LUMBERTON — On the eve of early voting for the May primary, Robson County sheriff’s candidate Ronnie Patterson’s campaign found itself explaining a poorly worded comment made Tuesday at a candidates forum.
Social media caught fire Tuesday over a brief audio recording of Patterson, Red Springs’ police chief, saying, “I’m saying to you right now. We did it in Red Springs. We got some of the drug dealers in Red Springs don’t want me to leave because we treat ‘em fair.”
Patterson’s campaign offered an explanation Wednesday, while decrying negative campaigning and distortion of facts. It was a case of cheap opportunism, they said.
“This appeared on a fake Facebook page,” said John McNeill, Patterson’s campaign manager. “It’s out of context.”
An entire roomful of people knew what Patterson was talking about, McNeill said.
“What Ronnie said is that he would be fair to everyone,” McNeill said. “He is not delivering (fruit) baskets to drug dealers. He’s been cleaning up Red Springs.”
McNeill, the former mayor of Red Springs, said that in the national climate of fear and distrust of police, Patterson will create an atmosphere of trust, while he cleans up crime in Robeson County.
Patterson is running for sheriff of Robeson County in the May 8 primary election against James Jones, George Kenworthy, Randy Graham and Burnis Wilkins. All are Democrats, so the winner replaces Ken Sealey, who is retiring after 14 years in office.
The comment was made at a forum sponsored by the Lumberton Area Chamber of Commerce, Lumberton Rotary and Lumberton-Robeson Kiwanis at Pinecrest Country Club. McNeill said Patterson misspoke, but the audience understood his intent in the context of his entire comments.
“Ronnie has done a great job as Red Springs police chief,” McNeill said. “People trust him, and they are willing to come to him with evidence. He has never been charged with excessive force.”
Patterson’s campaign attempted to find the source of the Facebook page with the recording, but the trail went nowhere, McNeill said.
Mud slinging and social media storms aside, the campaigns are winding down as early voting begins today.
“Our campaign is going very well,” McNeill said. “We are not campaigning negatively.
“Ronnie has worked his way from patrol to police chief. He treats people fairly, and that’s why he’s so well liked in Robeson County.”
One of Patterson’s other campaign managers, Wixie Stephens, stoked Facebook with a couple of comments.
“This is the only way you can shut these people’s mouth is by voting. So call all your family and friends and take them to vote. I am going to get up with as many drug dealers and get them to the polls. If they have no transportation because it has been taken we will pick them up. All of them can vote if they are not on felony probation.”
And this one: “I am so excited because I do plan to pick up and contact as many drug dealers to get them to the polls and vote. If they are locked up then I will be contacting their family members. This has got to be another 500 voters for Ronnie Patterson. He is the only candidate who had not dubbed in the wombs (sic) and treated them like humans and not Grime.”
The Grime comment was an apparent reference to Burnis Wilkins, who has also used Facebook aggressively to promise that as sheriff he would go hard after drug dealers.
It appeared both posts were later removed.
Stephens, who runs an insurance agency and works as a bail bondsman, is known for hauling voters during elections. In North Carolina, it is legal to take someone to the polls but not on the condition they support a certain candidate.
Stephens did not return phone calls Wednesday, but McNeill said she got into a “silly argument” and made a remark that was not to be taken seriously.
“No, we are not identifying criminals to come vote for us,” McNeill said. “We are targeting all people in Robeson County.”
Patterson was also roundly targeted on Facebook by critics who said he appeared in a campaign video in uniform and a Red Springs police officer’s uniform, and that violated town policy. Town officials said he did nothing wrong.
“He is running for a county office not a town-elected office,” Town Manager David Ashburn said in a statement to The Robesonian. “He came to me and asked if he could film the shot at the office and with a car. I told him that he could and he took the time off to make the commercial. He as the chief is on call 24/7 so he wears a uniform and drives a vehicle all the time as part of his job as does the sheriff and other chiefs.”
Earlier the Patterson camp said they had spoken with a Parkton man who said he heard Wilkins use two racial epithets during a meeting with residents of the community. They said the man, a retired military veteran, showed up at their campaign headquarters and shared that story with Patterson.
Facebook lit up, and Wilkins showed the video of the meeting as evidence he did not use the words.
The Patterson camp said they tried to find the man, but could not. The Robesonian invited him to contact the newspaper to tell his story, but that never happened.
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]