LUMBERTON — North Carolina went red last Tuesday, electing a Republican governor and keeping the GOP in control of both houses of the General Assembly, raising the question of how Robeson County, whose delegation to the state legislature consists of four Democrats, will fare during the next two-year cycle.
But local Democrats aren’t singing the blues, saying the issues that concern Robeson County cross party lines.
“I think we will be on both sides of the aisle,” said state Sen. Michael Walters, who was re-elected easily Tuesday in District 13. “At the end of the day, we represent rural North Carolina, and that’s the thing we have to stay focused on.”
Republicans now hold 77 of 120 seats in the state House of Representatives and 32 of 50 seats in the state Senate — more than enough for a majority. The only Republican House member to lose statewide on Tuesday was G.L. Pridgen, whose District 46 was redrawn to include much of Columbus County, too much to overcome in his race against the longtime mayor of Chadbourn, Ken Waddell.
Walters sees the challenge as not a party issue, but an urban-vs.-rural issue. He pointed out that 14 of the state’s most densely developed counties — none of them rural — now control the General Assembly. Robeson County, which is rural, has traditionally voted Democratic, and on Tuesday favored President Obama even though North Carolina went for Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
“I think that’s the most important thing, that no matter if you are a Republican or Democrat, the needs of rural North Carolina and metropolitan North Carolina are different,” Walters said.
County Democratic Party Chairman John McNeill agreed, saying it might be difficult for Robeson to have its needs heard amid the demands of areas such as Charlotte, whose former mayor, Republican Pat McCrory, was elected governor.
“If you look at McCrory, his whole campaign was geared to a few metropolitan areas,” McNeill said. “For the last 100 years, eastern North Carolina has basically been in charge of the General Assembly, and that’s no longer the case … a lot of (McCrory’s) obligations will be in Charlotte.”
Garland Pierce, Robeson’s senior representative in the House with four terms under his belt, said he and his fellow Democrats “have their work cut out for them.”
“… All we can do … is take another look at our strategy,” he said.
Pierce, who represents District 48, and fellow Democrat Rep. Charles Graham of District 47, will be joined by freshman Waddell and District 66 Rep. Ken Goodman, whose district for the first time includes a small piece of Robeson County.
McNeill said Robeson County legislators will have to rely on the leadership of Walters, who has proven himself effective at bipartisanship.
“Walters, in the Senate end, will be very effective in working with the Republicans there,” McNeill said. “He’s a businessman and has built relationships that will cross over party lines.”
Pierce said Democrats will work hard to convince Republicans that the most important issues facing the county — education, health care, jobs and “providing a safety net” for those who are “the most vulnerable” to poverty — are nonpartisan.
“I would hope that most of the things that we would want for the citizens of North Carolina, they also would want,” he said.
There is one thing that those on both sides of the aisle can agree on — bringing jobs to Robeson County.
“If they have a plan that can get North Carolinians back working, it’s something I would definitely want to see and work with them on,” Pierce said. “That’s something that’s important to all of us.”
Bo Biggs, a Republican and political observer, added:
“I would say with all due respect to the current representatives, which are fine gentlemen, there’s no doubt that they’re in the minority party. With the loss of that Republican connection, that’s not going to help us with certain needs that we’ll take to the legislature.”
Walters is realistic, but optimistic.
“There are things that concern me,” Walters said. “Education is the forefront in my mind. How do we continue to fund educational needs here? But I have bridged that gap working with the Republican leadership in the past.
“Will it be easy? Absolutely not. But I think we can accomplish that.”