Southeastern NC – 8th District Senator RC Soles is an institution. Literally. The State Senate named Soles a North Carolina Institution last year for his nineteen terms in the general assembly. And like any good incumbent, when Soles talks about his district, it's in long lists of projects won and dollars doled out.
For an example, take Pender County. Soles recently attended the opening of a park in Hampstead he obtained funds for. There are grants supporting a new community center and a water tower in Surf City. And in Burgaw, Soles it trying to help get money to expand the train depot museum.
Pender's the latest addition to a district that at one time or another under Soles' tenure has included Cumberland, Sampson, Bladen, and New Hanover counties.
The 8th district's current make-up - Pender, Brunswick, and Columbus - captures the growing split in the southeastern part of the state, between stagnating rural areas and the booming beaches.
As much as the district has changed, voters there have kept returning Soles to the Assembly for 38 years now. That kind of incumbency, quite possibly a record in the state, is quite a hurdle for any challenger to tackle.
On a recent evening, Soles' Republican challenger, retired Southport attorney Bill Fairley, was doing just that, one introduction at a time. The venue was a fundraiser in a friend's home on Caswell Beach. When the meeting and greeting finished, the violinist temporarily still and the audience full of finger foods, Fairley stood to make the case for his candidacy.
With the sunset gilding the Intracoastal marshes through the windows behind him, Fairley argued that Soles' long tenure is actually a disadvantage for the incumbent - all of the district's long-term problems are also on his doorstep.
"You don't have economic stagnation in Columbus County overnight," Fairley says. "That has come on in the last 20 years. Problems in Pender and Brunswick County related to growth did not occur overnight. They have been developing the entire time that R.C. Soles has been a senator."
Sitting in the office of his law firm, across the sleepy lunchtime street from the Columbus County Courthouse in Whiteville, Soles sees things very different. In his view, longevity isn't his handicap, newcomers are. The massive growth along the beaches is diluting the natural power of incumbency.
People moving into the county need to appreciate whose hard work has made the coast such a desirable place to live, Soles says. "It's extremely important that they understand that quality of life that they're enjoying here, to a great extent, is due to the fact that I, along with many others, have had the foresight to work hard and to keep beaches clean, to keep the roads open, to preserve the forest, the trees, and actually, even the red-headed woodpecker down in Brunswick County," Soles says, before launching into his thoughts on Boiling Springs development battles.
Soles and Fairley agree on a lot of the big local issues, at least on the surface: coastal communities need roads. The interior needs economic stimulation. Both say 'no' to the Hugo Neu landfill, and 'yes' to a state role in beach re-nourishment. It's not the goals, but the means where they differ. In simplistic political terms, Fairley wants to prioritize private sector solutions, while Soles has focused on bringing in public money.
Entering a Lowes supermarket in Shallote, John Peters is exactly the kind of voter both candidates are thinking about. New to the area, Peters says he hasn't decided whom to vote for yet. But he does know which issues concern him: public transportation, roads, expanding utility services. "Just the basic infrastructure," he says.
Brunswick County's newest residents have tended to be Republicans. As it stands now, nearly half the voters in the 8th district are in Brunswick, and they're closely split between the parties. Pender leans Democratic. And up in Columbus County, Democrats make up nearly 70% of registered voters. But in may be in Columbus where Soles' incumbency will really catch up with him.
On the final night of the Columbus County Fair, trick riders are showing their stuff in the Great American Frontier Show while residents from around the region rediscover the joys of funnel cake and caramel apples. Both of the candidates have put in their appearances. The county Republicans have a modest booth in the exhibit hall, and there's a big banner thanking Soles hanging from one of the barns.
One voter, who didn't give his name, says his biggest concern is why his county hasn't grown more economically in the past ten to fifteen years. Another says he'll vote for Fairley because Soles hasn't done much for the area during his time in office. These are exactly the kinds of frustrations Fairley is counting on to help him at the polls.
But R.C. Soles is still a name that carries a lot of weight among the people he's served for so long. Leaving the fair, Henry Cheatham says he's pleased to be voting for the senator, again. Cheatham says he's turned to Soles for help in the past, and has yet to be let down.
As the October evening chill settles in, fair-goers crowd to the arena to scream and cheer as beat-up cars smash each other to bits in the loose dirt. Tonight's main attraction is a demolition derby: entertainment as American - and almost as bruising - as politics. Megan Williams WHQR News