In rural Scotland County, voters say candidates must show up to gain their support

By Ben Rappaport 

When Scotland High opened in the late 1960s as an integrated school, Marie Willis’s cousins, who are Black, got into fights with white students. Her cousins were expelled, while the white kids faced few consequences.

Then, North Carolina civil rights attorneys Julius Chambers and Adam Stein stepped in and got the expulsions reversed. 

It’s a story that has stuck with Willis. On Tuesday she got to express her gratitude to Adam Stein’s son, Josh, during a campaign stop in Laurinburg. Josh Stein, a Democrat, is running for governor against Republican Mark Robinson in a contest that has drawn national attention because of Robinson’s right-wing views and controversial remarks on slavery, the Holocaust and more. 

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Willis, 68, said Stein’s visit on Tuesday was important because she felt her community was largely forgotten by state and national politicians. Her sentiments have been echoed by many rural voters across North Carolina.

“If you’re asking for my vote, you need to show up,” Willis said. “My vote is a privilege, so if you want to earn it, you better prove why you deserve it.” 

About 100 people gathered at the I. Ellis Johnson Community Center where Stein, who currently serves as the state attorney general, focused his message on promoting public education and expanding health care access. 

“This campaign is about trying to earn the trust and earn the vote of every North Carolinian,” Stein said. “I don’t care if you’re rural, urban or suburban, there is a place for you in this campaign.”

Political shift

Scotland County, nestled along the South Carolina border, is home to 34,000 people, 40% of whom are Black. About 24% of residents live in poverty, compared to 13% statewide. Roughly 15% of the county’s residents have a college degree, less than half the statewide figure. 

Like much of rural southeastern North Carolina, voters in Scotland County have moved to the right politically, although Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two to one. Democrat Barack Obama got more than 57% of the county’s vote for president in 2008 and 2012. Four years later, Democrat Hillary Clinton won the county by more than 7 points over Donald Trump. In 2020, however, Trump edged Joe Biden by nearly 2 points

That year, Democratic N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper handily won Scotland County.

In the March 5 primary, Stein won nearly 39% of the county’s vote in a five-candidate field. Robinson won more than 76% in a three-candidate field. 

About 100 people attended a campaign event for Josh Stein at the I. Ellis Johnson Community Center in Laurinburg on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Photo by Ben Rappaport

Across the country, there has been much debate about whether Democrats have given up on rural voters. State Democratic Party Chair Anderson Clayton has made rural communities a key part of her platform. The Roxboro native has acknowledged her party’s shortcomings.

“Rural areas right now are dying, and people for years have just sat there and said, ‘Y’all deserve that,'” she told NPR.

Scotland County Commissioner Darrel Gibson said he is acutely aware of the impact of Democrats’ failure to show up. He said he hoped Tuesday’s rally would be a first step to bringing people to the polls.

“His presence being here shows you can’t just win with big cities,” Gibson, who is also the chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party’s Rural Caucus, said of Stein’s visit. “You need rural communities, too.”

In their book “The Rural Voter: The Politics of Place and the Disuniting of America, political scientists Nicholas Jacobs and Daniel Shea argue that American democracy suffers when the Democratic Party leaves rural voters behind. 

“Rural people — all people — want leaders they can trust, who listen,” the authors said in an interview with Columbia University Press. “Divides benefit no one except those already in power.”

‘Our communities are overlooked’

Nearly every candidate who campaigned in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties ahead of the March 5 primary won their respective races in at least one of the counties, even if they did not win statewide. Among them were Democrats Mike Morgan for governor, Santana DeBerry for state attorney general, Lora Cubbage for state supreme court and Wesley Harris for state treasurer. Only Harris won the nomination.

Robinson has also visited southeastern North Carolina, including Scotland County.

The power of a candidate’s physical presence was highlighted during the 2020 election when Trump held a rally in Robeson County in which he focused on gaining full federal recognition for the Lumbee tribe. Two years later, the Republican National Committee opened an office in Pembroke, home to the tribe’s headquarters. 

Visits from candidates in high-profile races can spark new opportunities for a rural county like Scotland, said Laurinburg resident Sheila Swift.

“Our communities are overlooked, politicians don’t see a lot going on, it’s hard to get people involved,” Swift, 68, said. “That leads politicians to say, ‘If nothing is going on, why bother coming there?’”

Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat who represents Scotland and Hoke counties in the state House of Representatives, said appearances are meaningful — especially if they lead to higher turnout at the polls. 

“Take your neighbors, your neighbor’s children, anybody you can,” Pierce said before introducing Stein on Tuesday. ”Because this is one of the most serious races of our lifetime.”

Josh Stein, the Democratic candidate for North Carolina governor, campaigned at the I. Ellis Johnson Community Center in Laurinburg on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Photo by Ben Rappaport