Bench seat covers Craven, Pamlico, Carteret counties

An assistant district attorney and a New Bern attorney are vying for the open seat of recently retired superior court judge Kenneth Crow in District 3B.

The judicial district covers Craven, Carteret and Pamlico counties and is non-partisan.

Robert J. McAfee and Josh Willey had an easy run through the primaries — they were the only candidates on the ballot, guaranteeing they would both advance to the November finale that would fill Crow’s seat.

McAfee, the assistant DA, said his desire for judgeship goes back many years.

“I’ve thought about being a judge for a long time,” he said. “I remember a conversation I had with one of my law professors, saying I wanted to be a judge. He said, ‘Well, what are you going to do in the meantime?’”

McAfee said he has spent that “meantime” getting experience on “both sides of the aisle,” an experience he believes will give him balance as a judge.

He has spent the last 4 1/2 years with the district attorney’s office where he has specialized in prosecution of property crimes (“I describe it as the flip side of the drug cases,” he said.) He also spent 16 years as a defense lawyer and, for a year before that, he was a law clerk for a federal judge.

“I’m a board certified specialist in state and criminal law,” he said, and added that he believes he’s the only such qualified attorney in any North Carolin DA office.

He is married and has three daughters and two grandsons.

Willey, meanwhile, said he is running because entering the judiciary is “a natural progression to my legal career.” He also says that, being behind the bench, he can affect more lives.

“We’re in a crisis as far as respect for the rule of law goes,” he added. “As a lawyer I get to have … a direct effect on a few hundred people a year. As a judge, I would have the opportunity to positively affect several thousand people and through my actions help enhance respect for the rule of law.”

He has practiced law in New Bern since 1977. At first, he said, he ran a “general practice like most lawyers in small towns did back then,” dabbling in just about any area. But about 15 years ago he left his private practice to concentrate on trial work, mostly criminal defense.

He is married with one daughter.

Both candidates describe themselves as constitutionalists.

When asked about weaknesses and strengths in the courts, McAfee pointed to the backlogs in criminal and civil cases.

“There’s one criminal trial session a month in Craven and Carteret; Pamlico is once every three months,” he said. “Scheduling and keeping the docket moving is an area that can always be improved.”

While he sees this as a “weakness that is built into our system,” he noted that, in Craven County “in our administrative sessions, we schedule through Thursday at noon. But prosecutors are available until the close of business, Friday.” He said that, as a judge, he could “turn up the heat and (say) I’m going to be here Friday ‘til 5 o’clock.”

Willey emphases a lack of technology as the district’s greatest weakness.

“That’s not something that, as a judge, I could change,” he said, “but I could advocate for it. That’s a funding issue for the state.”

He also agreed that the courts need to work on efficiency.

“Some cases take way too long to get resolved,” he said, adding that “a lot of it is funding. We only have so many assistant DAs.”

Both candidates pointed to the quality of the area’s judges and attorneys as the district’s biggest strength.

The candidates both say they are running a grass-roots campaign with an emphasis of visiting all the voters they can.

According to reports filed with the State Board of Elections, Willey has by far the larger campaign chest, at least for the first half of 2016.

According to a disclosure report for the second quarter of 2016 (March 1 through June 30), Willey’s campaign raised $25,665 from individual donors. Willey also loaned his campaign $40,000 during the same period, reports show.

In contrast, McAfee’s campaign reported $7,350 in contributions from individuals for the second quarter. McAfee gave his own campaign $200 in February, reports show.

More than 15 of Willey’s donors for the second quarter were attorneys or representatives of firms that practice in Eastern North Carolina, including six who contributed $1,000 or more — Paul Delamar III ($1,000), Roger L. Crowe Jr. ($1,500), James Lupton ($1,500), Thomas A. Kellis ($1,000), Daniel Potter ($1,000) and Alice Chesnutt, who is listed as the office manager at Chesnutt, Clemmons & Peacock ($2,500), according to reports.

McAfee did not attract as much support from attorneys in the second quarter, and stated he was intentionally avoiding raising money from them. “I’m not flush with money, but I’ve not taken the approach that I want to get contributions from every attorney in town,” he said.

Still, he received $1,000 contributions from attorneys Kelly Greene, Thomas Wilson and Kellis, who also donated $1,000 to Willey’s campaign.

Campaign finance reports for the third quarter are not due until Oct. 31.

Saying he is down to a couple of thousand dollars in his campaign account, McAfee said he has emphasized “using social media, walking around talking to people … you can’t ask a television ad any questions.”

He has rented three highway billboards and, of course, his supporters have spread numerous signs around. He has a Facebook page for his campaign.

Willey has made more use of television and radio advertising and has not used billboards. He also has a website and Facebook page. “Mainly I’ve tried to get around and meet people,” he said. “It’s taken up a lot more of my time … than practicing law has the last few months.”

 Sun Journal reporter Sandy Wall contributed to this report.

 Contact Bill Hand at bill.hand@newbernsj.com, 252-635-5677, and follow him @BillHandNBSJ.