A bitter Register of Deeds contest spurs allegations of racism in Wayne County

By: - January 27, 2021 12:00 pm
Constance Coram, Wayne County Register of Deeds

Dems joined with GOP to recruit write-in candidates to try to defeat disfavored Black candidates

The path to victory in the 2020 Wayne County Register of Deeds contest looked as if it would be easy for Constance Coram.

She had defeated incumbent and fellow Democrat Judy Harrison by a slim 145 votes in the March 3 primary. What’s more, she faced no Republican opposition in the General Election, so Coram’s win was virtually assured unless a write-in candidate stepped forward and defeated her.

Yet there was still the possibility of political subterfuge. Coram and other African-American residents in Wayne County say they’ve come to expect the county’s mostly white, Republican leadership to engage in mean-spirited political attacks, race-baiting and other trickery to keep Blacks from seats of power.

But as the summer of 2020 wore on and with no opposition in sight, Coram grew increasingly hopeful about the prospect of running the Register of Deeds office. She had lost two previous primary contests for the seat, one in 2008 and another in 2012.

Tina Arnder

Then in August, Tina Arnder, a 15-year veteran of the Register of Deeds office, a white woman and fellow Democrat, launched a write-in campaign endorsed by Republicans.

“I was shocked,” Coram said. “I knew that they were planning something. I just didn’t know what that plan was.”

Blacks navigate a complex political construct in Wayne County where whites constitute roughly a 2-1 majority according to census data. Former President Donald Trump soundly defeated then-Democratic challenger Joe Biden, and the GOP bested Democrats in every Council of State race and most other partisan races on the ballot.

Oddly enough, registered Democrats in the county outnumber Republicans 28,528 to 24,705. But GOP candidates perform remarkably well in the county, where Goldsboro is the county seat and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base is a major economic engine.

Some Blacks in the county say that the Register of Deeds contest, as well as another for county commissioner, exposed broken race relations and deep fractures within the Democratic Party – fractures that led some Democrats to side with the GOP to try to defeat a fellow party member.

In late August, about three weeks after Arnder emerged as a write-in candidate, the Wayne County Republican Party, which describes itself as the “Conservative Voice for Wayne County,” hosted a “Meet & Greet” for Arnder and another Democratic write-in, Kenneth Coley, who was running for county commissioner.

Fran Smith, an officer in the Wayne County Branch of the NAACP, said the county’s white power brokers, aided by a handful of Democrats and willing Blacks, did “everything in their power to keep Constance [Coram] from getting in that seat.”

As Arnder’s write-in campaign moved forward, Smith found it strange that county Republicans backed a Democrat instead of finding a fellow Republican to challenge Coram. She said GOP leaders were less worried about a Democrat being elected than they were about the seat falling into Black hands.

“A Black candidate won the election and the Republican Party did not want a Black candidate in that position, so they ran a write-in candidate,” Smith said. “Bottom line, that’s what happened.”

County Commissioner Freeman Hardison, a Black Republican, is chairman of the Wayne County Republican Party. He did not return Policy Watch’s calls.

Ordinarily, a Register of Deeds contest garners little attention. The work done in the office is extremely important, but the job is not a glamorous one. It’s where real estate transactions, legal documents and maps are recorded and marriage licenses are issued.

“We’re really not politicians, we’re not political,” said Suzanne W. Lowder, the Register of Deeds in Stanly County and president of the NC Association of Register of Deeds.

But the contest between Coram and Arnder was heated and very political. Carl Martin, chairman of the Wayne County Democratic Party, thinks he knows why.

“The Register of Deeds position has been held by white people for years and years,” Martin said. “Now, a person of color has an opportunity to become the Register of Deeds, the person who has control of all of the records, of all the deeds and property around here. I think there are people own property who don’t want people to know they have an interest in property that they own.”

“They don’t want a Black person to be in any position,” Smith said. “Every Black official that has been voted in the last five or six years has undergone the same kind of attack.”

Another Black candidate draws a write-in opponent

Smith pointed to the county commissioner race as further evidence of an orchestrated effort to keep Blacks from elected office.

Bevan Foster is a controversial, outspoken former Goldsboro city councilman who often challenged his colleagues on how tax money is spent. 

Like Coram, Foster had won the March primary and, unopposed by a Republican candidate, was well on his way to clinching the District 3 seat on the commission.

But a write-in candidate backed by Team Goldsboro, a recently created political action committee, emerged. The PAC persuaded Kenneth Coley, a Black Democrat, to challenge Foster as a write-in candidate for county commission, said Mark Metzler, the PAC’s founder.

But the PAC didn’t recruit Arnder as a write-in for the Register of Deeds contest, he said. Metzler contributed $900 to Arnder’s campaign, according to state records. And Team Goldsboro contributed $2,500 to Coley’s campaign and $1,300 to Arnder’s, according to spending reports.

Metzler, an independent, denied that racism drove Team Goldsboro’s support for write-in candidates. He said that the PAC is racially diverse and includes Democrats, Republicans and independents, and that its membership didn’t think Foster had the temperament to serve as commissioner.

“We’d seen what he’d done on the city council and we didn’t feel like we needed that on the county level,” Metzler said.

Yet Antonio Williams, who is Black, is also a controversial, outspoken former Goldsboro city councilman. Like Foster, Williams frequently disagreed with colleagues over county spending. A Democrat, Williams ran unopposed in his bid to win a county commissioner seat.

The path to election wasn’t so smooth for Foster who, in addition to fending off a write-in challenge, also stared down accusations that he didn’t reside in the district he sought to represent. Zachary Lilly, a local realtor, had challenged Foster’s candidacy.

By a 3-2 vote, the Wayne County Board of Elections ruled against Foster after a June 2020 hearing.

