[This article has been modified since it was originally published. A correction notice has been added.]
Under a Carolina-blue sky, shaded by the oaks framing Pack Square, the small crowd formed a loose, attentive circle around a man speaking and gesticulating with the fervor of a revivalist. This was David Hurley, 37, a candidate to become the Buncombe county sheriff in 2022.
But, he told the crowd, he wouldn’t be your typical sheriff.
Hurley described a “constitutional sheriff,” a kind of super authority who would reign supreme over all law enforcement, more powerful than mayors, county commissioners, the governor and — when it came to local matters — even the president.
“The sheriff is the ultimate power in America,” Hurley declared, pacing inside the circle. “It’s been the best-kept secret that they didn’t want to get out. Even sheriffs that are in the seat today don’t know the power that they have.”
Hurley’s hair was cut “high and tight” as it had been in the Marine Corps and he held his muscled, athletic figure ramrod straight. The listeners, about 200 in all, seemed a cross-section of Asheville’s white population.
There were young adults clad in tie-dye and batik, many with ponytails irrespective of sex, some with babies in strollers or slings. A few had the look of working professionals at leisure: polo shirts and khakis, or blouses and Bermuda shorts. They included an osteopath, a registered nurse, a self-identified alternative-medicines researcher, and several older couples dressed as if coming from lunch at Cracker Barrel.
A gentle breeze carried the distant sound of music from the park’s band shell, mixing it with the gleeful voices of children playing games. But there were no lighthearted words spoken by Hurley. He warned of freedom-crushing repression and the need for vigilance against a powerful enemy.
“The biggest terrorist organization right now is the United States government,” Hurley declared, raising his voice to a near shout and eliciting spontaneous applause from the crowd. “It’s destroying every country around the world. And not because of doing good things for others, it’s because it’s all about power and money.”
Running as a Democrat
Hurley is running as a Democrat, the only one so far to file against incumbent Sheriff Quentin Miller, also a Democrat who says he’ll seek reelection. The folks in Pack Square were Hurley’s kind of people, united by a shared belief that their government isn’t only to be mistrusted, it is malevolent and to be feared and opposed.
The gathering was called the Health & Freedom Rally and the speakers warned the crowd that they were being lied to about the dangers of COVID-19; that deaths were greatly exaggerated or faked; that mask wearing and the push for mass vaccination were subterfuge for mind control; that vaccination records were “like the yellow star Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany,” said one, and that a preventive remedy against the coronavirus could be purchased at Tractor Supply in the veterinary medicine section (an anti-parasite treatment for pigs) — a fact “the CDC doesn’t want you to know,” another speaker asserted, referring to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
To each of these claims and more, the assembled crowd murmured assent. None wore a mask. Many carried handmade signs defiantly opposing vaccinations, though Hurley said it was a choice that individuals had the right to make. None spoke up for the “terrorist” federal government that he had challenged.
Hurley would first need to wrest the Democratic Party nomination from Miller, the incumbent sheriff, who on July 22 announced his intention to seek reelection. This may seem unlikely given Hurley’s prior Republican Party registration and his public assertions that Donald Trump was cheated out of reelection in a fraudulent vote.
But he has no intention of following the conventional wisdom on running a campaign, just as he has no intention of being a typical sheriff. Only as a “constitutional sheriff,” he said, can he “make sure that everything is right.”
Not your typical Andy of Mayberry
This view of an all-powerful sheriff riding to the rescue of a population repressed by higher levels of government is viewed quite differently by many organizations monitoring the nation’s growing number of extremist groups.
Among these are the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a former top terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security and numerous legal scholars. They see the constitutional sheriffs’ movement as aligning with several far-right organizations, some of which espouse white supremacy, antisemitism, unrestricted gun ownership, creation of armed “posses” and opposition to laws ranging from federal taxes to vaccination mandates.
“Unfortunately, the ideology of the constitutional sheriffs is catching on across the country,” said Rachel Goldwasser, who tracks hate groups for the SPLC. “Many of these sheriffs — not all, but many — bridge the gap among extremist groups and pull them together in an anti-government movement. It’s problematic, to say the least.”
This alarmist view may come as a surprise to most Americans who think of the county sheriff as a kind of rural police chief, with cowboy boots and a Stetson hat, or like Andy Griffith of the old Mayberry television program. Hurley admits this had been his impression also until he looked into the “constitutional sheriffs” movement emerging from the rural west and southwest, and now spreading across the south and into North Carolina.
