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Bryson, Wilke square off in highly anticipated Haywood sheriff race

Larry Bryson (left) and Bill Wilke. Larry Bryson (left) and Bill Wilke.

After nearly 10 years in office, Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher announced his retirement in Mach 2021, giving prospective candidates more than a year to contemplate their campaigns. Almost immediately, five men from two parties stepped up, seeking to replace him.

Christopher’s legacy will be as a sheriff who was heavily involved in the peripheral aspects of the job, from after-hours community meetings over coffee to behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts before the General Assembly in Raleigh. 

His progressive thinking in regard to recidivism and rehabilitation resulted in the Pathways Center, a Christ-centered shelter and kitchen ministering to some of Haywood County’s most vulnerable citizens while at the same time saving taxpayers thousands in jail expenses. 

Even Pathways couldn’t ameliorate the need for a new $16 million jail expansion project that wasn’t exactly welcomed in all quarters of the community, but Christopher was still able to shepherd the project to the finish line. 

So well respected was Christopher that during the two elections in which he stood for office — Christopher was appointed to finish out the term of former Sheriff Bobby Suttles in 2013 — he never once faced an opponent. 

As a Democrat in a red county that’s only gotten redder, Christopher remains unique in that he’s one of only three from that party currently serving in a major countywide elected office. 

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Christopher came to the job with a great deal of law enforcement experience, albeit none of it with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office. 

That’s important to note, as the two candidates voters will choose from on Nov. 8 both offer a great deal of law enforcement experience that varies substantially in depth and breadth. 

Democrat Larry Bryson briefly served as interim sheriff upon the resignation of Suttles, but that was long after Bryson started his law enforcement career with the HCSO in 1976. Bryson then worked for a decade as a Waynesville police officer, and even had a stint with Champion Paper’s private police force before returning to the sheriff’s office.  

During his time at HCSO, Bryson has served in nearly every role imaginable. Detention officer. Deputy sheriff. Drug agent. Detective. Chief of detectives. Chief deputy. Since retirement in 2013, Bryson has worked as a U.S. Marshall, but is currently on leave for the duration of his campaign. 

His opponent, Republican Bill Wilke, also has some pre-Christopher era history in Haywood County, as a candidate for sheriff in 2010. Wilke lost to Suttles by 6.5 points, but his story neither started or ended there. 

A native of Maryland’s eastern shore, Wilke earned a psychology degree and spent four years on the Newport News police force before becoming a military police training officer with North Carolina’s Army National Guard. 

At the same time, he became an Asheville police officer and served for 16 years until becoming a licensed private investigator in 2016. He currently serves as president of the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Association of Private Investigators, and recently retired from the National Guard as a colonel. 

Although there are plenty of good reasons why the office of county sheriff shouldn’t be considered partisan in nature, right now it is. That would seem to give the Republican Wilke a slight edge in terms of numbers, but that hasn’t always been that way. 

The last time a sheriff’s election was held, in 2018, Democrats held a numerical advantage in Haywood County, with more than 16,400 registered. At that time, there were 14,500 unaffiliated voters, and just 13,814 Republicans. The North Carolina State Board of Elections reported that as of Sept. 17, the entire situation had flipped. 

Unaffiliated voters now number more than 16,600, with Republican registrants in a close second, at 15,830. Democrats are a distant third, with 12,805. 

Like Wilke, success for the Democrat Bryson means courting voters outside of his own party. 

“I told my wife not long ago that if Democrats vote, we lose, and if Republicans vote, we lose,” Bryson said. 

Bryson’s been targeting unaffiliated voters with mailers and handshakes, trying to answer questions they may have about his candidacy. 

Wilke has been doing much the same, attending events and making himself available for those same voters. 

“I’m a Republican by personal choice, but I’m a sheriff for everybody, regardless of their political affiliation,” Wilke said. “The law does not make differences between Democrats and Republicans despite some efforts in social media by certain individuals to try to divide us along those lines.”

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Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher speaks to residents of Cruso in the aftermath of deadline flooding in August, 2021. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Indeed, there are only subtle philosophical differences between the two candidates, despite their partisan affiliations. 

Neither really supports the expansion of existing red flag laws. Both support maintaining the county’s existing compliance with ICE detainers, something neighboring Buncombe County has refused to do, and both understand the importance of the less-than-glamorous but vitally important aspects of the job, like civil process service. 

But as either Bryson or Wilke go on to assume the duties of sheriff, they’ll do so in an environment where the landscape of law enforcement continues to change dramatically. 

Considerations over use of force policies, pretrial incarceration and even the basic tenets of the job have prompted much public debate over the role of law enforcement today and have also directed intense scrutiny toward those sworn to uphold the law, from the greenest of small-town beat cops all the way on up to the most experienced Federal Bureau of Investigation agents. 

