The separation of law enforcement, justice and politics

The two least surprising pieces of news out of Election Day in Alamance County were the following:

First: Incumbent District Attorney Pat Nadolski lost to challenger and one-time colleague Sean Boone in the Republican primary.

And second: Subsequently Nadolski was not immediately available for comment about it. Absolutely no politician wants to talk to the press after a defeat.

Yes Nadolski’s loss after winning two countywide elections for the job as the top prosecutor in the Alamance district was stunning only in its margin. Up to Tuesday night Nadolski had specialized in winning extraordinarily close elections, one in 2010 by less than 10 votes and after a recount.

In 2018 — after changing parties from Democrat to Republican in 2015 — he was clobbered by Boone by an unofficial count of 4,375 to 3,513. This with the rabid endorsement of longtime county sheriff Terry Johnson. Boone put it this way in the Times-News story after the votes were counted as he thanked his supporters and God, “You don’t beat the two biggest political machines in Alamance County alone,” Boone said.

I think first that Boone is overstating the power of Nadolski’s political machinery. Big money and a high-powered political consulting firm aren’t necessarily strong indicators of widespread support. The sheriff, on the other hand, has a solid foundation of support and estimable political skills himself. Meanwhile Nadolski is a front-runner who looks presentable in a suit. And as always with any election I would hope the almighty has  bigger issues to take interest in than a random political race in one North Carolina county.

So what happened?

There are a lot of election post-mortem theories, of course. That’s a given. Some blame Nadolski’s switch of party affiliation. Others note concerns about performance of his office in bringing criminal cases to trial. From a personal perspective I’ve found Nadolski a nice enough guy out and about but timid with the media (local reporters are not that scary, trust me) and too thin-skinned when it comes to taking criticism from political opponents or unhappy constituents. When I was a newspaper editor he seemed intimidated by media questions, uncomfortable in the spotlight and very willing not to follow North Carolina public records laws when it suited him. And during a candidate forum with Rob Sharpe, his opponent in 2014, a full-blown train wreck occurred with neither candidate acquitting themselves very professionally. Make that not professionally at all.

All of those things add up.

And it could be that his association with Johnson was seen as a little too cozy by some voters. It is the job of a sheriff to enforce the law and of the district attorney to see that justice is served. Sometimes the two overlap, but they are hardly the same thing. The two spend a lot of time being photographed or videotaped together at press conferences. Nadolski and his political consultants built a major ad campaign with photos featuring he and the sheriff in friendly poses. A billboard featuring the two has had a prominent place on I-85 / 40 for a few years now. It’s almost like Nadolski is playing Robin to Sheriff Johnson’s Batman.

Nadolski sheriff

From the Pat Nadolski District Attorney Facebook page.

It’s worth noting that while there should be strong cooperation between the offices of sheriff and district attorney the two are separate entities with each accountable to the other. A district attorney should be free of strong political associations with a sheriff and vice-versa. I’m reminded of a case in Onslow County, where I worked for more than 15 years. Long after I was gone, in 2014, the longtime sheriff Ed Brown came under scrutiny for questionable activities regarding his re-election efforts involving opponent Hans Miller. District Attorney Ernie Lee was called upon to do a preliminary examination of the accusations and did, sending the matter to the State Bureau of Investigations and questioning the ethical tactics used by the sheriff. Brown was eventually defeated in a primary by Miller, ending more than 20 years in office.

In this and other cases the district attorney should be above any question of political favoritism when investigating the actions of a sheriff or anyone else for that matter. Justice is that important.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next for Nadolski. I often thought he appeared to have greater political ambitions beyond the prosecutor’s office. His association with political strategists would indicate as much.






2 thoughts on “The separation of law enforcement, justice and politics

  1. Interesting perspective. I fall into the category of those who were supremely disappointed in his switch to the Republican Party. His coziness with the Sheriff was also disturbing. That said, I hope that we will at least have some Democratic opposition next time.


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