Elected official crossed line with campaign order

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Teresa O’Dell, the clerk of superior court in Surry County, had an idea, a really awful, reprehensible idea that needs to be quashed as even a possibility, much less a strategy.

O’Dell, a Republican, sent a memo to her employees in which she required their support in her bid for re-election in May. They would be “asked” to canvass votes, attend at least one Republican Party function and — the piece de resistance — take half of a vacation day, if necessary, to work the polls for the primary election on May 8.

Although O’Dell has no auspices over anyone in Guilford County, her actions were so ill-conceived that they require our explanation to voters and political leaders: This has no place in fair and honest government. There are more pratfalls than in an old Chevy Chase skit.

In fact there should be legislation brought forward to ensure our footing, because, as the Greensboro News & Record’s Taft Wireback reported Sunday, appellate courts in North Carolina apparently think there is no problem with some elected officials’ requiring employees to subscribe to their politics and work on their behalf. Those judges have misjudged badly.

This is what O’Dell wrote in part: “This job allows you to care for your family and give them the things they need. I’ve been good to all of you in some way. Now, I (am) asking you to get excited, to get on board and make this happen for me.”

Isn’t this an implied threat to their employment? And think about this: If we elect any leader who then would hire — or retain, more likely — employees who think, act or express themselves on one ideological plane, aren’t we creating a government that serves only one group of people and not everyone? These employees aren’t elected at all.

More importantly, don’t such requirements restrict the First Amendment rights of those employees? If you work for O’Dell, does that mean she tells you what to say and to whom you should say it? Certainly she says for whom you should vote. Doesn’t this compromise our most precious rights?

Thankfully, unlike sundry political strategies, the copycat syndrome has not attached itself broadly to this foul wind. Even if a judge did say they could do it, Guilford County Clerk of Superior Court Lisa Johnson-Tonkins and Sheriff BJ Barnes said they don’t subscribe to these tactics. Democrat Johnson-Tonkins is running unopposed. Republican Barnes has a primary challenger and three Democrats in his race.

“I don’t know how my employees are registered, and I don’t care,” Barnes told Wireback. “I care about the content of their character and the quality of how they do their job.”

O’Dell did not wish to discuss her tactics. She chastised Wireback in a telephone interview for having a copy of the memo, which is a public document. A few days later, however, in an interview with the Mount Airy News, her hometown newspaper, she withdrew her mandates, “citing a misunderstanding.”

As good as that news might be, let O’Dell’s misunderstood (misguided?) memo serve as a test case about how not to act in the public good. If you want to appoint only loyalists, maybe think of running for president, where you get to pick and choose all your sidekicks and their loyalty by definition can be blind and blithe.

But, come to think of it, how well has that worked?