LUMBERTON — One vote can go a long way, if you have a big enough soap box from which to speak, as Gerome Chavis learned during the May 8 primary election for sheriff of Robeson County.
“It was a close election,” Chavis said. “I believe I made the difference.”
Chavis’ one-man social media campaign, which he calls “We the People,” may have led to the defeat of Ronnie Patterson, who lost by fewer than 1,000 votes in a five-person race won by Lumberton City Councilman Burnis Wilkins. Patterson, police chief of Red Springs, was believed to be the front runner after building a mountain of cash and a coalition of black and American Indian political leaders.
Chavis made 18 3-to-5-minute videos for YouTube and Facebook that can be best described as a bare-knuckle assault.
“We’re going to give it to you raw,” he said in one video. “Their goal was to keep control of the county by spreading racial dissension.”
The 46-year-old husband and father of four children has the instincts of an investigative reporter. In video after video, he held up court documents, tax records and personnel files that supported his case.
“They were calling me a liar and fake news,” Chavis said. “We have every piece of paper to back it up.”
If there was smoke, Chavis used social media to turn it into a bonfire. He said there are enough people out there in the right places who will help him root out the evidence.
“We do our own investigations,” he said. “Inside sources give me tips, and we follow them up.”
So who is Gerome Chavis, and why did he join the political fray with such a vengeance? In a post-election interview at his home in eastern Robeson County, Chavis is no less candid.
“This is my studio,” he said, walking to the dining room table. The only equipment he has is a smartphone.
Chavis is a high school dropout who later earned a GED diploma. He reckons he spent eight years all together in prison for a combination of drug dealing and breaking and entering, and larceny.
This is not new news. In one of his first videos, Chavis held up 30 pages of his own court records to his cellphone camera and made it all public.
“That makes me a pillar of the community,” he said with a laugh. “I got out by the grace of God.
“I was sick and tired of the life I was living,” Chavis said. “If I hadn’t got out of that life, I’d be dead.”
Chavis supports his family by running Rock Bottom Construction, doing house demolition, tree removal and grading. The business has been hurt by his outspokenness, but that’s not all.
“Death threats? Oh God, yeah,” he said. “I spent a week in Florida until things cooled off.
“They’ve done everything to decimate my business. These people control a lot of money and have a cult-like following.”
“These people,” according to Chavis and his “We the People” videos, are county commissioners, school board members and judges. He calls them the Pembroke Mafia, and on Facebook, he doesn’t hesitate to name names.
“When they get control of the District Attorney’s office, they are going to turn it into a playhouse,” Chavis promised in one of his videos.
It all started with one thing that set Chavis on a course to end “corruption” in Robeson County.
“There were a lot of things, but it was the Angel Exchange deal, and The Robesonian’s live-feed of the county commissioners meeting that did it,” he said. “There was a special education teacher letting her heart out about the sad condition of her classroom, and Raymond (Cummings, Board of Commissioners chairman) was eating a snack, and Roger (Oxendine) sat there and said, ‘They were all about the children.’”
“I blew a head gasket,” Chavis said. “People started in-boxing me.
“They had $6.2 million to spend on the Native Exchange building, but nothing for the schools. And then there was the Ronnie Patterson deal.
“Folks started calling us about Ronnie’s history, and the more we dug, the worse it got. We just couldn’t have him.
“Had “We the People” not done its fact checking, I think the people would have never known the truth. I had the paperwork on the sexual harassment case. We did not take it. We were on legal grounds.”
Chavis informed the Patterson camp of the personnel file before making it public. He said he did it out of respect for Patterson’s family.
The file detailed Patterson’s lying about his relationship with a female officer that he supervised. In the end, Patterson was exonerated of sexual harassment, but lying repeatedly under oath earned him a demotion.
“Patterson’s people knew all about the sex and excessive use of force,” Chavis said. “They were using the black vote, and they put Randy Graham up to split the white vote.
“These people had so much cash flowing, they could spend to no end. Had ‘We the People’ not fact-checked, it might have been a different outcome.”
The final campaign finance reports have not been filed, but the Patterson camp spent heavily on television, campaign signs and hauling voters to the poll. It seemed like a perfect storm to elect Patterson, and in his videos, Chavis continued to say Patterson was leading in the days going up to the May 8 primary.
A Lumbee Indian, Chavis looks at race as a powerful tool in the hands of political elites in Robeson County.
“When they stir up racial tension, it puts innocent folks in jeopardy,” he said. “When a white person prints the truth, he gets called a racist … people believe me, yeah.”
Chavis’ said the “We the People” campaign will continue into the November election. He also will push for school construction and better pay for teachers.
In an appearance May 14 Board of Commissioners meeting, Chavis asked why the county had $20 million for a Social Services building, $12 million for new administrative offices and $6.2 million to buy the Native Exchange, but the county school funding is next to last in the state.
“We are going to vet and support the candidates who we believe will be better for our community,” he said. “We won’t take any money from special interests.
“We’ll monitor and report any illegal activities. We’ll also provide information on the ulterior motives on why a board votes a certain way.
“I’m not a Democrat or a Republican. I don’t care about that — it’s about common sense.
“We get our information from concerned citizens, and we never give up our sources. We’re going to the streets.”
And Chavis said, “We’ll play fair.”
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 of [email protected]