LUMBERTON — The people of Robeson County, propelled by recent controversies, want change.
That is the consensus of several local political watchdogs on both sides of the aisle.
“Maybe the citizens are trying to send a message out there,” said Edward Henderson, Robeson County Democratic Party chairman and mayor of Red Springs.
Thirty-five people filed for county offices in this year’s May primary, compared with 23 in 2014. There are more Republican choices than ever before.
The numbers are evidence that residents want to see Robeson County move in a different direction, Henderson said, and that they yearn for new leadership. They are certain to get a new sheriff and district attorney as the incumbents are not seeking re-election. Five people have filed for sheriff, and three for district attorney.
Voters already have made leadership changes at the state level, he said.
“Two years ago we elected a Republican state senator,” Henderson said.
Danny Britt Jr. was elected to represent Senate District 13, which covers Robeson and Columbus, giving Robeson its first GOP senator since Reconstruction. Britt has an ally in Raleigh in Republican Brenden Jones, who was was elected to state House District 46, which covers part of the county.
A factor is an engaged Republican Party, which for years offered few candidates because of the county’s heavy Democratic presence. But Democratic registration has gone down, and Robeson voters even favored Donald Trump in 2016.
“I can see where the Republican Party is gaining a foothold in Robeson County,” Henderson said.
Henderson admitted to being concerned about GOP inroads.
“You always need to be concerned because if you’re not concerned, you’re not fulfilling your obligations, you’re not taking it seriously,” he said.
The growth in the number of candidates can also be attributed to Democrats trying to slow the Republican revolution.
“For local Democrats it is a desire to retake seats they had never lost before but want to regain …,” said Phillip Stephens, chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party.
There are races where registration or party isn’t an issue, but a desire for new representation. Fourteen people have filed for four seats on the school board, which is nonpartisan.
“This is evident in the school board races … and even in (Commissioner) Berlester Campbell’s district where a newcomer in Nick Evans is challenging a race that would have otherwise been between two veteran politicians — Campbell and Hubert Sealey,” Stephens said.
There are more Republican candidates in statewide races than ever, he said, adding that local races are reflective of what’s happening statewide, where all 50 Senate seats and 119 out of 120 House seats are contested.
“That pretty much dispels the myth that Republican-drawn districts discourages people to run for office at the state level,” Stephens said.
The county is witnessing true democracy with a viable two-party system for the first time in its history, he said.
“Republicans are not accustomed to having contested seats between Republicans. Democrats are not accustomed to sharing power,” Stephens said. “A balance is occurring locally and that is change that has never occurred in Robeson. Political balance is good for both parties.”
The composition of the school board and of the Board of Commissioners could change dramatically, as well as the top of law enforcement.
“The sheriff’s seat really hasn’t been an open seat in over 20 years,” Stephens said. “(Kenneth) Sealey was initially appointed, so he was technically an incumbent when he first ran. Nor has there been a DA open seat in a long time.”
Local political observer Bo Biggs, the treasurer for the local Republican Party, sees three reasons why more candidates are entering local political races — open seats, controversies and the Trump Bump.
The open seats provide doors for candidates who would not have been willing to challenge an incumbent in the past, he said, which historically have been difficult to unseat.
Another factor are the controversies surrounding the school board and the commissioners, Biggs said.
The school board’s firing of the Superintendent Tommy Lowry in January 2017 and the attempt by six members of the board to replace him the same night with Virginia-based educator Thomas Graves remains fresh in the minds of county residents. The commissioners’ proposal to buy the Angel Exchange property near Pembroke has also stirred the public, he said.
“That (the controversies) has generated a lot of concern over the direction of the county,” Biggs said.
Seeing Trump and former Gov. Pat McCrory, both Republicans, carry Robeson County in the 2016 election has given some candidates the confidence to file as Republicans, he said.
“There are a lot more people comfortable about running as a Republican,” Biggs said.
Only Democrats filed as candidates for the office of Robeson County sheriff. They are Randy Graham, James Jones, George Kenworthy, Ronnie Patterson and Burnis Wilkins.
Running for seats on the Robeson County Board of Commissioners are:
— In District 2; incumbent Berlester Campbell, Hubert Sealey and Nick Evans, all Democrats.
— In District 4; Faline Locklear Dial and Harbert Eddie Moore, both Democrats.
— In District 6; Incumbent David Edge and Ronald G. Hammonds, both Republicans, and Ray Cox, Democrat.
— In District 8; Incumbent Lance Herndon, a Democrat, is the only candidate.
Running for seats on the Robeson County Board of Education are:
— In District 2; Incumbent Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, Carl “C.H.” Lovette, Melissa Ocean, Chandra Short and LaKishia Spaulding Sweat.
— In District 3; Incumbent Peggy Wilkins Chavis, Linda O. Emanuel and Severeo Kerns.
— In District 6; Incumbent Dwayne Smith, Cat Gaines and Richard Monroe.
— In District 8; Incumbent Mike Smith, Brice Altman and Lynn Locklear.
Running for Robeson County district attorney are Allan Adams, Republican; and Joe Osman and Matt Scott, both Democrats.
The only candidate for Robeson Clerk of County Superior is incumbent Shelena Smith, a Democrat.
One-stop voting begins April 19 and ends May 5. April 13 is the voter registration deadline and the deadline for voters who want to change political party affiliation. The primary elections will be held May 8. The General Election is Nov. 6.
Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974 or via email at [email protected]