Race, equality and alliances: The story behind Lumberton’s contentious election

By Ben Rappaport


A slate of political hopefuls wanted to shake up the Lumberton City Council in last month’s contentious election that highlighted issues of race and equality in the Robeson County town. 

Voters, however, opted to stick with the status quo. They re-elected Mayor Bruce Davis and three incumbent council members. In another district, voters rejected the only candidate on the ballot — Erich Von Hackney, a former council member who often clashed with Davis — and wrote in a candidate endorsed by the mayor. 

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Much of the debate leading up to the Nov. 7 election focused on South Lumberton, a predominantly Black neighborhood devastated by flooding during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018. 

More than 5,000 people in Lumberton were displaced from their homes after the storms, many of them in the southern part of town. Many damaged homes have not yet been repaired or replaced. 

“It just doesn’t seem to be a priority of the current administration to rebuild and get our communities back on track,” said John Cantey Jr., who has served on the City Council for 18 years and challenged Davis in the mayoral race. Cantey, who is Black, also ran unsuccessfully against Davis, who is white, in 2015 and 2019. 

“They represent a few of the citizens,” Cantey said, “but we need all the citizens.”

Cantey’s comments echo those made by former councilman Chris Howard, who was first elected in 2015 to represent South Lumberton in District 6. He chose not to seek re-election this year, citing health issues and family matters. 

In his final board meeting on Nov. 13, Howard delivered a fiery message to the council, saying his community was left to fend for itself following the hurricanes.   

A white concrete building with red shutters has a roof that is collapsing.
Many homes in South Lumberton are severely damaged. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

“There is division among us,” Howard said in the 18-minute speech. “After the floods, we, as Blacks, were supposed to be puppets to the cause.”

He continued: “Local politicians would have you believe that we were helpless. But it was our citizens that did the bulk of the labor.”

Davis told the Border Belt Independent that he disagreed with Howard’s assessment. Davis said he visited South Lumberton several times in the aftermath of the storms, including once with Gov. Roy Cooper in 2018. The city installed a 13-foot berm around the wastewater treatment plant and a river dike, both designed to protect the area from flooding. 

Davis said his administration brought in more than $200 million for future storm abatement in the city during his last term, and that upgrades to Interstate 95 will bring economic investment to the community. 

Write-in candidates

Cantey and Davis, who are both Democrats, agree that the election season was especially chippy. 

Tensions came to a head on Nov. 2, two days before the end of early voting, when both candidates set up tents outside the Robeson County Board of Elections office. Davis told people arriving to cast ballots that Cantey was “a rapist,” according to Cantey and Hackney, who was also at the tents. 

Cantey was serving on the Lumberton City Council in 2007 when he was accused of raping a woman in Louisville, Kentucky, according to media reports. A grand jury declined to indict Cantey, ending the case against him. 

Cantey called Lumberton police on Nov. 2, and the police department consulted with the State Board of Elections about potential voter intimidation. The board determined that no election laws were violated. 

“The State Board did not open an investigation or do any further investigation beyond what was done by the [Lumberton] police department,” said Patrick Gannon, a spokesman for the elections board. “Based on the interviews of the witnesses provided, there didn’t appear to be evidence of voter intimidation. There were no reports of voters’ access to the polls being restricted or desire to vote being impacted by the reported incidents.” 

A headshot photo of Lumberton Mayor Bruce Davis
Lumberton Mayor Bruce Davis

Davis won nearly 60% of the final vote, and Cantey won 34%. Another challenger, Leland Fuller, won 4%. Davis won districts in the northern part of town, while Cantey won the southern districts. 

“The feeling is not the disappointment for me,” Cantey said of his defeat, adding that population loss in South Lumberton might have played a role. “Just disappointed for the other 95% of the citizens who have not had fair, equal and just representation.” 

In District 6, voters wrote in Alfred Douglas, who beat Hackney by five votes. Douglas said he didn’t file to get his name on the ballot because he figured Howard would seek another term. By the time he realized Howard wasn’t running, he said, the filing period had closed.  

