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Politics

Campaign for Mecklenburg DA gets underway

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City of Charlotte
Michael Barnes (Photo: BarnesforDA.com) align=right

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Mecklenburg County voters are in for something of a rarity this November. They'll have a choice for District Attorney. Peter Gilchrist has held the office since 1975 and has run unopposed every election since his first one. He's decided not to enter the race this year. City Councilman Michael Barnes, a Democrat, and Republican Andrew Murray, a former assistant district attorney, are competing for the seat. They have no primary opponents, so the campaign against each other is already underway. Last week they met at a forum hosted by Neighbors for a Safer Charlotte. WFAE's Lisa Miller was there and has this report. 

Barnes doesn't draw much on his legal career when talking about his qualifications for district attorney. After all, his practice focuses on civil matters like business and insurance litigation. Instead, Barnes talks about his experience on city council. He says he's improved public safety by putting more police officers on the street and pushing for smaller police divisions.

"I've spent the last five years... getting involved in the community and understanding what's happening in neighborhoods and doing something about it," says Barnes. "What I want to do now is take that to a different level."

While Barnes has the political experience, Andrew Murray does not. This is his first run for public office. Murray says his position as a commander in the Coast Guard reserves and his experience with criminal court cases has prepared him for the DA job. He was an assistant DA in the early 90s. He's been a criminal defense attorney for the last fourteen years. "I think that's important for a prosecutor that you have that experience," says Murray.

He says he's well-acquainted with what assistant DAs go through in making decisions on what evidence and witnesses to use. "All that's important in strategy on bringing a case ultimately to the conclusion of getting a guilty plea."

The thirty-five year legacy of current DA Peter Gilchrist looms large in this election. Gilchrist is not a popular man in this audience. Neighbors for a Safer Charlotte has accused him of dismissing too many cases and making it easy for criminals to keep committing crimes. This has also been a source of friction with Charlotte Mecklenburg police.

Police Chief Rodney Monroe was among the audience. Last year the DA and CMPD launched a joint effort to target repeat offenders. Both Murray and Barnes say this is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done.

Murray says the DA's office needs to push for higher bonds when appropriate. "The first part of keeping them off the streets is bonds. Bonds need to be commensurate with that person, their background, with what they've done off the streets," says Murray. "If someone has lived no job, just lived off of society, they need to go and they need to be prioritized to go."

Barnes supports that notion, but says the DA's office needs to work with other law enforcement agencies on outreach efforts to prevent crime. "There are absolutely people who need to be in jail and I'm prepared to hold them accountable in that way, but we also want to stop spending your tax money locking people up," says Barnes.

Barnes believes his office should play a role in bringing the crime prevention issue up to elected officials and talking to kids about the value of education. He wants an open line between community leaders and the DA's office.

Murray says he too wants to regularly step outside the courthouse to gauge people's concerns. He plans on attending monthly meetings and using feedback to help shape the office's approach.

Near the end of the forum, the two candidates did more to set themselves apart. "You make certain that you select great people. You evaluate them. You equip them. You put them in leadership positions. You train others and you lead by ethics beyond reproach and you lead by example and that's what I'll be doing," said Murray. "What we need is someone who understands intergovernmental dynamics and can work with our leadership in Raleigh to bring resources here," said Barnes.

Although the primary election is next week, voters won't have to choose between Murray and Barnes until November.