The sponsors of House Bill 312 — officially called Qualifications for Sheriff/Expunction — seem to have left out a few key words in this vitally important legislative proposal.
Which, when you think about it, is hard to believe, considering that the darn thing runs to seven full, single-spaced pages.
The bill, and a companion wending its way through the state Senate, contain such important verbiage as “education,” “training” and “standards” in helpfully spelling out for candidates how to answer one simple question.
Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
It really shouldn’t be this difficult. Yet here we sit while the honorables in Raleigh debate whether a crook can be elected sheriff in any one of North Carolina’s 100 counties.
The bill — which passed a vote in the N.C. House on Thursday — is careful to note that no counties are specifically cited.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but anybody around here not born last night knows that is pure, complete and total bunk.
The Qualifications for Sheriff/Expunction bill is, and always will be, the Gerald Hege Bill. Who else could it possibly be?
Hege, to be fair, worked hard (and smart) to win election as sheriff of Davidson County in 1994.
Then-candidate Hege was a man of the people. A rightfully proud Vietnam veteran, he was approachable, accessible and, we all thought, a straight-shooter. He never wanted to be anything other than sheriff.
And for those of us in the media, the man was gold — a colorful quote machine guaranteed to sell papers and later generate clicks on websites.
Many voters became enamored with a sheriff who removed TVs from the county jail and painted cell walls pink. Never mind the pesky formality that most inmates in county jails are awaiting trial and have not been found guilty.
Add in an office decorated to look like a military bunker, black fatigues and the souped-up “Spider Car” capable of speeds in excess of 140 mph — Hege openly bragged about doing just that in 1997 — and the result was a made-for-TV, larger-than-life cult figure.
Problem was, somewhere along the line, a self-styled, no-nonsense, “No Deals” sheriff morphed into a cartoon character, more puffed up buffoon than lawman.
Perhaps the notoriety, the cable TV show and line of barbecue sauce went to his head. Maybe he started to believe the hype and started thinking he was the law rather than someone simply elected to uphold it.
Or maybe Hege was a crook all along. He lost his driver’s license in 1977 following a misdemeanor conviction for speeding, reckless driving, failure to stop for blue lights and eluding arrest.
It’s hard to say. The man who once basked in the spotlight hasn’t spoken publicly outside a election-board hearing room in years.
Exploiting the loophole
This much we do know: Hege’s fall from the heights was breathtaking.
“Sheriff No Deals” cut himself a massive one after being indicted on 15 felony counts related to embezzlement, racial profiling, obtaining property by false pretense, endangering the public and intimidation.
He agreed to resign in 2004 as part of a plea bargain that spared him prison time; maybe he feared teddy bears stenciled on jailhouse walls.
He ran for sheriff in 2010 as a convicted felon and flamed out spectacularly. Still, after that election, lawmakers fearful of a second act authorized a ballot measure that added an amendment to the N.C. Constitution that forbade convicted felons from running for sheriff.
Naturally, most voters were for it.
But Hege found a work-around. He quietly had his felony record expunged and filed to run again in 2018.
“I don’t have a record,” he said in April 2018. “It’s like I never had one.”
Technically that was true. But morally and ethically, not so much.
Not wanting to make law itself, the Davidson County Board of Elections authorized his run. The good people of Davidson County, specifically voters in the Republican primary that May, took care of the rest by taking him to the electoral woodshed. Sheriff Richie Simmons won 52.6 percent, then-incumbent David Grice 22.8 percent and Gerald Hege 16.3 percent.
That really ought to have been the final shovel of dirt on a sullied career. But lawmakers in Raleigh offered up HB 312 to basically clarify that expungement of a felony conviction is a disqualifier for prospective candidates for sheriff in all 100 counties.
To make doubly sure, lawyers and bill-drafters, in an attempt to cover all possibilities, wrote the thing to seven single-spaced pages.
And in all those thousands of words, they still managed to leave out a few: garlic, mirrors, direct sunlight, silver bullets and wooden stakes take care of vampires, too.