Shift to the GOP clouds local races in this rural NC county – especially for sheriff

By Sarah Nagem

Tommy Floyd voted for Jody Greene for Columbus County sheriff four years ago. Now, as Greene faces allegations of racism and corruption, Floyd’s loyalty hasn’t wavered. 

“I think he’s a good sheriff,” said Floyd, 77, as he ate lunch at a deli in Whiteville on Tuesday. “The Democrats are just trying to get in office, control everything.” 

A week after Greene resigned as sheriff at the start of a court hearing to determine whether he would be removed from office, many people in this southeastern North Carolina county say they continue to support him and his reelection campaign ahead of Nov. 8. Some say they are not swayed by the recent release of a 2019 recorded phone call in which Greene, who is white and the county’s first Republican sheriff, called deputies “Black bastards” and threatened to fire Black employees. 

For some, harsher criticism is reserved for Greene’s Democratic opponent, Jason Soles, a law enforcement veteran who recorded the call when he worked in the sheriff’s office. They question why Soles, who is white, made the recording, and why he waited until late September to release the 3-year-old audio to the media. 

Keep up with all the news from the Border Belt Independent. Sign up here for our weekly newsletter.

“If (Soles) did that to his friend, what’s he going to do in Columbus County when he gets to be sheriff – if he gets to be sheriff?” asked Floyd, who grew up in the town of Fair Bluff, served in the Army and spent his career working at the manufacturing company International Paper. 

Voters’ dedication to Greene, who is also accused of having an affair with a detective who had an abortion, might seem at odds in this deeply Christian community. But Greene represents a political shift in Columbus County, home to about 51,000 residents who farm, hunt and often make the hour-long drive to fish at the beach. 

For decades, voters here picked Republicans for president and Democrats for statewide and local offices, from governors to county commissioners. But, as was the case in much of America’s rural South, that began to change after President Barack Obama’s election in 2008.  

In 2020, Democrats won only one of four open seats on the local Board of Commissioners. Six of the seven current board members are Republicans. 

Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Columbus County, as do unaffiliated voters. But some residents, citing their low-tax and spend-thrift priorities, say the Democratic party no longer values the working class. Some blame Washington’s top Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, for inflation. 

“Hamburger went up 50 cents,” said Roger Sellers, 77, holding his paper-bag lunch from Ward’s Grill in downtown Whiteville on Tuesday. 

Sellers said he switched to the GOP about five years ago. “When they changed, I changed,” he said of the Democratic party, adding that he cast his ballot for Greene on the first day of in-person early voting last month. 

‘Really disappointing’

At the request of local district attorney Jon David, a North Carolina superior court judge suspended Greene in early October, days after the phone recording was first aired by WECT. Greene resigned Oct. 24 at the start of a hearing to determine whether he would be removed from office, saying he wanted to focus on his reelection campaign.

David, a Republican, said he will petition the court again if Greene is reelected. He asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into potential obstruction of justice in the sheriff’s office. He also issued a so-called Giglio letter that calls into question Greene’s credibility as a witness in court. 

The Rev. Andy Anderson, a business owner who served as the first Black member of the Whiteville City Council in the 1990s, said Greene’s biases make him unfit for office. 

“I was really disappointed that would come out of anyone’s mouth,” Anderson said of the remarks made by Greene. “It was shocking and hurtful to hear that, especially out of a leader’s mouth.” 

The Rev. Andy Anderson leads a rally for the Columbus County NAACP on Oct. 24.
Photo by Les High

Anderson, who leads a church across the South Carolina border, said Greene’s behavior casts doubt on the integrity of the sheriff’s office. He said the situation led to tough discussions with his son. 

“What does my son do, a 25-year-old Black man, on the back roads of Columbus County when blue lights come on behind him?” he asked. 

Anderson said the controversy in Columbus County is a reflection of what’s happening across the country – “a national movement of racism that has been infused into partisan politics.” 

“It’s national,” he said. “Columbus County is just following suit.” 

The partisan politics have reached the county’s two school boards. Sammy Hinson, chairman of the Columbus County Republican Party, said the GOP is better aligned with local values when it comes to education. 

In a video posted on Facebook on Oct. 30, Hinson urged voters to support conservative school board candidates who are opposed to students learning about LGBTQ lifestyles and critical race theory – “things that are against you and probably against your religion.” 

“The schools are supposed to educate, not indoctrinate,” he said.  

The GOP has spent a lot of money to mobilize voters in rural areas, even those with a history of choosing local Democrats for office, said Dr. Emily Sharum, who leads the political science and public administration department at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. 

Sharum said many voters appreciate when candidates show up in their communities. She pointed to President Donald Trump’s rally in the Robeson County city of Lumberton, about 30 miles northwest of Whiteville, ahead of the 2020 election. Such events can help lower-ballot candidates of the same party, she said. 

“I think part of it is just the desperation of a lot of rural Americans to say, ‘We should be noticed,’” Sharum said. “It’s that hope that we will finally matter or be seen in a way that we haven’t been before.” 

