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Swain sees three-way race for sheriff

With Election Day nearing, Odel Chastain seemed pretty relaxed. 

“I’m sitting on my porch with my feet thrown up, watching the deer,” Chastain said. 

That’s pretty calm, considering Chastain is making history, turning the Swain County Sheriff election into a three-way contest. He’s on the ballot as an unaffiliated candidate after gathering the required 412 signed petitions in June.

Rolling into September, Chastain still didn’t appear to be sweating the November election.

“It’s still two months away and people really ain’t interested,” he said. “Except the candidates.”

Chastain, too, is interested enough to be making the rounds. He’s going up against a two-term incumbent and what appears to be a capable Democrat challenger.

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“Like everyone else, I’ve left cards out everywhere,” Chastain said. 

Democrat candidate Chuck McMahan has also been out beating the campaign trail. And he’s liked the reception so far. 

“Everywhere we’ve went the feedback has been nothing but positive,” McMahan said. 

The candidate is convinced that Swain voters are on board with his vision. He’s convinced they’re looking for a change.

“I believe it’s time for a change in the leadership in the sheriff’s office,” McMahan said.

Of course, Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran has a different take. The Republican incumbent knows the community is behind him and expects to get a third term.

“I like being the people’s sheriff of Swain County,” Cochran said, soaking up a sunny day in Swain’s public park on Deep Creek Road. “I don’t consider myself a ruler, or above anybody else.”

 

The people-person people and a Constitutional crisis

When Cochran first won election as Swain County’s sheriff in 2006, he had no law enforcement experience. He was fresh from a 12-year stint as Swain’s facilities manager. 

“I approached it in a different manner than a lot of people do. I approached it from a managerial position,” said Cochran. “Even though I’ve approached it from a managerial position, that doesn’t mean I’ve sat behind a desk. I’ve been out on the frontlines with these guys.”

It was a rough beginning for Cochran. During his first term, the sheriff became engaged in a lawsuit with the Swain County Commissioners over a salary dispute, saw a man charged with murder escape from the Swain County Jail, and had another inmate escape from a courthouse holding room; the latter incident ended with a high-speed chase down U.S. 74, during which Cochran shot at the tires of a van the inmate had stolen.

“We’re not the only ones that have jail escapes,” Cochran brushed off the mishaps. 

The sheriff also brushes off any possible political downside of being a Republican in a county that is decidedly Democrat. And why not, he’s beat the political odds twice before. Plus, the candidate believes he has won over the Swain community by connecting with them on a personal level instead of a political one. 

“I knocked on doors in Swain County,” Cochran said. “A lot of doors, and listened to these people, heard their needs.”

The current sheriff considers his relationship with the people of Swain to be paramount to his charge. He knows that his mission depends on the people — “without the public feeding information to us we wouldn’t know what was going on” — and considers community members “stakeholders.”

“I have an open-door policy. If somebody calls me, I call’em back. Answer every call,” Cochran explained. “Simply because it might be the toughest thing that person’s gong through at the moment.”

Interestingly, McMahan also cites that relationship with the community when listing the reasons he decided to join the race. The Democrat challenger and N.C. Highway Patrol veteran who beat out three other hopefuls during the primary says he plans to make a point of being acquainted with his community.

“The more familiar you are with the people in a community,” McMahan said, “the better you can serve them.”

McMahan seems to flinch when asked why he’s a better choice for sheriff than Cochran. He refuses to discuss his opponents’ possible shortcomings, instead simply saying he intends to introduce a “professional” brand of law enforcement.

“I’m not gonna be critical. That’s not the way I choose to campaign,” McMahan said. “I believe I have more to offer.”

An area the candidate does say he wants to improve upon is the relationship the sheriff’s office has with the public. Efforts on that front will begin on “day one” he said.

“If I’m elected I’ll use a community policing model,” McMahan said, explaining that he will expect his officers to embrace such an approach as well. “I’ll expect them to know who’s who in their community.”

Chastain, the unaffiliated candidate, has also incorporated the community-relationship theme into his platform. If elected, he has said he intends to hold public forums in an effort to gauge community concerns.

“The sheriff should be accessible to talk to anyone, whether it’s a concern or a complaint,” Chastain said, “Yes, sir, yes, sir, I am working for the people cause they hired me.”

The candidate also intends to pursue educational and training opportunities for officers — “it’s a dangerous job and they need all the training they can get” — but it is another aspect of his platform that sets Chastain apart from his party-affiliated opponents.

“The Constitution is our country’s birth certificate and it is being destroyed,” Chastain said. 

The unaffiliated candidate has “a real strong, hard feeling” about this. He describes himself as “a very patriotic person” and feels that voters agree with him that America’s principals and values are in jeopardy. He considers this constitutional crisis to be an important issue in the sheriff election.

“If our men and women can die for it then I think I and other people think it’s worth voting for,” Chastain said. “We’re talking about everything. We’re talking about due process, the right to peaceably assemble. It’s just the right we have.”

And most particularly we’re talking about the right to bear arms. It is a centerpiece of the campaign. 

