ALBEMARLE — Rep. Justin Burr is officially on the GOP primary ballot after a three-person panel appointed by the newly formed State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement unanimously found in his favor Monday following a lengthy hearing. The challenge to Burr’s candidacy was filed by Beverly Johnson, the former mayor of Norwood and the vice chair of the Stanly County Democratic Party.
The challenge, filed on March 14, alleged that Burr did not meet the requirements for residency in House District 67 where he is seeking a sixth term in office. On March 27, the state board officially appointed a panel to oversee the challenge. The members of the panel are Karmen Mock (R-Stanly); Ronald Wayne Burris Jr. (D-Stanly), chair; David Black (R-Cabarrus).
In the quasi-judicial hearing, Burr, though the respondent, bore the burden of proving that he resided in his house district. Jay White of the Concord law firm Hartsell & Williams represented Johnson during the hearing. White’s primary focus was on quantitative elements such as the amount of water and power used at the challenged address of Burr. White used the data to argue against Burr’s stated intent to live in Stanly County.
“Mr. Burr although may have some addresses here,” said White, “it is not his intent to reside in Stanly County.”
Burr was represented by John Snyder of Charlotte. Burr testified during the hearing and was questioned by Snyder and cross-examined by White. Burr stated that he lived at 683 Tillery Dr. in Norwood as of the last day for candidate filing. That date is important as a recent federal case had held that for districts affected by court-ordered redistricting, candidates must have established their residence within their chosen district as of the closing day of the filing period.
Burr provided various pieces of evidence to carry the burden of proof, including his tax documents, cable bills, a driver’s license, concealed carry permit and vehicle registration.
Part of White’s argument against Burr related to his lack of ownership of a home in Stanly County. Late in the hearing, Mock asked White if he believed owning real property was a requirement to hold office. White responded, “No ma’am, I’m not saying real property is, it’s evidence of what your intent is about where do you want to live.” White added, “It is my contention that if you want to be a candidate to represent the people, you will show that by owning real property.”
When asked by White if that answered her question, Mock responded, “unfortunately it does.” Snyder responded to White’s statement saying, “There might have been a war fought over that very issue. You certainly do not have to own property to be eligible to be a candidate for office.”
The question of home ownership arose from the undisputed fact that Burr did not own the home at 683 Tillery Dr. Burr also stated that he no longer lives at 683 Tillery Dr. because the house, which was owned by his grandparents, had been sold. He testified that he now lives at 24691 Saint Martin Rd. in Albemarle and leases the property from Jerry Burleson, owner of Whitley Realty in Locust. Burleson is the father of Stanly County Commissioner Joseph Burleson. Joseph Burleson works for his father’s real estate firm and signed the lease.
Ultimately, Burris, who chaired the panel, said that the threshold for evidence establishing residence was fairly low and that “political decisions are not ours to make.”
“It appears to me from the evidence that was presented by both sides that the petitioner to me failed to reach the bar,” said Black, a Republican from Cabarrus County.
After the panel announced its unanimous decision — that Burr was indeed a resident of District 67 — the panel discussed the timing of the final order which would officially enter their decision. After consulting with the attorneys for both sides, the panel suggested that they would enter a final order this week.
“Stanly County is my home and that was confirmed today by the bipartisan panel,” Burr said following the hearing. “The bogus residency challenge was nothing more than dirty political games from my primary opponent and his Democrat Party backers. I look forward to continuing to serve as the 67th District’s conservative, effective and dedicated voice in the General Assembly.”
Stanly County Journal contacted Wayne Sasser, a Republican and retired pharmacist, who is challenging Burr in the GOP primary, for comment.
“I don’t know the Johnson lady, I never talked to her in my life,” said Sasser by phone. “I didn’t know anything about it before, and I don’t know anything about it now.”
The primary elections across the state will be held on May 8.