By Ivey Schofield
A group of wealthy Americans advocating for higher taxes for the rich has turned its focus to what might seem an unlikely place: Whiteville, North Carolina.
Patriotic Millionaires, an advocacy coalition based in Washington, D.C., launched a pilot program in August in the Columbus County town. The goal, organizers say, is to convince conservative voters to support political candidates who want to raise taxes for the wealthiest Americans and increase the minimum wage for workers.
The nonpartisan group says it is investing $100,000 to $300,000 per year in Whiteville to train 60 volunteers – two-thirds of them conservatives – to canvass local neighborhoods and make phone calls to residents.
Want to keep up with more news from the Border Belt Independent? Sign up here for our weekly newsletter.
“My dream is for 5,000 citizens in Whiteville to gather in the middle of town and basically demand higher wages and a reasonable tax system of every Democratic, Republican and Green Party politician that comes through,” said Erica Payne, founder of Patriotic Millionaires and Agenda Project, a progressive political organization.
Payne, a North Carolina native who now lives in Washington, D.C., served as deputy finance director for the Democratic National Committee during the 1996 presidential campaign.
Payne said Patriotic Millionaires chose Whiteville for a few reasons. The town is small and generally poor, with an average per-capita income of $23,500 – about $11,000 less than the statewide figure.
Columbus County, nestled in rural southeastern North Carolina about 50 miles from the coast, has seen a political swing in the GOP’s favor in recent years. Home to about 55,000 people, 54% of voters here picked Republican Sen. John McCain in the 2008 election. Twelve years later, President Donald Trump won 64% of the vote.
Only one Democrat won any partisan race in Columbus County in the November election. Voters picked Republican Jody Greene for a second term as sheriff, even after the local district attorney accused him of racially profiling deputies and abusing his power. (Greene resigned in January.)
While some states have raised the minimum wage for workers, North Carolina still uses the federal rate of $7.25 an hour. But a single adult with no children needs to make at least $16.83 per hour, or $35,000 per year, to have enough money in the state to pay for health care, housing, transportation, taxes and other activities, according to Oxfam, a global nonprofit that addresses poverty and injustice.
“If you work full time, you should be able to afford your basic needs,” Payne said. “This seems incredibly straightforward to us. And yet, our entire economy is based on that not being the fact.”
Since 1978, wages for chief executive officers have gone up more than 1,000%, according to Patriotic Millionaires. Wages for middle class families have gone up by just 12%.
“Wealthy people have gotten away with murder in the tax code,” Payne said.
“And if we don’t stop this level of inequality, you’re going to see people more and more not thinking they have a stake in the future,” she said. “That leads to people being scared, scared leads to anger, anger leads to violence and violence leads to a breakdown in American society.”
Brian Wuertz, who used to live in Whiteville but moved near his family in the mountains in January because he couldn’t find a good-paying job locally, said he was frustrated about the concentration of wealth at the top.
During the Pecan Festival in November, Wuertz wandered by a booth the Patriotic Millionaires had set up to encourage locals to attend meetings.
He went and was surprised by what he heard. “There were liberal policies,” he said, “but they did a really good job of making it nonpartisan.”
In 2010, Patriotic Millionaires wrote a letter condemning President Barack Obama’s decision to extend the tax cuts put in place by President George W. Bush for high-income earners.
Last summer, the group partnered with other organizations to craft a letter asking Congress to include a 5% surcharge on incomes over $10 million, which was part of President Joe Biden’s original Build Back Better Act.
The letter was signed by 304 “high-net-worth individuals,” including several people in North Carolina and two members of the Disney family.
The current tax law, Payne said, has hurt working-class families, including those in Whiteville. She said informing people about her group’s economic platform is key to policy change by 2025, when Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy are set to expire.
In 2017, Trump lowered the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%, saying the change would give the average family an extra $4,000. In 2019, the White House released data that showed a family of four making $75,000 per year got an average of $2,000 extra.
James Insley, a retired nurse who moved to Whiteville in 2018 and voted for Trump in 2020, said he used to believe that tax cuts for big corporations led to the creation of more jobs. Then, he said, Patriotic Millionaires changed his mind.
“It pains me to think how much tax I’ve paid in the last 40 years I’ve been working versus what billionaires have paid,” he said.
Insley, who made $100 per hour as a nurse in California, said he didn’t have problems paying his bills. But he was concerned about future generations.
“(Advocating for tax reform) is not going to affect me personally because I won’t be working anymore,” Insley said. “But it will affect my children, their children, my neighbors. It’s something that needs to be done.”
Now, Insley is one of the volunteers being trained to recruit other Whiteville residents to join the Patriotic Millionaires’ cause.
Even if the group doesn’t get a warm response in Columbus County, Wuertz said the effort pour money into the local economy and brings together people of different backgrounds and ideologies. The next meeting for volunteers is March 15, and the group is starting another educational cohort in May.
“It’s a really unique thing,” Wuertz said. “I’m kind of grateful that Columbus County was picked, and Whiteville in particular.”
Payne said people can advocate for a better future – at the ballot box.
“This is a powerful group of people sitting here, and they don’t have any idea what they’re holding in their hands,” she said. “We just want to help them exercise that power and get what they need.”