Historic Pandering in NC-09 Congressional Race

One of my suite mates in Hinton James dorm during my freshman year at Carolina was a Lumbee Indian from Robeson County who was proud of his heritage. He hung Lumbee decorations on the cinder block walls of his room, attended Pow-Wows across the South on weekends, and fought for the recognition of his people at the state and federal level.

At that time, George W. Bush was making the case for an invasion of Iraq, and politics came up more than usual. My suite mate made one fact perfectly clear during our political talks: He hated Jesse Helms with a passion. In 1994, after publicly stating that he supported the Lumbee Tribe’s efforts to gain recognition, Helms had organized a filibuster of a a bill giving the tribe the same federal benefits as other Native Americans. Eight years later, Helms hadn’t been forgiven.


The Lumbee Indians of Robeson County have been a political football in North Carolina for a half-century. Needing votes, Tar Heel politicians pick up this football around election time, only to punt it down the field when push comes to shove.

Nothing has changed.

NC-09’s Recent History

Robeson County has a deep Democratic tradition, but the Republican Party has made headway in recent years. On top of this, Republicans have redrawn Congressional lines to water down the county’s Democratic voting block. In 2014, longtime Robeson County Congressman, Mike McIntyre, retired in the face of a tough re-election bid after his district was redrawn to favor a Republican challenger. Robeson County was without a Democratic congressman for the first time since 1994. It’s remained that way since.

Republicans have held onto the Congressional seat encompassing Robeson, in part, by carrying on the tradition of pandering to the Lumbee Tribe.

A recent case in point is former Republican congressman, Robert Pittenger. A Charlotte businessman, Pittenger began his political career in the North Carolina Senate. He served two terms, then later ran for Lieutenant Governor, losing to Democrat Walter Dalton in the 2008 Obama wave.

In 2011, Pittenger decided to run for Congress. He was elected and seated in 2012 in North Carolina’s Republican-leaning 9th District which surrounded Charlotte (see below in pink). Notice that it’s nowhere near Robeson County in 2012.

Pittenger easily won re-election in a district tailor-made for a suburban Charlotte Republican. In 2014, he was the only Republican candidate for Congress in North Carolina without Democratic opposition.

But his luck didn’t last. The North Carolina districts were ruled unconstitutional and were redrawn for the 2016 election. Pittenger’s 9th district changed dramatically and now included all of Robeson County (below in green):

Quite a different district, as you can see.

So what was Pittenger to do? How would he appeal to constituents in his “new” district that wasn’t rigged to get him elected? Most of them had no idea who he was.

Easy.

After more than decade in public office, Pittenger developed a strong affinity for the Lumbee Tribe. He introduced the Lumbee Recognition Act in Congress to impress his new constituents. Here’s a photo of Pittenger, Senator Richard Burr, and Congressman Richard Hudson meeting with the Lumbee Chairman in 2017.

Jesse Helms wasn’t around to filibuster this time, so there was rising hope that the Lumbees might finally win. But despite the fact that Pittenger’s party controlled Congress and the Presidency, his bill went nowhere and quickly died in committee. The football was kicked down the field, again.

Pittenger’s pandering didn’t earn him any favors in the 2018 Republican primary, and Pittenger lost to Reverend Mark Harris in a tight race. Harris went on to beat Democrat Dan McCready in one of the closest general election races in the country, but the result was overturned due to Harris’s illegal campaign activity. Here’s a few posts from last year covering that race if you want to re-live all the drama.

As a result of Harris’s illegal activity, we have a special election in NC’s 9th Congressional District in 2019, a “do-over,” if you will. Harris has been replaced by Republican Dan Bishop, who, like Pittenger, is a former North Carolina State Senator from Charlotte.

Bishop Follows Pandering Playbook

McCready v. Bishop 19′ is setting up to be just as close as McCready v. Harris 18′. Here’s a snapshot of one of the latest polls:

So what is Bishop doing to try to pick off Robeson County votes? He’s following his predecessor’s pandering playbook:

Bishop is now sponsoring a bill in the North Carolina Legislature for Lumbee recognition. He took this action three days before he announced his candidacy for Congress.

The bill would give the Lumbee’s governing body the same recognition status granted to municipal governments. Of all of the other pro-Lumbee bills that have gone through the North Carolina Legislature, this is the first bill Bishop has chosen to sponsor. The timing is glaringly suspect, but he’s got an election to win.

Will it Work?

Dan Bishop is as conservative as they come. He’s the author of the “Bathroom Bill” that made North Carolina infamous nationwide, and “Right Dan” is proud of it.

So far this year, despite Trump’s lagging approval rating, Bishop has gone all-in and campaigned beside the President.

This raises an interesting political question for 2019: Can a candidate embrace Donald Trump and still pick off Lumbee votes in 2019? Bishop thinks he can, and the reason may surprise you:

Lumbees reversed course and voted with Republicans and Trump in 2016, making national news. Robeson County became a case study in Trump’s successful campaign. Pundits were baffled. There was no good way to explain how Trump won a county by 5 points four years after Obama won it by 17.

However, much has changed since the 2016 election, and the numbers show that 2016 may be less evidence of a trend and more of an anomaly. In 2018, McCready beat Mark Harris by a substantial margin in Robeson County:

I have a very simple theory as to why:

Remember the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville? Trump, in an epic failure of moral leadership, commented that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a modern day Klan Rally.

This issue isn’t going anywhere. A few weeks ago, we had Trump’s latest North Carolina rally in Greenville where thousands of white North Carolinians chanted “send her back” about a minority member of the United States Congress after Trump complained that she didn’t love America. The reaction from national media and members of Congress made it clear that Trump had gone too far.

The chant brought back memories of North Carolina’s racist past:

Dan Bishop was right in the middle of it:

Trump has made it perfectly clear that he is doubling down on his racial rhetoric in an attempt to galvanize working class whites for the 2020 election.

As to why this matters, I have a story for you:

In the late 1950’s, the KKK saw its membership rise after the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education desegregated public schools. Robeson County had a tri-racial population at the time, with African Americans and Lumbee Indians out-numbering whites, so it became a civil rights battleground of sorts.

The KKK burned several crosses in the yards of Lumbee Indians. One of the terrorized Lumbee families had just moved into a “white” neighborhood. The leader of the local KKK group planned a massive rally on a farm in Maxton in order to “put the Indians in their place, to end race mixing.”

The Lumbees didn’t take kindly to this, so a thousand of them decided to do something about it. The ended up outnumbering the Klan, 5-1. Shouting war chants, they stormed the rally, stole the Klan’s cross, and ran the Klan members off the field.

The event made national news. One of the Lumbees was Simon Oxendine, the son of the Mayor of Pembroke, and a World War II Veteran Flight Engineer who took part in the first US raid on Berlin. He was photographed after the battle and featured in Life magazine, smiling with the KKK banner he had captured.

And so, questions remain for Dan Bishop in 2019:

Will the pandering work?

Will the Lumbee Tribe support a staunch conservative who’s gone all-in with Trump?

Not this time.

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