BERLIN – Commissioner Jim Purnell easily held onto his commissioner seat in a low turnout primary vote, surpassing challenger Eddie Lee to gain his fifth term in office representing District 2.
Purnell has held the minority-majority district seat since it was created in 1995 to address the political imbalance in Worcester County, which had never had an African-American commissioner before.
Turnout for the District 2 Democratic primary was low – just 28 percent of eligible Democrats voted – but the difference in votes between Purnell and Lee was decisive.
“I feel great knowing that amount of support showed in the election,” said Purnell.
Purnell took 68 percent of the vote, receiving 525 of the 775 votes cast in the District 2 Democratic primary. Lee received 32 percent of the vote, gaining 250 individual votes.
“I expected to win,” Purnell said. “It seemed to me the people wanted me back in there.”
People were upset and worried at the prospect of his opponent winning, according to Purnell, but he told them not to be concerned.
“I had trust and confidence in the voters,” Purnell said.
Commission President Bud Church ran a phone bank from his real estate office to support Purnell in the last days of the primary election. Church is a Republican and Purnell is a Democrat.
“That shows unity. Not only that, it shows respect,” said Purnell. “That’s what it’s all about.”
All his fellow commissioners, of both parties, were encouraging in his bid for re-election, Purnell said.
“Party shouldn’t change the person,” Purnell said. “It’s what’s in your heart and what you want to do to help each other.”
This may be his last term in office, the 73-year-old Purnell said, but he does not know for sure what his decision will be in four years time when the next election will take place.
“You never know what might happen,” he said.
By 2014, the district will probably need some new political blood, Purnell said.
“It is time that some of our young people get involved and become willing to step in and carry on the torch,” Purnell said. “I don’t want to stay in politics all my life.”
By 2014, Purnell, who drives a school bus as well as serving as commissioner, would like to retire and travel with his wife, he said.
Lee, who resigned as long-term head of the Worcester County NAACP to challenge Purnell, said after the primary that he accepted his loss, but was concerned about the way some prominent county employees appeared to be campaigning for Purnell on county time.
Lee said, that two senior county employees were promoting his opponent at the polls and influencing their own employees as they went in to vote.
“I can accept the fact I lost … politics is politics,” said Lee. I’m not contesting the election. That’s the process.”
Lee said he was shocked to see Buck Shockley, warden of the Worcester County Jail, and assistant warden Garry Mumford, working the Snow Hill polls for Purnell, during their own county-paid workday, likely influencing their own employees from the jail as those employees arrived to vote.
Many county jail employees live in the Snow Hill area, Lee said.
There is no information available on whether Shockley and Mumford used vacation or sick time to attend the polls.
According to Lee, he also has proof that Shockley and Mumford made calls during work hours, from the county jail and using jail resources, in support of Purnell.
This, said Lee, is an ethical violation, and he will pursue it with the proper authorities, whether that is the county or the state.
Lee would not detail what evidence he had that Shockley and Mumford have been politicking on county time for one of their own employers, saying he had to consult his lawyer first.
According to Lee, his understanding of the law is that employers cannot infringe an employee’s first amendment rights and workers cannot use their employment to the advantage of a political candidate.
Mumford is also a member of the Worcester County Board of Education, a non-partisan entity, Lee noted, which falls under state ethics law, not county.
Lee will contest Mumford’s participation in supporting Purnell at the polls through the state ethics board, Lee said.
“These plantation politics in Worcester County is what our election was about, bringing about change,” said Lee. “I want to pursue this so the plantation mentality that exists here, the back must be broken of it.”
These individuals saw the handwriting on the wall and probably felt their jobs were in jeopardy if they did not support the incumbent, Lee alleged after the primary election.
“They used the taxpayers’ money, time and influence to leverage support for my former opponent,” Lee said. “I’m making this charge. I can prove it.”
Lee had been confident he would carry Snow Hill, his base in the primary, but that did not happen.
Lee feels this was in part due to Shockley and Mumford’s public and vocal support of Purnell at the polling station.
Lee has no problem with citizens supporting candidates on their own time, but he is disturbed if county employees use county time and resources to support one of their bosses.
If their actions influenced only one voter, that is too many, Lee said, and in his estimation, they influenced many voters in Snow Hill.
Their actions, Lee alleged, were part of a clandestine movement within the corrections department to defeat him in favor of Purnell.
National statistics show that 30 percent of voters have not decided who to vote for as they walk into their polling place, and are strongly influenced by the people they meet, especially the last person they talk to, Lee said.
“That impacted the outcome of my election,” he said.
Lee contends that Shockley and Mumford stood in the way of change, his campaign message.
“I think the people will see this as an affront to them,” Lee said.
The former candidate said he is not worried that people will see his concerns as sour grapes following a decisive primary loss.
“It takes courage to tell the truth and sometimes it costs you,” Lee said.
Shockley had little to say about Lee’s accusations. Mumford was not available for comment.
“I don’t know anything about what he’s talking about,” Shockley said when contacted for comment yesterday “Tell Eddie Lee to come see me.”