Increasing diversity

Greene won by fewer than 40 votes to unseat the incumbent, Lewis Hatcher, who is Black, in 2018. Minority candidates had a lot of success that year, as voters in North Carolina’s seven largest counties elected Black sheriffs.   

Related: After sheriff resigns, Black residents say racism is part of life in Columbus County 

Some residents say Greene stoked racial divisions when he obtained surplus military equipment from the federal government following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in 2020 when a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck. Greene also asked county commissioners for money to buy riot gear. 

Audience members listen to speakers at an NAACP rally in Whiteville on Oct. 24.
Photo by Les High

Like much of rural North Carolina, Columbus County saw a steep drop in population between 2010 and 2020, including among white and Black residents. (Nearly 29% of residents in Columbus County are Black, compared to 20% statewide.) 

Meanwhile, the percentage of Hispanic residents and those who identify as two or more races increased over the decade.  

For some, the increasingly diverse population is unsettling. 

“They hate our guts. They’re going to take over,” one Columbus County woman, who declined to give her name, said Tuesday of minority residents. 

“I’m not condoning what (Greene) said, but my gosh,” she continued. “I think 99 percent of people have probably said that, or worse.” 

Curtis Hill, president of the Columbus County chapter of the NAACP, questioned why county commissioners have not publicly condemned Greene’s racist comments. 

“There’s a national conversation about his language,” Hill said. “And we’re not having a conversation in Columbus County about it.” 

In an interview with the Border Belt Independent this week, Commissioner Giles “Buddy” Byrd said the board’s attorney advised members not to discuss the controversy. But Byrd, a Democrat, called Greene a “bully” who campaigned for some GOP commissioners in 2020.

“They gave him credit for them being elected two years ago,” Byrd said, “but they were totally mistaken. Donald Trump is who brought the vote out, not Jody Greene.”

Questions remain about who knew of the recorded phone call, including county commissioners. Greene has apologized for the language he used, and he denied the other allegations outlined by David in court documents, including the affair and attempts to intimidate county commissioners. 

Related: Learn more about the allegations against Columbus County Sheriff Jody Greene

In a sworn affidavit, Soles said Greene called him after 10 p.m. in mid-February 2019. Soles was acting as interim sheriff at the time while the State Board of Elections tried to determine whether Greene actually lived in Columbus County. (The board ultimately ruled in Greene’s favor, and he was sworn into office.) 

Soles said he began recording the call after Greene said, “I hate a Democrat. I take that back. I hate a (expletive) Black Democrat.” 

In the affidavit, Soles said he approached Columbus County commissioners more than a year later, after deputies charged his stepfather with disorderly conduct in a public building in March 2020. The arrest of Jesse Lee Croom occurred following a tense commissioners’ meeting about whether the sheriff’s office would take over the local animal shelter. Croom reportedly told Greene that he “needed to grow up.” 

Jason Soles talks to about 300 supporters at a campaign rally on Oct. 3 in Whiteville.
Photo by Les High

A couple of days later, Soles said, he played the 2019 recording for two commissioners. He said he also told an SBI agent about the call.

“The agent indicated that although the behavior was inappropriate, it did not rise to the level of criminal conduct,” Soles said in the affidavit.

Angie Grube, a spokeswoman for the SBI, declined to name the agent or say if other investigators knew about the call. She said she could not discuss the matter because of the SBI’s ongoing investigation.

‘How else can I say it?’

Some Columbus County voters say they won’t vote for Greene, even if they don’t have much respect for Soles, either. 

Lamar Steele, 31, who is Black, grew up in Columbus County and played sports with white classmates at Whiteville High School. He said he did not experience racism growing up, and he was “stunned” by Greene’s remarks. 

“It should change the perspective how you look at (Greene) as a community,” Steele said. 

Ray Thigpen, 77, said he voted for Greene in 2018 and has been pleased with the tough-on-crime approach of the sheriff’s office. But as a retired physician and a “staunch Episcopalian,” he said he disapproves of Greene’s comments. 

“I think it was disgusting, blasphemous,” Thigpen said, adding, “I think it was a setup as well.” 

Darryl Cain said Greene has made strides in reducing drugs in the community. He said he’s sticking with Greene this election, and he hopes other supporters will, too. 

“It’s bullcrap,” Cain, 58, said of the accusations. “How else can I say it?” 

In rural areas like Columbus County, Sharum said, voters might expect to see an even farther shift toward the GOP. She said most of her students who express interest in holding political offices are Republicans. 

“They have found a party willing to embrace younger folks and encourage them to run,” she said. 

Hill, the local NAACP leader, said Columbus County residents need to come together and accept each other’s differences.

“It’s not really about (Greene) running for office,” he said. “It’s really about how our community is going to respond.” 

Anderson agreed. “We have the opportunity,” he said, “to tell the world in Columbus County that that type of rhetoric is unacceptable for any leader.” 

Reporter Ivey Schofield contributed to this report. 

Jody Greene enters a courtroom in the Columbus County Courthouse Monday morning for a removal hearing. He is followed by his wife, Angela Greene.
Photo by Justin Smith, The News Reporter