“I want to see this community grow,” Douglas told the BBI, adding that he wants to focus on crime and affordable housing. “I see myself as someone who can help and be a voice for the people here.”

Douglas said he disagreed with Howard’s stance that South Lumberton is disregarded.

Some candidates for the Lumberton City Council said the current administration has left behind residents in the southern part of town. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

“What I’m trying to do is bring the community together,” Douglas said. “I think we are coming together, which is why the people voted me as city councilman.”

Other write-in candidates also garnered votes, but not enough to unseat incumbents. Eric Chavis, who has represented District 7 since 2019, won by two votes over write-in candidate Laura Sampson. Jan Maynor, who challenged Chavis, came in third. Karen Altman Higley ran unopposed to keep her District 4 seat, although write-in candidate Keith Caldwell won 21% of the vote. 

Leroy Rising won 78% of the vote to defeat Travis Lewis, who was on the ballot. 

The three incumbents — Higley, Rising and Chavis — all align with Davis’s vision for the city. 

‘Political machine’

The candidates who lost their election bids say they aren’t optimistic about the future of Lumberton.

Hackney and Maynor said they felt intimidated when the city’s attorney, Holt Moore III, sent city council candidates a letter chastising them for using the official city logo on campaign flyers. 

“The use of City logos and insignias should also be avoided as it can give the inaccurate impression of employment or endorsement by the City,” Moore wrote in a memo to all council candidates. 

Both Hackney and Maynor were members of the Lumberton Planning Board prior to the election. Maynor is no longer on the board — which she had served on for 15 years — after she was not re-appointed to her position by Chavis, the councilman whom she challenged in the election.

Hackney filed an official grievance against Moore with the North Carolina State Bar on Nov. 4, arguing the use of city logos was protected under the First Amendment. 

“In my mind, the city attorney was trying to hinder elections by coming up with things that were outside the scope of the law,” Hackney told the BBI. “Those intimidation tactics came from the mayor, the city manager and city attorney.”

Such grievance complaints are confidential, said Carmen Bannon, interim counsel for the State Bar. But Bannon said Moore has not been publicly disciplined and the agency has not filed any formal complaint against him. 

Hackney also filed a grievance against Moore to the State Board of Elections. Gannon said the board is “not investigating any candidates or contests from Lumberton in the 2023 elections, as there was no evidence of a violation of election law.”

In another dispute, Lewis made several controversial posts on his campaign Facebook page about City Manager Wayne Horne. 

Lewis, who was upset about the slow pace of home buyout programs after Hurricane Florence, said Horne jumped the line to get compensated for his damaged home.  

“Houses that were completely wiped out by both Hurricanes were not bought out,” Lewis wrote in a now-deleted post. “The City Manager’s house, which sustained minimal damage, gets bought out first. If he will lie to my face, imagine what else they are lying about and covering up.”

Horne and the City of Lumberton say Horne’s home was valued by the same appraiser working throughout the city. The city sent Lewis a letter from a Wilmington law firm threatening legal action if he continued to make such claims on social media. Lewis said the letter was also sent to his employer. 

“The City maintains that you have made defamatory statements concerning several of its key staff members and looks to you to do better in the future,” the letter states. “You have demonstrated a reckless disregard for the truth with regard to your dealings with the City, and should it continue they will have no choice but to consider legal action.”

Despite tensions, Davis said he believes the city is trending in the right direction. Where the slate of candidates sees factions and lack of representation, Davis said he sees unity.

Cantey will continue to represent District 5 on the council, but he said his vote is not enough to sway the current board.

“There’s a lot of undercover racism here,” Cantey said. “To be honest, under the present administration, I’m afraid there are not opportunities for positive change. It’s going to be business as usual — representation of a few while most fall by the wayside.”

Hackney also expressed frustration. “It’s hard to go up against the political machine in a small town. You need everybody to bring change, but I don’t think everybody is interested.”

Lumberton City Hall. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)