He said he learned of it while attending a “patriot” gathering hosted by his ex-wife at their home in the Riceville section of Asheville. “Someone said to me, ‘Have you thought about running for sheriff?’ Hmmm, sheriff. Tell me what I should know about sheriff,” Hurley responded.
He said this “someone” told him that being a “constitutional sheriff” was more than a title. It implies adherence to principles enunciated by an organization called the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), and its founder, Richard Mack, who more than two decades ago was a county sheriff in a remote corner of Arizona. At an appearance before a policy discussion group in Black Mountain in July, Hurley said he is in regular contact with Mack, is a member of CSPOA, and would subscribe to its principles if elected.
In addition to those liberties enshrined in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, these principles include a pledge not to enforce any federal, state, county or city law mandating mask wearing, limiting the crowd sizes of public or religious gatherings, or restricting business operations “not withstanding any real or ostensible public health emergency.”
Hurley explained to the crowd in Pack Square how he would act: “Come election time, you’re going to have candidates for sheriff who want to blindly enforce the law. And when that law comes down that you have to be vaccinated, they will make sure it’s enforced. I will not.”
If Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer mandates vaccinations for all, Hurley continued, he said he will “come on TV and say, ‘Mayor, say that to the public again I will walk down to your office and you’ll be leaving in silver handcuffs.” The crowd applauded vigorously.
The law according to Sheriff Mack
As contentious as such policies may be, critics say that even more worrisome are the alliances forged by several constitutional sheriffs with well-known anti-government and hate groups. Mack served on the board of Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia recently identified as a primary instigator of the January 6 attack on the Capitol to stop certification of the 2020 presidential election. Several Oath Keepers have been charged with felonies in connection with the attack and face years in prison.
Mack also is a regular speaker at rallies and on media programs that embrace right-wing causes. His message — like Hurley’s in his campaign — is that local sheriffs uniquely have the power to thwart federal and state governments.
Mack gained fame in conservative circles in the 1990s when he agreed to allow the National Rifle Association to use his name on a lawsuit challenging a section of the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act requiring local law enforcement officials to conduct background checks on gun purchasers. The suit succeeded on a 5-4 vote of the Supreme Court in which the opinion, written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, held that Congress lacked authority to mandate action by local sheriffs.
In a telephone interview with Asheville Watchdog, Mack (who continues to call himself Sheriff Mack though voters in Graham County, Arizona, turned him out of office decades ago) said Scalia’s abstruse legal argument was an epiphany. In his reading of that opinion, Mack concluded that the Constitution deemed sheriffs to be the equal of Congress and the president, and thus could ignore federal laws the sheriffs deemed unconstitutionally sound.
Simply put, Mack said, elected county sheriffs have the power to act as “a check and balance” against Congress and the president when it comes to choosing which laws to enforce.
After pondering this notion for several years, Mack launched the CSPOA in 2011 and on its website declared, “The county sheriff is the one who can say to the feds, ‘Beyond these bounds you shall not pass.” He added: “In short, the CSPOA will be the army to set our nation free.”
Legal scholars call this dangerous nonsense. Professor Dennis Kenney, with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, told an interviewer with the Southern Poverty Law Center: “There’s never been anything to it, and there never will be.”
Goldwasser, the SPLC analyst, mocked the assertion that an elected sheriff’s interpretation of the constitution was the final word, in part because there are no educational requirements to be met to hold the office. “Their platform is that they will interpret what is constitutional and what is not, and they will choose to enforce or not enforce the law,” she said. “The problem is they may not have as much knowledge of the Constitution as, say, a Supreme Court justice.”
Protection from 5G mobile phone radiation
Anti-terrorism consultant Daryl Johnson sees a more ominous portent. In 2009 he was the federal Department of Homeland Security’s top expert on domestic terrorism and wrote a definitive report on the exponential growth of anti-government and hate groups. Johnson followed up in a 2017 column for the Washington Post in which he singled out Oath Keepers and CSPOA, writing: “This rebranded alt-right extremist movement has the ultimate goal to disrupt civil society, undermine government institutions and pick which laws — if any — they will abide by, and what supposed ‘justice’ they will administer on their own authority.”
