Who is the mayor of Pembroke? It’s complicated 

By Ben Rappaport


Update: On Jan. 22, Wake County Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins Jr. issued a stay on the certification of the Pembroke mayoral election. That means there will be a trial to determine if Greg Cummings’ election challenge is valid.

Original story:

With a golden shovel in hand, a beaming smile and a town of Pembroke hard hat atop his combed white hair, Gregory Cummings led local officials in a groundbreaking ceremony for downtown revitalization last week.

Cummings, who has served as mayor of the Robeson County town of 2,800 people for eight years,  called the start of construction on the $14 million project “a historic day for the town of Pembroke.”

It was the kind of ceremony one would expect a mayor to lead. 

Cummings, however, should no longer be the mayor of Pembroke, according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections. 

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In November, Cummings lost his re-election bid by 19 votes to Allen Dial, who had challenged him in every election since 2015. Following a canvass by the Robeson County Board of Elections, Cummings filed 11 challenges to the results, alleging that some voters did not live in Pembroke and were ineligible to cast ballots. 

When the Robeson County Board of Elections dismissed the challenges, Cummings filed an election protest with the state Board of Elections on Nov. 22. He said there was a “violation of election law, irregularity, or misconduct sufficient to cast doubt on the apparent results of the election.” 

Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the state board, disagreed. In the board’s decision to deny the protest, she said Cummings’ report lacked “supporting documentation” about voters’ eligibility. 

But Cummings remains the mayor, overseeing meetings and attending local events, including the groundbreaking on the downtown revitalization project. When completed, the project will include more than 12,000 feet of sidewalks and upgrades to existing streetscapes to help connect the UNC Pembroke campus to the Lumbee tribe’s headquarters. 

Mayor of Pembroke Greg Cummings gives remarks to the crowd of local officials at the downtown revitalization groundbreaking ceremony last week, held at the Thomas Entrepreneurship Lab on Main Street. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

“We’ve set the table for new businesses to come here,” Cummings said at the groundbreaking. “I hope our council will continue that work going forward.”

This isn’t the first time Cummings and Dial have engaged in post-election wrangling. In 2016, after Cummings first won the mayoral seat, the state ordered an election redo following a successful protest by Cummings, who raised concerns about voter irregularities, fraud and missteps. 

Dial then protested the redo results, alleging a vote-buying scheme and ineligible voters. The protest was dismissed for lack of evidence.

Cummings, an economic developer and unaffiliated voter, and Dial, a local business owner and Democrat, both served on the Pembroke Town Council between 1997 and 2011. Dial said he was often a “lone soldier” voting against the majority of the four-member board.

Dial said his election platform last fall focused on eliminating wasteful spending in town government, increasing transparency and being fair to all residents — principles he said are not present under the current administration. He attributed his election win to a stepped-up campaign strategy that included door knocks and conversations with voters.

Pembroke Mayoral candidate Allen Dial. (Contributed Photo)

Dial said he was not surprised to learn that Cummings was protesting the November election. 

In the protest, Cummings listed 16 voters who he said were ineligible. But he lost by a wider margin — 19 votes. Bell wrote that “it is plainly the case that the protest does not allege an outcome-determinative violation, irregularity, or misconduct, regardless of any determination on the eligibility of the 16 named voters.”

“Cummings’s protest of the 2015 election — where the number of ineligible voters equaled the vote margin — serves to demonstrate how the protest at hand does not present an outcome-determinative issue,” Bell wrote.

For Cummings, the fight to retain his office is not yet over. After receiving the state board’s rejection of his protest on Jan. 8, Cummings had until Jan. 22 to file an appeal with the Superior Court of Wake County. He did so on Jan. 18.

The presiding judge, Bryan Collins Jr., issued a stay on the certification of the election on Jan. 22. That means there will be a trial to determine if Cummings had validity in his challenge over the outcome of the election.

In an order written by Collins, he said the stay of the certification was necessary because of a “history of voter irregularities in Robeson County.”

“The plain language of the State Board of Elections Administrative Dismissal does not indicate that consideration was given to the totality of circumstances,” Collins wrote.

The certificate of election cannot be issued until a final resolution.

According to state staute, “If the decision of the State Board has been appealed to the Superior Court of Wake County and the court has stayed the certification, the certificate shall be issued five days after the entry of a final order in the case in the Superior Court of Wake County.”

Cummings did not respond to requests for comment on his appeal to the Wake County Superior Court.

“The people spoke when they voted,” Dial said. “They don’t want to drag this out any longer, but the fact is this could keep going on for a while longer if (Cummings) keeps appealing.”

Tina Bledsoe, the Robeson County elections director, said protests and appeals put a significant strain on the elections staff.

“We’re a small staff here and we’re trying to get prepared for primaries and other elections in 2024,” Bledsoe told the Border Belt Independent. “Yet, we still have this lingering on.”

She said, jokingly, she would have preferred one of the candidates to win in a landslide.

The Robeson County Board of Elections filed to dismiss the election challenges filed by Greg Cummings in the Pembroke mayoral election. Director Tina Bledsoe said the continued protests have strained elections staff. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)

In the meantime, Cummings is allowed to serve as mayor and hold all duties of the office until the certificate of election is issued. 

One of the principles at play, according to Bob Joyce, professor of elections law at the UNC School of Government, is called “holding over” where an elected official can stay in power after his or her term ends until a successor is officially qualified.

Joyce said the impact of holding over in an uncertain way, like the Pembroke case, is individual to each member of town government. And in this holdover period, the role of mayor still carries the same duties and responsibilities as always.  

“I feel like I won the election,” Dial said. “The people have spoken, and it’s time to move on.”

Mayor Greg Cummings leads local officials in a groundbreaking ceremony for the downtown Pembroke revitalization project last Wednesday on Main Street. (Photo by Ben Rappaport)