Learner crushes Gaither in DA's race
David Learner easily defeated incumbent District Attorney James C. Gaither on Tuesday in the Republican runoff election, which saw surprisingly high turnout for a one-race, local election.
Learner, who finished first in the three-candidate May 6 primary but barely shy of the margin needed to avoid the runoff, received 8,968 votes, or 61.81 percent of the vote, in complete but unofficial returns.
"This was never about me, this is a victory for our crime victims, our communities and our law enforcement," Learner said. "I'm glad to have this over. The praise and the glory goes to God. I'm really, really excited."
Because there is no Democratic candidate for district attorney, Learner is virtually assured of winning the office in November. Gaither will finish out his third term, which ends in December.
Learner received a call from Gaither conceding the race just before 8 p.m.
"He was very cordial and said he would work with us to make for a smooth transition," Learner added.
Gaither, who was first elected to office in 2002, finished with 5,541 votes, or 38.19 percent.
The tone of the election had gotten nasty in the closing weeks, but in an interview Tuesday evening Gaither was gracious toward his opponent, saying, "I predict you'll get a fighter out of this election."
"(David) Learner has shown the desire to serve, and the willingness to fight for the people. He's one who will roll up his sleeves and do the work," Gaither said.
Learner, a lawyer and former prosecutor in Burke County, ran on a platform of restoring confidence and respect to the district attorney's office, which handles criminal cases in Caldwell, Catawba and Burke counties. Learner, 57, served as an assistant district attorney under Bob Thomas from 1987-89 and David Flaherty from 1997-2002. He resigned in 2003 shortly after Gaither became district attorney.
Learner, who earned his law degree from Wake Forest University, has been in private practice since 2003, but he has said his heart is in prosecuting cases and putting his courtroom skills to use.
The primary in May was largely framed as a referendum on Gaither's tenure as district attorney. Gaither defended his record, and his two opponents attacked it.
But in recent weeks the race got ugly. On June 26, a sexual harassment suit was filed against Gaither in U.S. District Court in Statesville by Whitney Nicole Shaffer, who worked as an assistant district attorney in Hickory for three months in early 2013. Shaffer alleges that Gaither made inappropriate comments to her, groped her, tried to kiss her and to force her to touch him, and sent some sexually suggestive text messages as well as pictures taken from his lake house in Hickory. The suit included included 35 pages of text messages, many of them innocuous but some of them clearly suggestive.
Gaither called into question Learner's involvement in Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing, a multi-level marketing company that was shut down in January 2013 by the Federal Trade Commission, which called it an illegal pyramid scheme. The company, which was founded in Kentucky in 2001, denied the government's allegations but entered an agreement two months ago to forfeit at least $7.75 million in assets. Learner has said that he joined FHTM in early 2009 and let his membership lapse after only a few months, after which the company changed its business structure and compensation plan in questionable ways.
Election and Republican party officials speculated Monday that the negative media exposure might have been one reason that interest in the runoff appeared to be higher than would normally be expected for a one-race election. All three counties had relatively high levels of early voting, and in Tuesday's election, 9.921 ballots in Catawba County were cast, 12.85 percent of the 77,229 eligible voters. Burke County had a turnout of 6.94 percent, or 2,508 of 36,127 eligible voters. Turnout for Caldwell County was not available.
Gaither sent the following letter of concession to the News-Topic Tuesday:
I want to thank the people of Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties for giving me the opportunity to serve you as your District Attorney for 12 years. During these three terms it has been my honor to work with some of the finest men and women in law enforcement and to supervise the most efficient and effect District Attorney’s office in the State of North Carolina.
First, I want to acknowledge my respect for Mr. Learner’s willingness to serve and for his willingness to fight hard for the right to serve. There has been much said about the brutal nature of this contest, but it takes a fighter to run a district attorney’s office. David Learner has shown us all that he is willing to fight and fight hard.
Secondly, I want to thank all of my supporters and ask that they extend to Mr. Learner the opportunity to prove himself as District Attorney. Our law enforcement and justice system are woefully underfunded. Too often the problems of the entire system are laid at the door of the District Attorney. This is unfair, unrealistic and eventually counterproductive.
Finally, I have worked hard to be the best District Attorney that I could be, and I’m proud of the record of success. However, David Learner could not have defeated me if there were not a chink in my armor. I cannot undo the errors of the past, but I will do my best to move forward as a better person, better husband and father.
When I came into office I was met with disorganization. I can assure Mr. Learner and the public that when I hand the keys to Mr. Learner in 2015 the office will be in top shape, grand jury indictments will be up to date and the cases will be effectively and efficiently docketed.
Once again, I want to thank you for the awesome experience of being allowed to serve you as District Attorney. God bless the families of Burke, Caldwell and Catawba.
James C. Gaither, Jr.
Burke, Caldwell and Catawba