“Now, the Second Amendment is a whole can of worms,” Chastain said. “I will not let anyone take my guns.”

The candidate feels such a threat is not far fetched, and that a sheriff would serve as “a last line in the sand” if such an effort was ever made. 

“He doesn’t answer to the beuracrats, he answers to the people,” Chastain said. “This is my stump message when I’m out talking. It’s very well received.”

 

It’s the drugs, stupid

One thing that all three candidates running for Swain County Sheriff agree on is that the area has a drug problem. It’s been that way for a while, they say.

“It’s just the way things are, and there’s just so much of it,” Chastain said. “It’s a real predicament, yes it is.”

Sheriff Cochran noticed the problem when he first ran for office. 

“When I first ran I saw a huge need for drug enforcement,” he said. “We had a huge drug problem. I just didn’t think it was being addressed the way it should be.”

Cochran still sees the problem. It hasn’t gone away.

“There’s not many days that go by that we don’t make those arrests,” the sheriff said. “We get meth, we get pills, black tar heroin, we’ve got cocaine, prescription pills are a huge problem.”

Each candidate vows to fight against illegal drugs and the abuse of prescription drugs. Each identifies this as a top issue facing Swain County.

“The number one issue is the drug issue and this is a challenge all counties face,” McMahan said. “They’re easy to come by and they’re easy to sell.”

McMahan said he will concentrate on fighting the drug problem via partnerships with other law enforcement agencies, both at the local level and beyond. He also plans to develop relationships with local pharmacies.

“To make sure people aren’t doctor shopping for medication,” McMahan said. 

“My advice to drug dealers,” Chastain warns, “they can either go out of business, get out of town or go to jail.”

 

Black-clad Barney Fife, or the ‘first-line of defense’

In the wake of the recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., the heavy handed response by local police responding to protests over the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man has sparked a national debate about the militarization of local law enforcement agencies. From the city council of that St. Louis suburb to the U.S. Senate, elected officials have discussed the pros and cons of equipping law officers with military-grade weaponry. Do they need it? Should they have it?

This debate is relevant in Swain County, too. There are those who are concerned that Swain’s sheriff’s office has become a bit militarized.

“I hear lots about it,” said Chastain. “It wasn’t like that before.”

Sheriff Cochran doesn’t engage in such debate. He doesn’t see such an arsenal build up as militarization, but rather preparation. 

“We are not the military, but we are the first line of defense,” Cochran said. “We’ve got to have the proper equipment that we need to keep people safe.”

Cochran has introduced Swain to officers clad in black. He has traded in the department’s .40-caliber rifles — “it was just a glorified side arm, we got rid of them pretty quick” — for AR-15s.

“I have AR 223s for our officers and I think they’re a very good tool,” Cochran said. “When I came into office they had rifles, but they were .40-caliber rifles, to be honest with you couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.”

The sheriff doesn’t understand why anyone would question such an approach to local law enforcement. And he says he hasn’t heard anyone do so.

“Of course they’re necessary, we wouldn’t have them if they weren’t,” Cochran said of his beefed up arsenal, conceding that the higer-powered guns had yet to be used. “We’ve never had to use them. We’ve had to pull’em out of the car and get ready to use them.”

But the sheriff’s two challengers take a different view. They feel the shift in Swain’s sheriff’s office is unhealthy for the community.

“No sir, I don’t agree with that at all, with the militarization of law enforcement,” said Chastain. “I don’t like the way they look, the public can’t tell who’s who.”

Chastain said that citizens have told him they feel uncomfortable with the change in tone at the sheriff’s office. They tell him they can’t easily identify officers. 

“Some of the women I’ve talked to say they don’t want to stop unless they’re in a marked car,” the candidate said. “I’m going to put them back in a uniform where they can be identified and won’t be military looking.”

While Chastain promises to put officers “back in county-brown,” McMahan takes a more measured view. The Democrat candidate allows that “law enforcement is a tough job, and times have changed since I first stared.”

Still, McMahan is also a bit uncomfortable with the changes Cochran has made on this front. He would do it differently.

“A law enforcement officer has to remember never to appear anything other than a law enforcement officer. They work for the public, they have to be approachable by the public,” McMahan said. “If I’m elected sheriff my officers will wear uniforms that have a more traditional look, that identifies them as sheriff officers.”

 

Odel Chastain, 65

unaffiliated

Chastain is retired from a career in law enforcement. He has spent time as a deputy sheriff in Gaston, Lincoln and Swain counties, as well as 10 years with the Bryson City Police Department. 

Curtis Cochran, 61

Republican

Cochran worked for 22 years in underground construction, working to building tunnels. In 1994, he went to work as the facilities manager for Swain County. In 2006 he won election as Swain County Sheriff, winning reelection in 2010.

Chuck McMahan, 53

Democrat

McMahan is retired from a 27-year career with the North Carolina Highway Patrol. He has also spent time working for the Hickory Police Department and the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department. The candidate has served on the Swain County School Board for 12 years and served as its chairman for six.

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