With two weeks to go until a midsummer Election Day, Wake County Sheriff candidates Willie Rowe and Gerald Baker are doing their best to spread the word that the race isn’t over yet. 

“In mid-summer, everybody’s vacationing, and the last thing on anybody’s mind is voting,” Rowe says. “So that’s the challenge. Every election is basically won by who turns out the most votes.”

Rowe, 62, finished first in the Democratic primary back in May with 29.45 percent of the vote, falling just short of the 30 percent he needed to avoid a runoff. Baker, the incumbent, finished in second place with 24.06 percent of the vote. 

“We’re very excited about the fact that we finished first,” Rowe says. “We think our message resonated with the voters. It would have been really satisfying if we’d scored the 30 (percent) plus 1 to avoid a runoff, but…with such a crowded field, it was a challenge.”

Rowe and Baker were just two of seven candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, so it’s not surprising the race went to a runoff. Rowe and Baker came out on top over Cedric Herring and Roy Taylor, who each won about 16 percent of the vote. Joe Coley (6 percent), Tommy Matthews (5 percent), and Randolph Baity (4 percent) finished at the bottom. 

With fewer candidates in the field this month, Rowe says he feels good about his chances of winning. 

“Of the primary voters, 76 percent of them voted for change, voted for new leadership, and we believe we represent that new leadership and that change,” he says, referring to the percentage of voters who cast their ballot for someone other than Baker. 

Baker, who was first elected in 2018, has faced strong criticism during his four years in office. His tenure saw staff shortages and complaints of mismanagement, as well as multiple lawsuits filed by former employees alleging discrimination and retaliation.

Baker called one lawsuit—in which former longtime deputy and chief of operations Richard Johnson alleged wrongful termination—”frivolous” and said the other allegations are purely political. In a report from The News & Observer, Baker said the lawsuits he’s facing are from people who would not accept the new leadership and expected to continue problematic practices that existed under the previous administration.

Baker has also faced criticism, however, for his response to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, when hundreds of people were met with tear gas and less-lethal bullets fired by Raleigh police officers and Wake County sheriff’s deputies. The incident has become a flashpoint for criminal justice advocates, who in May backed candidates promising to enact more progressive policies.

Many local activists are unhappy with the pace of change in the sheriff’s office. Although Baker has lived up to his promises to end cooperation with ICE, end over-policing in Southeast Raleigh, and change the culture inside the sheriff’s office, some are hoping for more aggressive policing reform. 

If re-elected, Baker plans to continue his work “restoring the integrity” of the office and holding officers accountable, he said in an earlier interview with the INDY. He pointed to his creation of a community relations unit, the seizure of 40 million grams of drugs in the past three years, and increased patrol of lakes and waterways.

Rowe, who spent 28 years in the sheriff’s office before running for the top spot, says he’ll bring “proven leadership, proven experience, and proven relationships” to the position. 

“My experience and my commitment and my sincerity, really caring, makes a difference,” Rowe says. “I think in me [people] see a sheriff who will be accessible and available and one who’s committed to the community.”

If elected, Rowe has pledged to hold weekly meetings with community members, to work to create opportunities for success for people “from all walks of life,” he says. On reform, Rowe has said the sheriff’s office needs to ensure it has a qualified, diverse, and inclusive workforce. He also supports a pretrial release program and increased education opportunities for people in jail.

One issue that has taken center stage in this race is the high number of vacancies in the sheriff’s office. Rowe says one of his top priorities if elected is to recruit additional staff.

“We want to create a work environment with good incentives, compensation, a career development plan that lets people know that they are advancing, and also a work schedule that allows people to have enough time off to spend quality time with their families,” Rowe says. 

Rowe says he is also committed, however, to nonpolice programs, such as a community engagement team and hiring civilians who are trained in crisis intervention, for example.

“We’re all about preventing crime, deterring, and getting people those resources so that they don’t have to resort to crime as a means of survival or acceptance,” Rowe says.

The winner of the July 26 runoff will face Republican Donnie Harrison in November. Harrison was sheriff for 16 years before being unseated by Baker in 2018.

During his four consecutive terms, Harrison called for bail reform and pretrial release programs, advocated for more school resource officers to be placed in Wake County schools, and cooperated with ICE to deport immigrants. He’s pledged to reinstate the controversial 287(g) program if elected. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill last week that would have forced all North Carolina sheriffs to cooperate with immigration authorities. 

Support independent local journalismJoin the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com.