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Democrats turned to Cooper’s political arm in replacing state elections director

May 20, 2019

Gov. Roy Cooper said this week he didn’t have any conversations about removing State Board of Elections Director Kim Strach, but his political operative worked with board Democrats as they lined up Strach’s replacement.

Former Board Director Gary Bartlett, who Strach replaced in the job shortly after Republican Gov. Pat McCrory took office in 2013, had input as well.

In fact Board Chairman Bob Cordle pitched him on returning to the job, but Bartlett turned it down.

Bartlett suggested another name instead: Karen Brinson Bell, who had worked under him at the board 10 years before and was Transylvania County’s elections director from 2011 to 2015. She and Bartlett both work now with a group that promotes “ranked choice” voting.

Bartlett said the Cooper administration, through the governor’s lead political strategist, Morgan Jackson, asked him for a name.

Jackson declined to comment and Cordle, a Democrat Cooper appointed to the board earlier this year, didn’t name Jackson. But Cordle did confirm he spoke to Cooper’s “political folks.”

“The main thing I wanted to know ... (was) whether this would be acceptable,” Cordle said.

It wouldn’t be surprising for a governor to install his or her choice as elections director, but Cooper said Wednesday the decision was the board’s. He said he didn’t request Strach’s removal and that he didn’t have “any conversations” about it.

“I want (the board) to make sure that elections are conducted fairly and securely and that people have opportunities to vote and that we’re not putting roadblocks in the way of people, and that was my charge to this board,” the governor said after a roundtable event at the Executive Mansion.

Asked whether his administration asked for Strach’s removal at any point, Cooper shook his head no.

“I’ve not done that,” he said. “No, I have not.”

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Brinson Bell was one of two candidates interviewed for the job.

Board spokesman Patrick Gannon confirmed that and said that “several others were considered during the process.”

Cordle and other board members wouldn’t say how many were considered, and no one that WRAL News spoke to would name the other candidate.

But Cordle said he called Brinson Bell and asked her to apply. He said he also consulted Larry Leake, a longtime state board chair Cooper appointed to a judgeship in 2017, and Johnnie McLean, who was the state board’s deputy director under Bartlett.

Bartlett was the board’s executive director for nearly 20 years, under three Democratic governors.

Cordle said board members met Brinson Bell two at a time to avoid running afoul of the state’s open meetings law.

Had three board members gathered for such talks, that would have been a formal meeting, requiring notice.

At one point, Brinson Bell withdrew her name from consideration. Cordle said she was concerned about moving from Charleston, S.C., where she and her husband live.

Stella Anderson, who like Cordle is part of of the Democratic majority Cooper appointed to the board, said interviews were held away from board offices. Ken Raymond, a Republican member, said he first heard Strach was out was about a month ago, from Cordle.

“During our initial conversation, he told me that he had someone in mind, and that was it,” Raymond said Friday. “My impression from him, this was based on my questions of him ... it was purely political, because he could not provide a credible answer for the change.”

Raymond voiced the same concern Monday, when the board met via conference call and voted 3-2, along party lines, to let Strach go at the end of this month and replace her with Brinson Bell.

Cordle praised Strach’s service but said the board wanted to refocus the office on elections administration. Strach spent most of her nearly 20-year career at the board as an investigator.

Brinson Bell declined interview requests for this story through Gannon, who said she’d speak about her goals once she gets to Raleigh.

Strach also declined interview requests.

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Strach probably would have been gone much earlier in Cooper’s term, but Republicans ensconced her in the directorship by passing legislation that protected her job.

That bill, and others reorganizing the state board, led to a two-year legal fight between Cooper and the Republican legislative majority over who controlled the State Board of Elections, which names the director.

The state Supreme Court ruled in a divided decision, that broke along party lines, that the state constitution gives Cooper control. Because of this fight North Carolina spent almost a year without any State Board of Elections members at all.

“The legislature has done no favors to election administration,” Anderson said Friday. “It’s been a tumultuous time and then, on top of it, we get CD9. And it’s really, really stressed the entire agency, and none of that is Kim’s doing.”

“CD9” is North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, which is in the middle of a do-over election because a Republican operative allegedly sent crews door-to-door collecting absentee ballots in the last go-round, producing criminal charges. Strach spearheaded that investigation and earned praise for doing so, but her agency got some criticism when poor practices in Bladen County and other local election offices emerged.

The board oversees elections statewide, but most of the legwork and direct supervision is handled by county boards and staff in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

Strach was a registered Democrat when she joined the board staff, but soon switched to unaffiliated. Some of her investigations angered Democrats, who have argued since the board’s vote that she pursued their candidates with more gusto.

And she’s married to Phil Strach, the lead attorney defending the Republican legislative majority against a series of gerrymandering and voter ID cases filed in recent years. Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett and one of the Cooper administration’s bigger political foes, was best man at the Strachs’ wedding.

The bad blood goes back: John Wallace, counsel now for the North Carolina Democratic Party, called on Kim Strach to recuse herself nearly 10 years ago from a state board investigation into the Perdue campaign’s use of private planes.

Wallace was the attorney for Perdue’s campaign at the time. Phil Strach was the North Carolina Republican Party’s general counsel.

After the investigation wrapped, Kim Strach said Leake, the elections board chairman, told her not to interview Perdue’s campaign manager for her report.

After the Monday vote to replace Strach, the state Democratic Party questioned “a number of decisions ... that state Democrats felt revealed partisan, political motivations.”

But for many Strach had forged a reputation as a fair investigator, and the 9th District inquiry overturned what would have been a Republican win. After the board voted to replace Strach Josh Lawson, the board’s general counsel, tendered his resignation.

Raymond said Friday the director’s job needs someone Republicans and Democrats alike can trust, and “we had it.”

“The Democratic majority threw it away,” Raymond said. “Registered Republicans across the state are going to be suspect.”

Bartlett, who has worked with Brinson Bell for years, said he has “full confidence in her abilities.” He said the directorship is a political appointment and that the board needs “someone that they believe in and trust.”

Cordle said he was excited about the new hire and confident in Brinson Bell’s leadership. He focused on a desire to shift focus to nuts-and-bolts election administration, as opposed to investigations. He spoke highly of Strach Monday, saying she “kept the elections ship afloat” during a hard time, and he suggested a farewell dinner.

Raymond said Friday that sounded like a way to soothe Democrats’ consciences.

“They know what they did was wrong,” he said, “and I’m not going to do anything to soothe their conscience.”

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