AP NEWS

State Board of Elections to oust executive director

May 11, 2019

The new Democrat-controlled State Board of Elections will move to oust its longtime executive director, a Republican appointee, next week.

Kim Strach, originally hired by the board former Gov. Pat McCrory appointed in 2013, has technically been on borrowed time since the new board formed in January. Soon after the board’s first meeting, state law gave members the authority to reappoint Strach or appoint a new director to a two-year term expiring in May 2021.

That legislation was the result of a protracted court battle between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican leaders in the General Assembly over appointments to the elections board. Democrats now outnumber Republicans on the board 3-2.

It’s not yet clear whether the new executive director will replace Strach immediately or after some period of transition.

Reached by phone Friday morning, State Board of Elections member David Black, a Republican, said the board planned to have a teleconference Monday to discuss Strach’s ouster.

“The general move from the Democrats on the board is to replace her,” Black said.

Board spokesman Pat Gannon issued a public notice of the meeting at about 11:30 a.m. The main agenda item is the appointment of an executive director. Gannon declined to comment further, as did board Chairman Robert Cordle, a Democrat.

“We’ll talk about that Monday,” Cordle said when reached by phone Friday afternoon.

Strach has worked for the board for nearly 20 years, formerly as its lead investigator. More recently, she’s been the public face of hearings into absentee ballot irregularities that resulted in a new election for the 9th Congressional District, despite a narrow vote lead by Republican candidate Mark Harris.

“I think she’s done a great job, but that’s my view,” Black said. “She’s been just as tenacious in doing what she thinks was the right thing to do – it doesn’t matter if it’s a Republican or a Democrat.”

David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College, agreed that Strach wasn’t partisan in carrying out her duties.

“She has a long history of bringing down Republicans and Democrats during her time on the state board. That may not be necessarily enough to save her from a political replacement,” McLennan said.

Strach’s husband, lawyer Phil Strach, has represented Republican legislative leaders in several cases over claims of gerrymandering.

The board meeting next week to hire a new director comes one day before voters in the 9th District head to the polls for the primary in the newly ordered election.

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said Strach’s conduct during the 9th District investigation, as well as other probes into past North Carolina governors, made her “one of the strongest guardians of North Carolina’s democracy.”

“It would be an enormous mistake for Roy Cooper’s handpicked Democratic State Board majority to remove her from office for purely political reasons,” Lewis said in an emailed statement.

Cooper appoints members to the State Board of Elections, with input from the state Democratic and Republican parties.

Ford Porter, a spokesman with Cooper’s office, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Strach took the helm of the agency after a Republican-controlled board booted her predecessor, Gary Bartlett, a Democrat who had held the post for two decades.

As an investigator, she testified in hearings against a range of powerful North Carolina Democratic political leaders, including former Gov. Mike Easley, former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and former House Speaker Jim Black, as well as Republicans like former state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell.

Strach’s investigation was at the center of Easley’s trial over felony campaign finance violations, which resulted in an Alford plea in 2010. Joe Cheshire, a Raleigh attorney who represented Easley in the case, said he found Strach to be “very fair and reasoned.”

“The present political culture of simply removing people because they are of a different party can be counter-productive in many places,” Cheshire said in an email to WRAL News. “I suppose we shall wait to find out about that here, but I wish we could get to a place where, when a competent person is running an agency that is politically appointed, and doing a good job, that they could remain, no matter what party is in power.”

McLennan agreed that Strach did an excellent job enforcing election law.

“In terms of understanding the nuances, not just the campaign finance reports, but the nuances of what happened and when, she was through [and] complete in her analysis,” he said.

On the county level, elections officials said they haven’t been told much about the upcoming switch in leadership.

“We’ve seen change happen before, and we look forward, if there is a change, to working with the new executive director,” Wake County Elections Director Gary Sims said.

In Wayne County, Elections Director Dane Beavers declined to comment on Strach’s tenure at the head of the state board. But he noted with frustration that he’s waited five years for the state elections agency to certify new voting equipment to replace gear that’s nearly 15 years old.

“I do believe that Ms. Strach was well aware of our needs, because I know personally myself and other directors who have shared that concern with her many times over several years,” Beavers said. “I would have to say she holds the ultimate responsibility.”

In neighboring Lenoir County, which was hit hard by Hurricane Florence amid the run-up to the 2018 elections, Elections Director Dana King said Strach provided crucial support at a time when flooding made three of their precincts inaccessible to elections workers.

“She’s been there for us in a great time of need,” King said. “Other than that, she’s behind the scenes a lot.”

King said she thought Strach’s done a fine job so far, adding that new leadership would come in at a busy time for her county. A little over a week ago, Lenoir County voters cast ballots in the special 3rd Congressional District primary to replace Republican Congressman Walter Jones, who died in February. King only just received ballots to proof for the Republican runoff, slated for July 9.

Whoever takes over the State Board of Elections next week inherits preparation for the 3rd District race and the one in the 9th District, along with the rapidly approaching 2020 general election.

“Change in that seat is always very interesting,” King said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach was appointed by former Gov. Pat McCrory. She was hired by the State Board of Elections shortly after McCrory appointed new members – three Republicans and two Democrats – to the board.