it will bomb and make you look bad?
“I still make the same calls I would make if I wasn’t running for office,” Moore said. “I make no decision based on politics. Never have and never will. Those have to be completely separate and distinct things.”
Welch said those are issues a prosecutor faces regardless of being on the campaign trail.
“I have never looked at a decision and thought ‘Boy, how is this going to look?’ I always make the best decision I can make at the time for a case,” Welch said. “At the end of the day I have to be able to sleep with the decision I make.”
Meet the candidates
A candidate forum with District Attorney candidates Jim Moore and Ashley Welch will be held from 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, at the Colonial Theater in Canton. It is the only candidate forum currently scheduled in this race. Sponsored by Drugs in our Midst and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Check the ‘Political’ section of The Smoky Mountain News calendar weekly for more election season forums, debates and candidate appearances.