The filing period for judicial races in Cumberland County opened this week. The Fayetteville Observer is reporting that longtime incumbent Tal Baggett is being challenged by former Assistant District Attorney Caitlin Young Evans. Other District Court judges may face challengers. Rumors abound about potential filings, but they always do in District Court races. It’s best to wait and see who files.
One rumor that has been circulating for a while did come true last week, and it will set up a collision of power, party and politics in what may be the most interesting judicial election in recent memory. District Court Judge Lou Olivera announced that he will run in Superior Court District 12C against Mary Ann Tally or Jim Ammons. The “or” is what makes this an interesting race.
Earlier this week, after it was announced that Olivera had filed, I previewed the race on my blog as a three-way race with the top two vote-getters winning. This is how it has taken place in past elections in District 12C. Instead, it appears that due to a complex array of events in the legislature and the federal courts (that would fill up most of my space to explain), Olivera may have to choose which sitting judge to challenge. The un-challenged judge will simply keep his/her current seat, assuming no one else files.
A quick summary of the three candidates and what may happen:
Jim Ammons is the chief resident Superior Court judge, clothed in the immense power of his office, but he left the Democratic Party several years ago and will be listed as “unaffiliated” on the ballot. Ammons has held a judgeship in Cumberland County since 1988 and has a campaign machine that has been oiled and tuned over the decades. To put it simply, he wins, repeatedly.
Mary Ann Tally is the Democratic stalwart, a former Public Defender with a family name that runs deep in Cumberland County. Her mother-in-law, Laura, served as a legislator and a North Carolina senator for decades. As a judge, Tally has been popular with the local bar and is seen as effective, hard-working and fair. She’s going to get Democratic votes and is the only woman in the race, an inherent advantage.
The wild card, Lou Olivera, left the Democratic Party in 2014 and will run as a Republican. He should receive party-line support as the only (R) in the race, but he may get more than that. Olivera received national attention when he spent the night in jail with a veteran he sentenced. His celebrity and time on the District Court bench provide him with strong crossover appeal. Olivera may get votes from both sides of the isle.
If Olivera runs against Tally, it will set up a classic Democrat versus Republican showdown. The lines and differences will be easily drawn. Due to the success of Democratic women in judicial races in Cumberland County as of late, Olivera would have a tough road.
The more interesting and more likely scenario is Olivera running against Ammons. This race would be inherently unpredictable. Both men have name recognition in the community. Who will get the Democratic votes with no Democrat on the ballot? Who will the women of Cumberland County choose? It’s a toss-up if there ever was one.
For me to predict the outcome, I need to know the following: can Olivera pull minority votes in November despite having an (R) beside his name on the ballot? Can he do it in this particular election, a Trump referendum of sorts? If so, he may unseat a sitting Superior Court judge. If not, he picked a really bad time to become a Republican.
Editor’s note: Matt Richardson is an attorney at The Richardson Firm and covers Fayetteville and North Carolina politics on his website: www.crosscreekdivide.com.