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Voters pick Bryson, Wilke for November sheriff race in Haywood

Bill Wilke (left) and Larry Bryson. Bill Wilke (left) and Larry Bryson.

Haywood County residents are a step closer to learning who will replace a longtime lawman in December, after convincing Primary Election wins by private investigator Bill Wilke and retired Haywood County Sherriff’s Office Chief Deputy Larry Bryson.

Wilke, a Republican, took a full 50% of the primary vote, besting second-place finisher Tony Cope by almost 6 points. 

“Folks are ready for change,” Wilke said. “Folks are ready to move the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office forward in a direction that increases enforcement efforts, but also combines it with the whole of the community’s effort to address issues in a more modernized way.”

Cope, a captain in the Sheriff’s office, changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican shortly before declaring his intent to run for sheriff in early 2021. That switch left Cope with the extra work of trying to convince Republican voters of his Republican credentials, and may have been one of the deciding factors in his defeat. 

Republican Jason Hughes pulled just 369 votes, good for 5.2% and a distant third finish.  

Both Cope and Wilke  posted a strong absentee ballot effort but Wilke prevailed with a net lead of 174 votes before Election Day, and a 238-vote win at the polls, for a total of 3,557 votes to Cope’s 3,142. Wilke won 20 precincts, mostly in Haywood’s eastern half, but also did well across the county’s more heavily populated core. Cope’s nine precincts were mostly in the less populated northern and southern reaches. 

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A retired Army military police instructor, Wilke grew up in Maryland but spent time as an Asheville police officer from 2000 through 2016 before becoming a private investigator. 

On the Democratic side, Larry Bryson — who actually served as interim sheriff just before incumbent Democrat Greg Christopher was sworn in — ran away with the contest, capturing more than 58% of the vote. 

Clyde Alderman John Hemingway won just three precincts, two of them in Clyde. The wins netted him just 68 votes, while Bryson cruised in every other precinct, gathering a total of 2,203 votes. 

“I called [Hemingway] a day after the election and commended him on conducting himself like a gentleman,” Bryson said. “He has nothing to be ashamed of.”

Until recently, Hemingway owned a gun shop in Clyde. He currently serves as a training officer and corporal in the HCSO, instructing personnel in the use of force. 

Bryson originally joined the HCSO in 1976 before serving as a Waynesville police officer for a decade. He then worked for Champion’s private security force at the mill in Canton but ultimately returned to the HCSO, where he served as a detention officer, a deputy sheriff, chief of detectives and chief deputy. He currently works part time as a U.S. Marshall. 

When Sheriff Bobby Suttles abruptly resigned  halfway through his term in 2013, Bryson was appointed interim sheriff until the Haywood County Democratic Executive Committee selected Christopher, a highway patrol veteran, to serve. 

Christopher served out the rest of Suttles’ term and was reelected twice without opposition — a testament to his widespread appeal on both sides of the political spectrum. In March, 2021, Christopher, then 61, told The Smoky Mountain News  he wouldn’t seek another term after a lifetime in law enforcement. 

“God has been good to me, as have the citizens of this county,” Christopher said at the time. 

Christopher’s easygoing manner, tireless involvement with community groups and dogged legislative advocacy leave big shoes to fill for Wilke or Bryson, who face a slate of challenges. 

Their contest will likely be decided by how they intend to respond to issues  like an elevated property crime rate, the ongoing opioid epidemic and a recent “constitutional sheriff” movement that has citizens calling upon elected sheriffs to decide which laws, exactly, they intend to enforce — particularly in the realm of the Second Amendment, and with outside agencies. 

There’s also the expected theme of experience, both within and without Haywood County. 

“I still intend to bear down on the fact that Bill’s never worked in this county,” Bryson said. “He can tell people he’s worked in this county but he’s a private investigator. He doesn’t work criminal cases. I think I’m going to hammer down on my experience. I’ve held all the positions in the office and all those positions that would qualify you to hold the office of sheriff. I’ve been involved in all of it, hands on.”

Wilke doesn’t necessarily think having law enforcement experience outside of Haywood County is a bad thing. 

“I’ve been closely associated with law enforcement activities in Haywood County and the state of North Carolina,” Wilke said. “My association is independent of any state or federal agency. My knowledge is current and really not based on the experience of 10 years ago. Mr. Bryson hasn’t been in law enforcement for 10 years. I’m not sure what experience 10 years ago in Haywood County qualifies him to lead Haywood County, but mine does.” 

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