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The Nick Mackey you don't know

Mecklenburg County's embattled former sheriff-elect talks candidly about life after the election debacle and his new political aspirations

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December 2007 is a month Nick Mackey will never forget; it's the month he became the sheriff, at least on paper, of Mecklenburg County. But he never took the office, and a firestorm of controversy swirled around him. Questions were raised about his education, his finances and his background with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, where he worked for more than a decade.

Everyone had a lot to say about Mackey, but he didn't say much -- especially to the media. The events that later unfolded blindsided a man who says he's always wanted to stand out in law enforcement and eventually head an agency.

"I went into law enforcement right out of college," says Mackey, 40, who runs his own law firm, Mackey and Associates. "I was 22 years old when I joined the Charlotte Police Department, which became the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. My undergraduate degree is criminal justice. I have a master's degree in criminal justice. I worked for 14 years as a police officer and a police sergeant. I teach criminal justice at the graduate level. I have a master's in public administration. That was my career path. I've always aspired to be an agency head."

When Mackey decided to run for sheriff, he says that he didn't expect the drubbing that he received in the media.

"I never imagined that any of that stuff would be relevant. Whether or not I'm married or if I have children; I just don't see where that is relevant. My wife's name? I mean, what's the purpose of that? I think the purpose was to say, 'Well, I asked him this, and he didn't tell me.'" Mackey contends that he doesn't know the name of any elected official's wife -- save for first lady Laura Bush.

He even claims to be in the dark about the spouses of well-known senators like John McCain. "I don't care what her name is," he says. "I never thought some of the things [the media] was talking about would be an issue. It was surprising."

It was surprising to some in the Democratic Party that Mackey defeated Sheriff Chipp Bailey last year on Dec. 6 in a vote where he earned 631 votes to Bailey's 390.

In a matter of days, however, the election process was questioned. Members of the local Democratic Party went to the state party alleging that Mackey broke the rules. It all started the day after Mackey was declared the first black sheriff in Mecklenburg County's history. Activist Jane Whitley filed a grievance with the state party, and all hell broke lose.

The county commissioners wouldn't confirm Mackey, and eventually, the December election was thrown out.

"Well, I'm not very thin-skinned," says Mackey. "I chalked it up as to this is just politics, this is just sour grapes, this is bias. This is what people do when the person they are supporting is not you. If they don't support you then they try to pull you down."

Mackey held his tongue through the election process. "The media people I didn't talk to would try to say and broadcast, 'He won't talk to the media.' But that's not true. I talked to the media who talked to me in a respectful manner. I'm a grown man, and I don't disrespect people if they don't disrespect me. If you do disrespect me, I'm not going to talk to you. You can't make me give you an interview."

Another reason he kept quiet is because he made a promise to some elected officials who asked him to stay above the fray and not get caught up in the mudslinging.

"In politics, especially the negative campaigning, the rule of thumb is say whatever you want to say -- it doesn't have to be true -- and people will believe it," he says. "That's why I told people, 'If you want to know something about me, ask the people who know me or ask me. Don't just listen to what the media says. They're going to have their own agenda.'"

When Mackey heard reports saying that he wasn't qualified to be sheriff, he says he couldn't help but think: "Who's more qualified?"

"That also makes certain people angry," he says. "That you can have someone like me who has all of these credentials when they don't have them themselves."

And even though most of Mackey's opposition came from members of his own party, he still claims to be a loyal Democrat and even worked to help reorganize the districts following the election fallout.

"If it had not been for me and my effort in attempting to get the sheriff's appointment and educating people all around the county on the precinct politics, this party would not have the involvement and activity from the citizens that it has today.

"Now there is not a person out there who doesn't know what a precinct is. They may not know the number of their precinct, but they know there are precincts in Mecklenburg County."

Did he ever think of leaving the party?

"Well, one, I think I can do more good for the people being a part of the party. And then, two, that's what some people would want me to do. Of course I'm not going to do what my detractors want."

And joining the GOP?

"I don't think that I could stomach that," he says with a laugh and adds that he learned a lot from the experience.

"The status quo has been going on for so long that it's time for a change. I didn't know just how much of a stronghold or a protective mentality that the 'powers that be' have on certain things. Even to the point where [County Commissioner] Parks Helms decided not to run again and had the nerve to pick someone to replace him, as if he gets that right. That's for the people to decide, and the people may decide that they don't want the person who Parks Helms chose because they may just be a puppet for Parks Helms."

