This year’s clerk of court race pits an incumbent with 19 years of experience in her post against a former clerk hoping to fulfill her longtime dream of becoming the chief of record keeping for Richmond County courts.
The challenger, Hattie Holmes-Sullivan, started working in the clerk’s office in 1978, five years after the current clerk, Elaine Johnson, began her career. Holmes-Sullivan, who eventually became an administrative assistant at the clerk’s office, said she learned an early lesson from then-Clerk Helen Speltz on the importance of accuracy in every document. One letter or one number amiss can make a big difference, she said.
“I can still hear (Speltz’s) voice saying, ‘Make sure that is right,’ ” Holmes-Sullivan said.
As she gained experience and achieved a supervisory role as administrative assistant, Holmes-Sullivan set her sights on the top job as clerk of court, which carries a four-year term.
She confided her dream of becoming clerk of court to her family but recognized she still needed to develop experience.
“You can’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘I want to be the clerk,’ ” Holmes-Sullivan said. “You have to work toward it.”
It also takes an election, and Holmes-Sullivan, who left the clerk’s office in 2005 to become an assistant to State Court Judge David Watkins, is learning from scratch how to run a campaign. Her best piece of advice came from a conversation she overheard between her father and his close friend, Rep. Henry Howard.
Howard, as she recalls, said it takes more than signs to elect a politician; people need to see you in the community.
“That’s always stuck with me,” Holmes-Sullivan said.
For Johnson, re-election represents an opportunity to continue taking her office into the future, specifically in technology. When Johnson first took office in 1993, there were nine computers for the office. That number swelled to 107 in 2011.
Court clerks began scanning case documents in 2003 and made them publicly accessible in 2007. Now in development is a new jury-management system that would allow jurors to fill out questionnaires online. Johnson also wants online filing for civil and criminal papers.
“Technology is the key to these things,” said Johnson, who hasn’t faced opposition since winning the seat in 1992.
The clerk of court might not be as high-profile a position as sheriff or judge, but Johnson urges voters not to skip over checking the ballot box.
“This is a very important office,” she said. “I maintain the people’s records, and you don’t want just anyone” in the office.