North Carolina

New NC elections director should get $30,000 more than fired predecessor, board agrees

Karen Brinson Bell will become the North Carolina Board of Elections executive director in June 2019.
Karen Brinson Bell will become the North Carolina Board of Elections executive director in June 2019. NC Board of Elections

The North Carolina Board of Elections wants to give the state elections director a $30,000 raise as it replaces Executive Director Kim Strach in the job next month.

Karen Brinson Bell was chosen to replace Strach earlier this month, in a vote that divided the five-member elections board along party lines. The three Democrats voted to oust Strach and replace her with Brinson Bell, while the two Republicans voted to keep Strach. Strach was elevated to the top job under former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

On Thursday, the board voted to give Brinson Bell a $140,000 annual salary. Strach makes just above $110,000 a year. The raise still has to be approved by state human resources officials before taking effect, however.

“I found out what Kim was being paid and I thought it was horribly underpaid,” said Bob Cordle, who became the board chairman earlier this year and suggested the higher pay for Brinson Bell during the board’s Thursday meeting.

Josh Lawson, the board’s general counsel, said Thursday that there were staffers at the board of elections making more than the executive director, and that at least one county director was also making a larger salary.

Although the decision to fire Strach was politically divisive, the decision to give her successor a larger salary was not.

Cordle originally suggested a $135,000 salary, but one of the Republican board members, David Black, said even that is too low. He suggested the $140,000 number the board ultimately settled on, largely because the elections director in Mecklenburg County makes $137,000 a year, he said.

The vote was unanimous.

Political context

After Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper defeated McCrory in 2016, the legislature changed the laws surrounding the Board of Elections so that Cooper would not be able to appoint a Democratic majority.

Cooper sued, and the courts agreed that the Republican-led legislature had acted unconstitutionally, so earlier this year the board went back to having a majority of the governor’s party.

Attorneys representing Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislative leaders make their arguments before a three judge panel as Cooper contests a restructuring of the State Board of Elections and the Ethics Commission. Cooper contends it takes away

It was that new Democratic majority that voted to fire Strach and hire Brinson Bell. She is a protege of Gary Bartlett, the former longtime state elections director who most recently served under Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.

Both women came into the job with experience outside of politics. Strach has been with the state for two decades and spent much of it as an elections investigator. Brinson Bell spent a decade working for the state elections board as well as serving as the local elections director in Transylvania County.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.

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