ASHEBORO, N.C. -- Candidates of a heated race in Randolph County sat side-by-side on stage Thursday night.
Organizers with The Courier-Tribune say about 400 people showed up to hear the four men running for the sheriff's seat face off in a debate, just weeks before early voting for the primary election begins.
The incumbent, Sheriff Robert Graves, was appointed two years ago after Sheriff Maynard Reid died. This is the Republican candidate's first time running for elected office.
Republican Greg Seabolt is a retired North Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper who is also seeking his first term in office.
Eric Hicks is running as a Libertarian, although he said at Thursday's forum he does not hold that party's values. He says he filed as a Libertarian to make it to the general election. Hicks is a former Thomasville police officer who ran for sheriff against Reid in 2014.
Adam Brooks, a Libertarian, calls himself a metal fabricator by trade. He says he's running because Hicks doesn't hold true Libertarian values and he wants to share his party's views in this election.
Community members submitted the candidates' questions, who didn't see them ahead of Thursday night's debate.
Candidates discussed topics including the opioid epidemic, organization changes they'd implement at the sheriff's office, problems at the Randolph County Detention Center, hiring and firing staff, the sheriff's office budget and handling crime.
Moderators also asked the candidates about their plans for school safety and whether that included arming volunteers or teachers on campus.
Seabolt said arming teachers and volunteers looks good on paper, but he'd prefer to see more trained school resources officers on Randolph County campuses.
"Working with the school system to find a solution involving trained deputies," he said. "Put two deputies in a school, maybe lock the door. Have one entrance."
"I'm perfectly fine with teachers being allowed to practice their Second Amendment rights on campus," Brooks said. "I have no problem with that. But I don't really think adding more guns to campus is going to be the solution."
"I believe school safety's not just a law enforcement issue," Hicks added. "I think it's a community issue. To think teachers are no longer our first line of defense for our kids in 2018, something's wrong if you think that. They are our first line of defense."
Earlier this year, Graves attended a press conference in support of Rockingham County, whose school system plans to add armed volunteers to its campuses.
"We have SROs at every high school and every middle school, but to have enough to put in every school, we'd need 17 more," Graves said. "I'd talk to the superintendent, I said I'd love to have 17 SROs. But it certainly is a tough reality based on if you want to be able to add $1.5 million to the budget."
The candidates also addressed the role social media has played in this campaign. All of the candidates run vocal pages or groups on Facebook.
Moderators asked Seabolt if he believed he jumped to conclusions when making allegations that a member of the sheriff's office was linked to a derogatory website. Seabolt said he did not.
"I think God turned it around," he said. "We've got so much support because of the negative website. It's tremendous."
The moderators asked Graves about allegations that he censored negative comments on the official sheriff's office Facebook page.
"The ones that are blocked are the ones that violate county policy, IT policy," he responded.
He did not provide any more specifics about county policy when a moderator asked.
"It's county policy what can be put on to the official site, and if it violates that, it's taken down," Graves added.
Brooks was asked about posts on his Facebook page. He gave support for the HOPE Initiative, a program in which drug addicts can turn themselves and their drugs in to police in exchange for help, and his support for the legalization of "many if not all controlled substances."
"I am of the belief that the drug war has completely failed and is just a self-perpetuating problem," Brooks said. "As to why or how that would affect me enforcing laws, it absolutely would not."
A moderator said citizens have accused Hicks of using "bullying tactics" on Facebook, accusing him or posting personal information of people with whom he disagrees, information of people charged but not convicted of a crime and information of people not charged with crimes.
Hicks claims whatever he posts is already public record.
"If you get on there, citizens send me video shots of people committing crime, I put it on. If somebody identifies them, that get thrown out," Hicks said. "Some people don't like that."
"If you get on the page and you slander me on Seabolt's stuff or Mr. Sheriff's stuff or Adam's stuff, we take you off," he added. "You're either with the program, or you're not. I don't know what to tell you."
April 13 is the last day to register to vote in the primary election, which takes place on Tuesday, May 8.
The Republican and Libertarian winners from that race will move on to the general election for sheriff in November.