By Ben Rappaport
The average age of the Whiteville City Council is set to decrease in December with the swearing-in of 31-year-old Joshua Harris. He was one of three candidates in Whiteville District 1 who were under 32 years old.
The former Columbus County sheriff’s deputy and Whiteville police officer was the top vote-getter in this year’s Whiteville municipal elections, garnering 223 votes. Second on the Whiteville District 1 ballot with 159 votes was incumbent Kevin Williamson, 39, who will serve another four-year term. Harris unseated incumbent Emory Worley, 80, who served a partial term beginning last year after the death of Councilman Tim Blackmon.
With a platform focused on criminal justice and securing funding for flood prevention projects, Harris, a Republican, is now set to be the youngest member of Whiteville City Council.
“I think the citizens of Whiteville are looking for a change,” Harris said. “The board is historically made of older men who have been there a long time, but I believe — and the citizens believe — it’s time to move forward.”
But Harris wasn’t the only young person running for the council’s two available District 1 seats. Of the five candidates in the District 1 race, only Worley was over 40.
Whiteville has two voting districts. District 1 is predominately white while District 2 is predominately Black.
The youthful energy running for office may be part of an overall population trend in Whiteville. The average age of city residents has decreased steadily over the past decade. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Whiteville’s median age was 44.7 in 2010. In 2021 it was 37.8.
The average age of winning candidates in Columbus County is 58. Harris was the youngest winner in the county, while the oldest was 75-year-old Brunswick Commissioner Shirley Moore.
Rural communities throughout North Carolina are getting older with time, making Whiteville an exception to the trend. The median age in Columbus County at large has increased, and so has that of neighboring Bladen, Robeson and Scotland counties.
In most rural counties and smaller communities, the median age is getting older because fertility rates have declined substantially and are generally well below replacement, according to Nathan Dollar, director of Carolina Demography and the Carolina Population Center.
“It’s not likely that the drop in the median age in Whiteville is due to more babies being born,” Dollar said. “So, it’s most likely due to in-migration of younger adults.”
Dollar said the exact reason for Whiteville bucking the trend is unclear, but it’s likely due to a mix of in-migration to the area and increasing mortality rates among the eldest populations.
According to Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, one of the driving forces behind rural Millennials running for office in North Carolina is “rural resentment” — the idea that population shifts toward urban and suburban areas is causing rural residents to want to make change in their own communities.
“Perhaps there is a Millennial component of citizens that see the value of rural communities and want to retain or develop that quality of life in such a way that stabilizes or promotes those areas,” Bitzer told the Border Belt Independent.
Young people signed up to run for office in Whiteville because they believe in the potential of their rural community, Harris said. There wasn’t one particular cause or moment that led him to run for office; rather, it was knowing he could be part of the town’s progress.
And he brought that same energy to his campaign strategy. On Election Day, Harris stood at the polls from open to close — a full 13 hours without a lunch break — greeting voters and telling every person who he was and why he was on the ballot.
“In a place like Whiteville, a first impression is everything,” Harris said. “So the fact that I showed up on Election Day and at community events beforehand, I think that’s why there was so much energy in my campaign.”
Voter registration numbers in North Carolina show the mean age for rural voters across the state and Whiteville was 52. In Whiteville, however, there are 1,108 Boomers registered, 1,188 Millennials registered and Gen Z voters registered — a near-even split.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines Boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964 (age 59 to 77), Millennials as born between 1981 and 1996 (age 27 to 42) and Gen Z as those born after 1997 (age 26 or younger).
Bitzer said that split may account for differences between the community and the rest of the state.
“We’re also going through a generational transition with long-time Boomer office-holders exiting and Millennials starting to make their entry into elected office,” Bitzer said.
Voter turnout in the municipal elections was low, with just 19% of all eligible Columbus County voters. While municipal elections usually draw a smaller crowd than national or statewide races, this year saw fewer voters than both the 2021 and 2019 municipal elections, which drew more than 25% of eligible voters.
Harris, who is Black, also won in a predominantly white district. His district is 52% white and 38% Black, according to 2021 Census data. Meanwhile, the other town council district in Whiteville is 61% Black. Whiteville as a whole is 45% Black and 44% white.
Whiteville City Council will now have three Black members and three white members, plus the mayor, Terry Mann, who is white.
While he did consider the racial dynamics of his district, Harris said he wasn’t going to let that stop him from being involved and getting his name out.
“I was involved, I talked to people and saw people — that was what pushed me over the edge,” he said. “I was aware of the racial dynamics, but I felt like people looked at me for who I was and the work I’ve done over the years.”
The win comes at a time when racial tensions in town are high following the alleged use of a racial slur on a public works employee by a school board member.
As a former deputy under embattled Sheriff Jody Greene, Harris has been involved in these tensions firsthand. Harris resigned as a deputy after a 2019 phone call where the former sheriff threatened to fire him for “talking junk,” according to a signed affidavit. Harris also said he witnessed another deputy choke a Black child in 2021.
Harris was one of nine candidates to win a seat over an incumbent in the county. Other notable incumbent losses came in Bolton, Brunswick, Chadbourn and Tabor City. Election results remain unofficial until the county canvass on Nov. 17.