According to Mackey, it's the same thing that happened when former Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph left for his job with Homeland Security. "He thought he could appoint who he wanted, which he evidently could. He went and told the county commissioners: 'This is who I want.' And they fell in line like a row of ducks following him," he says.

So, does Mackey consider himself the sheriff -- or at least the former sheriff?

"No, no I don't," he replies, laughing. "Even though in the 2008 Directory of North Carolina County Officials I'm listed as the sheriff. The party had their hearing on that ... in February, and I said that we'd abide by whatever that decision was, even though the county commissioners didn't abide by that decision. But maybe those county commissioners won't be there because they don't represent their constitutes very well."

Mackey says the voters wanted the county commissioners to follow the rules that were laid out by the state party, which called for another election. Instead, Bailey was appointed sheriff.

Mackey filed a lawsuit against Mecklenburg County, and that suit is still pending. He and his attorneys have yet to make a decision about the state of the suit, and he hasn't ruled out running in a general election for Mecklenburg County sheriff one day. That day, however, isn't today.

Instead of dropping off the political landscape as he claims his detractors would've loved for him to do, Mackey is seeking another political office: a state house seat in District 99.

The reason he says he didn't "run and hide" following the sheriff's race is because he considers himself a role model. "If I'm not a role model for anybody else, I'm a role model for my son. What message would it send if I let the ... the media or anyone else who has an agenda run me off? That's going to do damage to a whole generation of people because it's going to discourage them from pursuing their dreams."

And Mackey says that he owes it to all of the people -- of all races -- who encouraged him to keep going.

"There's a lot of people who got involved when I asked them to come out and vote for me to get the sheriff's appointment; who did all of that and then their choice was totally disregarded, and their vote was ignored by the county commissioners. A lot of people out there felt thrown to the side. And for those folks, I could not throw up my hands and walk away and not do anything."

Huntersville Democratic Rep. Drew Saunders is the incumbent for the seat, so he and Mackey will face off during a primary May 6.

"What motivated me [to run for District 99] was the county commissioners," explains Mackey. "The county commissioners sat in their meeting hall every month and totally ignored what the people who elected them wanted to do. We're a representative form of government. The elected officials represent a section of people, and they are sent to either Washington, the state capital or to here. The county commission, the city council or the school board -- they are sent to their respective meeting places to do the will of their constituents; not to go in there and do whatever they want to. [The sheriff's race] just brought it back to everyone's attention. It's been going on for a long time ... they've been ignoring the people. Over the past couple of months, it was brought front and center and that's what motivated me."

Mackey also felt it was time for a change from the status quo where "elected officials have no contact and no connection with their constituency and the people."

Talking to Mackey, he makes it clear that his run for District 99 isn't about him. He says he doesn't have a particular issue that he's running on. He says he's there for the people.

"I've talked to the people in the district. I plan to go to Raleigh and represent their desires; not what I think is important but what they want. The only way I'll know what they want is to do what I've been doing and that's talking to them. A lot of people will ask me, 'What issues are important to you?' And it's not about the issues that are important to me. Those may be the same issues that are important to my constituency, but they may not be. If they say they are concerned about the environment and all of my votes are contrary to that, then I'm not representing them -- and I should be voted out."

Saunders, hoping not to be voted out, was quick to throw jabs at Mackey ... even though his record isn't squeaky clean either. According to an August survey of Mecklenburg County lawmakers by The Charlotte Observer, Saunders' campaign reports did not include $15,250 in donations that political action committees reported giving him.

Saunders told the Observer: "I have no desire to be a policeman, judge or sheriff. I am running for this office to represent the people of the district, not because I am mad that I cannot be sheriff. My opponent has been held in contempt of court because he would not represent one person in the courtroom. If he did not represent one person in the heart of Charlotte, how can we expect him to represent 67,000 people while working out of the ... Capitol in Raleigh?"

Mackey says he read the comments and chose to ignore them. "This is my thing: I have always stayed above the mudslinging," he says. "I don't have a problem staying above it, and I plan to stay above it in this race as much as possible. I'm not going to be as quiet as I was in the previous race. If I'm attacked, I will respond appropriately. But I don't plan to stoop to the mudslinging."

Mackey says that another reason he decided to run is because his son is on board. He says that the sheriff's race was difficult on his son. But thanks to a teacher who took time out of the class to explain politics to the students, his little boy and his classmates were able to get a better understanding as to why Mackey was on the front page every day.

"I talked to him about running again, and I asked him if he wanted me to. His response was real funny. He said, 'If you run again, will they put you on TV?' And I said, 'Yes, they will put me on TV if I run again.' He loves the attention, so it worked out fine with him."