Jeff Loperfido, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who represented Foster, argued that his client provided ample evidence to prove he lives in District 3.

“North Carolina has an unfortunate history of challenging the lawful elections of candidates of color or placing undue scrutiny upon them when they take office,” Loperfido said in a statement after the county board’s ruling. “We must continue to fight for every voice to be heard, not just at the polls on Election Day.”

Foster appealed the decision to the State Board of Elections, which overturned the Wayne County ruling. The state panel found that the county board’s decision “was not supported by substantial evidence.”

Neither Williams nor Foster returned Policy Watch’s phone calls for this story.

Bitter electoral opposition…

Meanwhile, in the Register of Deeds contest Team Goldsboro PAC endorsed the write-in candidate. Similar to the PAC’s criticisms in the county commissioner’s race, Metzler said members didn’t believe Coram was qualified for the position.

“There were concerns about whether she [Coram] could do the job,” he said, noting that Coram worked in the Register of Deeds office from 2005 to 2007, but was fired.

Metzler posted parts of Coram’s confidential personnel file on the PAC’s Facebook page showing that she was terminated for “lack of cooperation” and “doing personal things on county time.” It is unclear how Metzler obtained the confidential information, but only a few county employees would have access to it.

Coram acknowledged that she did not have a good relationship with some co-workers, which she said complicated her tenure in the Register of Deeds office.

Arnder told area media in August of 2020 that she was running to protect the county’s valuable records and to ensure high standards and quality service continued in the office.

Her fourth-quarter campaign finance report shows that she raised more than $17,000, a portion of which came from attorneys, realtors and others in professions that require interaction with the Register of Deeds

Barbara Dantonio, the former chairwoman of the Wayne County Democratic Party, temporarily stepped down from her new role as President of the Wayne County Democratic Women, to actively campaign against Coram.

Party rules prohibit officers from campaigning for candidates off ballot.

“This has nothing to do with race,” Dantonio told Policy Watch. “She [Coram] just wasn’t qualified. She was an embarrassment.”

Her decision to campaign against Coram was fueled by a video posted on Team Goldsboro’s Facebook page showing Coram referring to a group of white county commissioners as “head massas” and the Blacks supporting them as “field hands.”

Dantonio urged other Democratic Party officers to join her by stepping down to support Arnder and Coley.

“I cannot support ANY Democrat that makes racist comments,” Dantonio said in a Facebook post.

Despite the PAC’s full-court press against Coram, she defeated Arnder by more than 5,100 votes in a raucous race marred throughout by complaints and reports of voter harassment and other inappropriate behavior at polling sites.

Coram viewed her victory as a major triumph after being fired by the former Register of Deeds Lois Mooring in 2007.

Mooring, who supported Ardner’s write-in candidacy, hasn’t taken Coram’s victory well. Coram said Mooring has been loitering at the Register of Deeds office since Coram took over. Last week, Coram said she had to call sheriff’s deputies to remove Mooring after she refused to leave the office, which had become crowded with customers.

Arnder, a former assistant in the office, no longer works there. Coram fired her after she took personal leave following the election and refused orders to return to work. Arnder did not return Policy Watch phone calls.

After her defeat, Arnder did not go quietly.

Two weeks after the election, Arnder’s attorney, Henry C. Smith, filed an election protest with the county elections board charging that there was a “defect in the manner in which votes were counted or results tabulated” to cast doubt on the election results.

Smith wrote in the protest that the county board had a duty to conduct a “hand-eye” recount to ensure votes were accurately counted.

The county board dismissed the challenge. Kate Brinson Bell, executive director of the state board, found that the protest appeal lacked merit and recommended that the state board take no action. The appeal was administratively dismissed on Nov. 26.

Here’s how Arnder explained the decision to challenge the election results on her Facebook page:

“It was an awesome attempt [her campaign] and I felt very good about getting close to 20k write-in votes. This campaign was something I took very serious, so when I was not successful it was only natural to take advantage of all laws available to challenge the vote count. This challenge was done for my supporters as well as myself. Anyone that has ever been involved in politics will understand why you do certain things.”

…and a pay cut after taking office

County Commissioner George Aycock

Republican County Commissioner George Aycock, who is white, doesn’t think there’s a race problem in Wayne County.

“Well, I don’t,” Aycock said when told that some African Americans believe race relations in the county are strained. “If their opinion is that, then they’re entitled to their opinion, but I don’t think we do.”

He pointed to the election of two Blacks – Foster and Williams – to the seven-member Board of County Commissioners as evidence that claims of troubled race relations are overblown. “Two minorities for county commissioner just got on,” Aycock said. The board make up is all men, four of them white and three Black. Five are Republicans and two are Democrats.

Yet shortly after Coram became the Register of Deeds, the county commissioners voted to cut her pay. 

The commission met in November to recalibrate part of the county’s pay scale, which resulted in Coram’s being paid nearly $20,000 less than what her immediate predecessor Judy Harrison earned.

Coram will earn roughly $46,000 a year while Harrison’s ending pay was a little more than $63,000 a year.

A county spokesman said Harrison’s salary was higher because she worked for the county for several decades and earned multiple pay increases.

The current pay plan was adopted in July 2015, which represented the first “major overhaul” in a number of years, according to the spokesman. It has been amended 36 times since then for various technical and minor changes, mostly recently in November 2020.

“The pay plan is routinely changed throughout the year for a number of reasons, including revision of job titles, creation of new positions, reclassification due to change in job responsibilities, and the necessity of reclassifications following annual cost-of-living and merit raises,” the spokesman said.

Coram isn’t satisfied with that explanation and has challenged the decision. She said she believes the lower salary is punishment for winning the election.

“No matter how much experience I have, I’m required to do the same things the former Register of Deeds was required to do, so why is that an issue?” Coram said.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.