The endorsement announcements were a study in contrasts.
Last week, beloved US Rep. Howard Coble, retiring at the age of 83, announced his endorsement of Phil Berger Jr. in the Republican runoff for the 6th Congressional District seat the congressman is vacating. It was a staid, low-key affair with the elder statesman of the local party gingerly granting his blessing to the candidate.
Second to Coble, Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes commands the most respect among local Republicans. Speaking alongside Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson in a small meeting room at the Embassy Suites Hotel near Piedmont Triad International Airport this morning. Barnes’ remarks elicited a raucous and spirited response from the Rev. Mark Walker’s tea party supporters in an event that occasionally felt like a high school football game.
Barnes, who has alienated Guilford County tea partiers in the past, said he decided to endorse Walker based on criteria he uses to evaluate any candidate who seeks his support: integrity, honesty and “a caring attitude about the citizens they want to represent.
“I listened to the words of Congressman Coble as he endorsed Mark’s opponent,” Barnes said. “He mentioned it was a tough decision. For me, in this run-off, it was not that tough a decision.”
Barnes called Walker “a man whose allegiance is only to the people he represents,” and without mentioning it by name, denounced a super PAC called Keep Conservatives United that has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars from unlimited contributions to smear Berger Jr.’s opponents.
“I watched a primary campaign where a special interest that supported Mark’s opponent spent thousands of dollars attempting to discredit Mark and other candidates by running ads filled with innuendo and implications of impropriety. Not once did I hear Mark’s opponent ask that these ads cease or attempt to distance himself from them in any way.
“This is the type of campaign activity that represents nobody well,” Barnes continued. “It gives elected officials who attempt to serve honorably a bad name. It causes good people who have talent to serve a reason to not be part of the process. If we do not insist our candidates and elected officials act responsibly and professionally we will be doomed to being a second or third rate country.”
When a reporter noted to Barnes that Berger Jr. has taken the position that he’s not responsible for the ads produced by Keep Conservatives United, the sheriff quoted Edmund Burke, prompting energetic applause.
“When good men do nothing, evil prevails,” Barnes thundered. “He had the opportunity to say, ‘I don’t agree with this.”
Walker used his comments to reinforce his conservative bona fides, underscoring the fact that there is little ideological difference between the two Republican candidates. The endorsement of Sheriff Johnson, whose office has been under investigation by the US Justice Department for racial profiling against Latino motorists, is likely to mitigate charges by Keep Conservatives United that the candidate has equivocated on immigration enforcement.
“Our message of tax reform, limited government, no amnesty and the repeal of Obamacare is important,” Walker said. “It’s what drove me to pursue this journey. I’ve seen the results and the failure of big government policies as I’ve served in some of our inner cities like Cleveland and Baltimore. I want to got to Washington to tell people there’s hope. But, this hope, our brightest future is not found in the clutches of a controlling federal government.”
UPDATE (2:18 p.m.): The Berger campaign responds to the sheriffs’ endorsement by repeating a charge leveled by the Keep Conservatives United super PAC, while sidestepping questions about the attack ads run by the PAC:
“While we respect the sheriffs’ service to the community, we’re surprised that they would endorse a candidate who supports amnesty for illegal immigrants and favors expanded background checks for gun owners,” Communications Director Gillum Ferguson says in a prepared statement.
“Every single campaign ad we ran was a positive one,” he continues. “Our positive campaign focused and will continue to focus on the issues and our conservative message.”