LUMBERTON — Candidates begin filing for the May primaries in less than three weeks, but one race is already heating up.
On Wednesday at the county Board of Commissioners retreat, Lumberton Councilman John Cantey and incumbent Commissioner Jerry Stephens verbally sparred with each other during a break in the meeting. Cantey has made it clear he will seek the District 1 seat now held by Stephens.
“It was ugly,” Cantey said. “I’m weary. I’m watching my back.”
The confrontation occurred when Stephens entered the break room of the county’s Emergency Operations center, and encountered Cantey having refreshments. Cantey called The Robesonian shortly after the confrontation, saying he attended the retreat as a concerned citizen educating himself on the county’s budget.
“What are you doing here?” Stephens asked Cantey. “This is supposed to be for the commissioners.”
Cantey shot back that he had been invited to have refreshments by Noah Woods, the board’s chairman.
Also in the room at the time were Woods, Ricky Harris, the county’s interim manager, several other commissioners and Bob Shiles, a reporter for The Robesonian.
Cantey said that Woods had taken him on a tour of the new Emergency Operations center.
“He was showing me courtesy, as an elected official or as a citizen,” Cantey said. “Then Jerry came in and saw me.”
Cantey said that Stephens demanded that he leave, insisting he had no business in the commissioners room.
“I told him, ‘I’m a tax-paying citizen of the county … Yes, I’m running against you, but that is my constitutional right,’” Cantey said. “As an elected official, I have never been so insulted. As a citizen, that is unacceptable.”
Stephens played it off as a misunderstanding.
“I just asked him what he was doing,” Stephens said. “Really I was just joking, trying to shoot the bull with him.
“He just wanted to make something out of it.”
Woods said that he directed Cantey to the break room after showing him where in the center’s restrooms were located.
“I got out of there (break room) and didn’t hear everything that was said,” Woods told The Robesonian.
Commissioner David Edge said that he thought Stephens telling Cantey to get out was “not polite.”
“That just shows animosity,” he said.
Cantey said that he felt uncomfortable and left the meeting. He said, however, that he intends to return as the retreat continues today and Friday.
This is not the first time the two men have exchanged verbal spars, according to Cantey. He says that Stephens also confronted him after the Black Caucus held its Martin Luther King Jr. celebration last week.
Stephens denies Cantey’s claim that the two men have verbally attacked each other in the past.
“Today’s the first time I’ve had a conversation with him. I don’t talk to him,” Stephens said. “That’s totally untrue. I hear he has been saying things about me, but I just let him talk.”