Willie Rowe finished first in the primary but may need to prevail in a runoff.

Willie Rowe came out ahead in the race for Wake County Sheriff last night, unseating incumbent Gerald Baker with a swell of popular support—but the race may not be over yet.

Rowe, 62, won the Democratic primary with 29.45 percent of the vote, just shy of the 30 percent he needed to avoid a runoff. 

Baker—who finished the night in second place with 24 percent of the vote—has not yet commented on whether he will request a runoff. But if he does, voters could go to the polls a second time on July 26 to determine the race’s winner.

With such a crowded field, it’s unsurprising that candidates struggled to reach the 30 percent threshold. 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. 

Rowe told the News & Observer he hoped the official results, once reported, would put him over the edge into an unquestionable victory. 

Rowe was one of six Democrats to challenge Baker this year after his response to the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 garnered a wave of criticism. Advocates for criminal justice reform backed several candidates who promised to enact more progressive policies. 

But Baker also drew challengers because of his troubled tenure as sheriff. His first four years in office saw staff shortages and complaints of mismanagement, as well as multiple lawsuits filed by former employees alleging discrimination and retaliation. 

Rowe, who spent 28 years in the sheriff’s office before retiring, ran on the idea that he could bring order back to the institution, filling staff shortages. He’s pledged to increase employee pay and suggested allowing retirees to come back to work part-time. 

Ultimately, whoever wins the nomination—Baker or Rowe—will face Republican Donnie Harrison in November. Harrison is back for another shot at sheriff after being unseated by Baker in 2018. Before that, he served four consecutive terms, calling for bail reform and pretrial release programs but also cooperating with ICE to deport immigrants. Harrison’s participation in the controversial 287(g) program marked his downfall. He’s pledged to reinstate it if elected. 

The Wake County Sheriff’s race wasn’t the only one with an uncertain outcome. Of the three Cary Town Council seats up for grabs last night, only one candidate managed to secure a victory—incumbent Jennifer Robinson, who won the District A seat with 75 percent of the vote. 

The two other first-place finishers—Carissa Johnson and Renee Miller—failed to secure the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff. Both second-place finishers are now calling for a runoff July 26. 

In the at-large election, winner Carissa Johnson (40 percent) will face Ken George (39 percent). Incumbent Ed Yerha trailed his challengers all night and finished in last place with 21 percent of the vote. 

Johnson told the News & Observer she expected a runoff and is “ready for it,” but is thrilled by the support she received as a first-time candidate. George, a former town council member who was unseated in 2019, said he’s committed to finishing the race. 

In the District C election, winner Renee Miller (28.54 percent) will face incumbent Jack Smith (28.04 percent). The race was one of the closest local elections this year, with Miller winning over Smith by just 45 votes. 

Smith had an edge over challengers after early voting closed, with Amanda Murphy in second place, but both ultimately fell to Miller, a former human resources consultant, now a stay-at-home mom. Miller ran on a platform of keeping taxes low, keeping Cary safe, and keeping development in check. We’ll have more on this race in the coming weeks.

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