Indeed, the office of elected county sheriff does differ in law and history from that of chiefs of police, who are hired government employees. The word derives from the contraction of the old English words “shire,” for county, and “reeve,” for overseer. These “shire-reeves” were named by the king who held them responsible for everything from maintaining order to collecting taxes. The office was transported to America in the colonial era and, after the American Revolution, appointment by the monarch was replaced by popular election.
Now, nearly three centuries later, the elected sheriff remains enshrined in the constitutions of most states, including North Carolina (created in 1776), with explicit powers including “to preserve the peace and public order,” running the county jails, serving warrants and providing courtroom security. Theoretically they report only to the county electorate, not to any governing body or individual.
“They do have authority, not as much as they believe, but they have wide discretion [in enforcing laws] within their counties,” said Goldwasser. “And they have guns and the authority to use those guns.”
If a “constitutional sheriff” decides to use that discretion by refusing to carry out a federal, state or local mandate, “I think that can be dangerous,” she continued. “In fact, that’s promoting lawlessness.”
Mack has claimed that CSPOA has about 4,500 dues-paying members, including two hundred sheriffs, each of whom receives a daily email often containing inspirational quotations or calls to “patriotic duty.” The website carries ads and links to other “patriot” groups and to products promising good health or protection from the imagined threat of 5G mobile phone transmission.
The SPLC has identified seven incumbent sheriffs in North Carolina who have publicly expressed support for the CSPOA’s positions, but the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association’s general counsel, Eddie Caldwell, told The Watchdog that he wasn’t aware of their policies differing substantially from those of other sheriffs.
Mack, for his part, fulminates against the SPLC’s claims that he is an extremist or shares the views of hate groups with which he has aligned. “That’s a bunch of lies,” he shouted over the phone. “Lies, lies, lies! I denounce all racism, all white supremacism. We’re all about equality, we’re all about following the Constitution!”
An aversion to deadly force
Hurley, despite his anti-federal government rhetoric, belies the stereotype of a bullying, racist southern sheriff and, paradoxically, draws attacks from other conservatives for his oft-repeated argument that law enforcement officers should avoid using force — especially deadly force — in all but life-or-death situations.
He is the divorced father of four young children and points to them as his reason for seeking office. In political and casual situations he mingles easily with people of all views, is quick to make self-deprecating jokes, is unfailingly polite and, when engaged in conversation — men always “sir” and women “ma’am” — gives unwavering attention to the other person like a salesman closing a deal.
That’s precisely the demeanor he believes that a sheriff and deputies should demonstrate. In the platform posted on his campaign website, www.hurleyforsheriff.com, Hurley asserts that law-enforcement training should place far more emphasis on using interpersonal communication skills to resolve tense situations than force or violence.
“I would rather hire deputies who had been trained as salesmen than trained in how to use firearms,” he said in an interview for this article. His anti-force position has drawn angry comments on his Facebook page that he failed to “back the blue” and barely qualified as a “rookie cop” much less as a county sheriff.
Hurley concedes his uniformed law-enforcement experience is thin, though real. Born and raised on the state’s Outer Banks and in Durham, he said he didn’t like school but loved the outdoors, and the more rugged the better. As a teen he underwent an Outward Bound winter survival program in Maine and spent another summer in the West Virginia mountains maintaining trails.
“I always wanted to challenge myself,” he said. In 2000, at the age of 17, he took on what he called his biggest challenge: He joined the Marines for a stint that included a year in Iraq not long after 9/11, though focused on high-level organization rather than combat, he said. When his enlistment was up, and with a young wife uninterested in continuing the life of a military spouse, he joined the Raleigh police department, one of the few careers where his military training could translate to civilian work, he reasoned.
Hurley said he loved the work because every situation posed a problem and “I am a problem solver. That’s what I want to do.” But after three years, and in the wake of a failing marriage, he again thought he needed a challenge and perhaps time to rethink his life’s direction.
His answer was to accept a job with a private security contractor working in Afghanistan, primarily as bodyguard for American businessmen working in the region. It paid well, enough to allow him to live in Spain for a year after his security contract ended and to begin a new career as a web designer and digital-media consultant.
He relocated to Asheville, he said, because he had visited it a few years earlier and recalled it as a “nice place [and] if I ever get the chance I’ll move there.” Under the name David Bentley, he established a digital marketing company called Zero Zen Design, remarried, and had four children with his wife, Andrea Olson.
