The air inside Durham Sheriff Worth Hill's office is suffused with the earthy, masculine aroma of pipe tobacco. A yellow rug sits in front of his weighty wooden desk like a welcome mat, boasting his name and title. Hill, 73, even sends personalized birthday cards to his employees featuring a Beetle Bailey-esque caricature of himself puffing on a pipe.
"That's my pacifier," Hill says, chuckling.
In his 16 years in office, Hill has had time to settle in. And despite the publicity of some recent scandals and failures among his department's 439 employees, his popularity seems intact as he readies for the Nov. 2 election. Hill has received widespread endorsements and earned about $15,000 in contributions for this campaign, including $1,500 from his employees in the last quarter. With his past success in mind, political observers believe he's headed for his fifth term.
"The community still wants me to run and be the sheriff, so that's why I'm doing it," Hill said.
The last time Hill faced a Republican challenger was in 1998, and he won 80 percent of that vote. Until last week, it looked like Hill might finally face a serious contender in Republican newcomer Roy Taylor. But Taylor acknowledged just days ago that he might not meet a critical residency requirement to serve as sheriff, and the contentious race lost steam. Taylor says he was not made aware of the requirement when he filed for office, and that if he earns more votes than Hill, he'll prove he's eligible under the state's constitution.
Hill's backers say the residency issue shows Taylor isn't credible, and one of Hill's supporters on Tuesday formally challenged Taylor's eligibility with the Durham Board of Elections. A hearing will be scheduled for after the election. Now the only other obstacle for Hill is whether voters can look past the crimes committed by his own employees in the four years since he was last elected. In 2006, three deputies were fired after one was caught trafficking drugs out of a nightclub, and the other two committed ethical violations. A year later, a civilian employee of the sheriff's office was charged with embezzling more than $100,000. A 2007 audit found that as much as $311,000 was missing and that the organization's lax accounting procedures contributed to the theft.
Other embarrassments include a March shooting outside the county's courthouse, which revealed that security cameras there haven't worked for years. And just last month, Derek O'Mary, a former lieutenant under Hill, was arrested on charges of embezzling almost $98,000 since 2003.
Hill says that in a large department, wrongdoing by some is inevitable. What counts, he says, is the way the sheriff handles the situation. In O'Mary's case, for instance, Hill suspended him within two hours of learning about the allegations and immediately involved the district attorney and the State Bureau of Investigation.
But there are also examples of inaction. Seven months after the courthouse shooting, new cameras still haven't been installed. And although a 2007 audit showed that poor fiscal oversight in the sheriff's office contributed to employee theft, a recent follow-up audit showed that in three years, only a few of the recommended changes had been made.
These shortcomings are central to Taylor's campaign. His talking points revolve around accountability and transparency. He once even turned in his own teenage son to police for stealing a car, he told the Indy, and his son served a year in prison as a result.
"I could not live knowing that my family member had committed a felony," Taylor said. "I will not tolerate it from an employee and I will not tolerate it from a friend."
Taylor, 48, is originally from Ohio but moved to North Carolina in 1986 to work as a Cary police officer. He has since worked as a police chief for several small North Carolina towns and now works for a federal anti-terrorism program and owns a private security company. Hill's supporters have chastised Taylor for the numerous jobs he has held, some lasting only a few months. Taylor said that he left two policing jobs because he had been asked to keep quiet on unethical behavior.
But it might be the residency law, not his opponent, that poses the most onerous obstacle. State law requires that candidates for sheriff live in the county where they're running for at least a year. Taylor said he became aware of the requirement only after filing a concealed weapon permit application at the Durham County Sheriff's Office, on which he listed his past 10 addresses, several of which were in Wake County. One of Hill's employees allegedly alerted a newspaper reporter, who confronted Taylor with the information.
Taylor confirmed he hasn't lived in Durham uninterrupted for the past 12 months because he sold the Durham house he owned with his former wife and stayed temporarily in Raleigh apartments. He also keeps an apartment in Virginia, where he sometimes stays while commuting to his current full-time job with the Virginia National Guard, he said.
But, Taylor said, he settled back in Durham County in December 2009 to live with a former girlfriend on Glover Road. The house has long functioned as a home-based office for William S. Scarth's painting and contracting business. Scarth said Taylor was dating his sister, who lived in the house, but Taylor never paid rent or signed a lease.
"I don't know that he was living there at all, or if he moved in," Scarth said. "I told [my sister] I thought he was trying to use her to establish residency."
Reached by phone, Lee McCullough confirmed that she and Taylor had a personal relationship and said Taylor did live with her for a time. Prompted to provide specific dates, she referred further questions to Taylor.
After questions about his residency arose, Taylor said he would withdraw from the race, despite the fact that he had spent $13,000 of his savings to run. But Taylor's campaign is now pushing forward after several attorneys said the state's constitution says only legislators are required to live in their base county for one year. They claim all other offices require only 30 days.
Don Wright, legal counsel for the N.C. State Board of Elections, said that the election law requiring a year of residency was passed in the 1970s, is valid and must be enforced.
"As to whether it is constitutional or not is a question for the court," Wright said.
Of course, the question won't be raised at all if Hill wins re-election. With 50 years' experience and a well-known family, Hill will be hard to dethrone. Hill grew up in Durham. His father worked for 40 years at the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company and his mother worked for the Salvation Army.
As sheriff, Hill commands employees who patrol the county and run the jail and the courthouse. He says of his staff, "They enjoy working here. They enjoy the leadership that we have, and the camaraderie. We're a big family."
Hill has always been interested in public safety, evidenced by the black-and-white photo on his desk of him at age 11, wearing a school safety patrol belt buckled across his torso. The image is one of dozens along the walls of Hill's office. But it will be up to voters whether those old portraits—and the woody odor of pipe tobacco—will be allowed to linger.