Reives takes office in historic inauguration
In the middle of Black History Month and 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech," Robert Reives II became the first black person to represent this area in the North Carolina House of Representatives.
Reives, a Democrat and a Sanford attorney, was picked by a committee of Democratic Party leaders last month to represent House District 54 — which covers Chatham County and parts of Lee County — on an interim basis. He succeeds Deb McManus, a Democrat who resigned after being charged with felony financial crimes related to her bookkeeping work at her husband's Siler City medical practice.
With the approval of Gov. Pat McCrory, Reives was officially sworn in Monday in front of a packed courtroom at the Chatham County Justice Center in Pittsboro. After taking the oath of office, Reives thanked the standing-room-only crowd for their support, saying that when he goes to Raleigh, he will remember them and the other 80,000 people he now represents.
"I understand this position is a privilege, and I will not take that for granted," Reives said, promising to listen to people of any race, gender, class, political party or other group who want to speak with him about what's best for the district.
He will hold the office until at least the end of the year, when the person who wins in November's general election will take office. Reives has said he plans to campaign in that election. And when that election comes about, said Jennie DeLoach N. Williams, a Chatham County Democratic Party official who spoke at Monday's ceremony, he will have allies.
"Lee and Chatham counties need someone representing us who will represent our values and who will stand for what's right," she said. "... I'm looking forward to having him not only for this term, but for future terms."
Chatham County Democratic Party Chairwoman Jan Nichols said she wasn't 100 percent sure but believes that Reives is the first black man to ever represent Chatham County in the House. Valerie Foushee, a black woman from Chapel Hill, now represents Chatham and Orange counties in the N.C. Senate. Like Reives, she recently was appointed by the Democratic Party.
Lee County Democratic Party Chairwoman Ann McCracken said Reives is Lee County's first black representative and, she believes, the first for this general area — Lee County wasn't created until 1907 — since at least Reconstruction and possibly ever. While historical records of General Assembly members during Reconstruction are imperfect, it appears McCracken and Nichols are right and that Reives is indeed this area's first black representative in the N.C. House.
"This is a historic day and a historic moment," Sanford radio host and former school board member Margaret Murchison, who has herself experienced working in politics as a racial minority, told the crowd after Reives was sworn in.
In his speech, Reives pined for a political era of the past, but not one so far in the past as Reconstruction. He said he would like to see North Carolina politics return to the era of Gov. Jim Hunt, when Democrats and Republicans worked together to support business and public education alike.
And that's not just his own personal desire, Reives added.
"The thing I hear, universally, is everyone wants to see an end to the partisan bickering," he said, although he noted that doesn't mean he will simply be silent on issues important to him and his constituents.
"I will be your voice," he said Monday. "I will be your advocate."
His swearing-in itself was a bipartisan affair. While heavily attended by Democratic politicians and supporters, at least three of the people who stood up to introduce themselves during a welcoming of local officials were Republicans: Walter Petty and Brian Bock, chairman and vice chairman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, respectively, and Cameron Sharpe of the Lee County Board of Education.
A strong legal contingent was on hand for Reives, a criminal defense attorney in private practice who used to be a government prosecutor. Supporters from the legal world ranged from N.C. Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley to several local judges, Lee/Harnet District Attorney Vernon Stewart, a handful of local defense attorneys and prosecutors and even two bailiffs who work at the Lee County Courthouse. Joe Hackney, a Chatham County attorney who held the District 54 seat before it included Lee County, and who was Speaker of the House from 2007-11, also attended.