He said his rightward drift came gradually, influenced mostly by involvement in a “patriots’ group” that he described as nonpartisan and diverse in its makeup, “people you would normally not find in a room together.”
Its meetings often included invited speakers who, he told The Watchdog, introduced him to such ideas as unregulated treatments for Covid-19 (most of them debunked by medical experts), methods to evade vehicle registration requirements, and ways to avoid paying federal and state taxes. Hurley said he has learned from these speakers that such fees and taxes are unconstitutional.
“This is all part of a system to tax us and control us,” he said. “We just blindly go along.”
Guardians, not warriors
As sheriff, Hurley said he would block the Internal Revenue Service from placing liens on county citizens for failure to pay taxes unless the IRS proved to him that it had the “valid authority” to act because “as sheriff, my job is to make sure that the people’s rights are defended.”
“There’s no law requiring you to pay taxes,” he continued. He cited language in an IRS handbook describing the system as being based on “voluntary compliance” to verify his belief. But the 16th amendment to the Constitution authorized the income tax and the IRS has legal authority to fine taxpayers for failing to accurately file their annual returns.
Despite a mild demeanor, Hurley doesn’t shy from direct action. In May he joined a protest group determined to confront the Buncombe County Board of Education about its policies on masking and the introduction of critical race theory in the curriculum, a recent target of the conservative right. Because of pandemic restrictions, the board allowed only one speaker into the room at a time and had a deputy sheriff on duty to enforce that rule.
Hurley would have none of it. He told the deputy that he was violating the protesters’ constitutional rights to “peaceably to assemble and to petition the government.” Individual appearances weren’t “assemblies” and the policy reduced the protester’s arguments to “a rant,” he said. The deputy wasn’t moved by the argument.
A few weeks later, the Board members and Sheriff Miller were presented with copies of a 19-page complaint with “affidavits” signed by many of the protesters and written in a style similar to a legal summons. The complaint demanded that board members and Miller resign within three days or pay a fine of $250,000 in gold bullion, to be divided among all the citizens of Buncombe County. Their alleged crime: violating the constitutional rights of the protesters. Neither Miller nor the board members responded to the demands.
Strength and flexibility
Hurley’s path to election isn’t without obstacles. He voted as a Republican in 2016 and initially considered running in that party for the office of sheriff. In the months before the 2020 election, neighbors spotted pro-Trump signs in the yard of his former Riceville Road house and said the American flag was flown upside down, a signal of protest.
Nonetheless, Hurley said he recognized that Democrats hold a nearly two-to-one registration edge over Republicans in Buncombe County, and if he ran as a Republican candidate, “I wouldn’t have a seat at the table.” As a Democrat, he reasoned, the media and a majority of voters would pay attention to him and perhaps many would be open to his unconventional ideas.
Yet as a Democrat he also must take on incumbent Sheriff Miller, who won a lopsided victory in 2018 and entered the office as the capstone to a 40-year career in law enforcement, first as a military policeman and then three decades in the Asheville Police Department.
Still, Hurley said, he is confident that by meeting Miller in media debates and in assembling a coalition of government skeptics he can persuade enough Democrats and independent voters embrace his ideas about establishing a “constitutional” sheriff’s office.
Paradoxically, his platform includes an extensive section on de-militarizing police that, he said, could appeal even to such progressives as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a Democrat who is also a member of Democratic Socialists of America. And it aligns with Sheriff Miller’s belief that “21st century policing has to place more emphasis on being guardians of the public than being warriors.”
In an interview, Miller said he would agree to debate Hurley — and any other candidate — prior to the party primary set for March 8. “It’s an opportunity for people to hear from the candidates and to form their own opinions,” he said of debates. But while insisting that he wouldn’t attack any opponent in his campaign, he also made clear that doesn’t accept Hurley’s vision for establishing a “constitutional” sheriff in Buncombe County with supreme, self-anointed law-enforcement authority.
“It leads me to ask, are we trying to be sheriff and judge and jury and executioner? And my answer is no.”
[CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly inverted the countries where Hurley served as a Marine and later worked as a private security contractor. He served in Iraq and worked in Afghanistan. The Watchdog apologizes for the error.]
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.