Some agencies are also seeing problems with staffing — HCSO not among them — however, in light of the recent Coronavirus Pandemic, perhaps the most burning questions revolve around how much discretion, exactly, a sheriff feels they can exercise in the enforcement of existing laws. 

Back in 2020, some Haywood residents demanded that commissioners pass a resolution designating the county a “Second Amendment sanctuary.” Although largely symbolic, if passed, such a resolution would supposedly empower sheriffs to disobey local, state or federal laws they don’t agree with, specifically regarding gun control. 

But there’s one big problem with that — it doesn’t work that way. 

“I support our citizens’ protected right to bear arms under the Second Amendment and the doctrine of judicial review that grants to the United States Supreme Court and the lower courts the power to determine the constitutionality of any law,” Sheriff Christopher told commissioners on Jan. 20, 2020. “Sheriffs do not possess the legal authority to interpret the constitutionality of any law.”

Commissioners ultimately opted to pass something called a “ Constitution protecting county” resolution that expressed support for the entire document, and not just a single sentence from it. 

Still, the “constitutional sheriffs movement” continues to assert the right of sheriffs to pick and choose which laws they’ll interpret. 

Darris Moody, a Haywood County woman arrested by the FBI on Sept. 7 for sending a series of threatening documents to local elected officials including Christopher, espoused support for the movement in regard to the enforcement of mask mandates and said she’d even given Christopher a “handbook” on how to be a constitutional sheriff. 

“They [law enforcement officers] made an oath to the Constitution and in my opinion, they have failed,” Moody told The Smoky Mountain News on Sept. 2. “They bowed to the government. They bowed to the SOP [standard operating procedures]. They bowed to the narrative, to the propaganda, to the TV.”

Still, during a Primary Election candidate forum hosted by the Haywood County Republican Party on March 31 of this year, chair Kay Miller asked Wilke and his fellow Republican opponent, former HCSO Capt. Tony Cope, if they would join the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association upon election. 

Cope said absolutely. Wilke was a bit more circumspect about joining the CSPOA, saying he would be hesitant to join any organization because they can change ideologically, but he also said that if a sheriff attempts to decide what is constitutional, that act would be unconstitutional in and of itself. 

Asked for clarification on his stance last week, Wilke was unequivocal. 

“How much more constitutional does it get than when I take oaths coming into office that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States, [and] support and defend the Constitution of North Carolina? That doesn’t grant me extra judicial authority to enforce laws that aren’t in place in place, nor does it give me the ability to neglect certain things that have been ruled constitutional by courts in the past,” Wilke said. “If we operate outside those boundaries, there’s a word for that — it’s called ‘vigilante.’”

Bryson, a Democrat, wasn’t part of the March HCGOP forum but at that time told SMN, “I think you have to go by the law that’s in place.”

During his candidate interview earlier this month, Bryson maintained a consistent position. 

“Being a constitutional sheriff, there’s a line you have to walk, and some of that strays just a little bit from what the General Assembly has placed as a law in North Carolina,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t be spending his time in office interpreting which laws to enforce. 

Wilke and Bryson both have different priorities they’ll pursue if elected. Bryson wants to rearrange and augment personnel to provide better coverage across the county, and Wilke said he’d form a community partnership with medical professionals and court officials to modernize the county’s approach to the opioid crisis. 

But plans and perspectives such as those of Bryson and Wilke are nothing without the means to implement them while at the same time performing the myriad other duties sheriffs are charged with; they maintain the jails, serve civil process documents, set department budgets and policies, manage human resources and uphold courthouse security. 

Each candidate thinks it’s their experience that will help them accomplish their goals. 

“Do you really feel like you can turn this [job] over to somebody to try on?” Bryson asked. “I just don’t think we can take a chance. I think I’m more rounded. I think my 35 years of experience and my over 3,000 hours of advanced training in all facets puts me in a position that I think the people should look more favorably toward me because as I’ve said, with the state that our country is in now I don’t think we can say haphazardly, ‘This guy don’t know a thing about it, but let’s put him in there and let him try it out.’”

Wilke contends that since Bryson’s retirement in 2013 his law enforcement experience with the Marshalls has been quite different than that of a day-to-day, street-level officer and that his own experience presents a truer picture of the challenges associated with policing in the 21st Century. 

“I will tell you that it’s true that I haven’t worked in the same place, doing the same thing for 40 years. I was seven years old when [Bryson] started in law enforcement, doing things with paper reports and rotary telephones,” Wilke said. “I’m very well versed not just in the industry, but how that intersects with public service and I think that far better prepares me for this position than being in the same place at the same time doing the same thing for 40 years. I don’t think folks want to go back to the way it’s been done for so long.”

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