Reives chosen to fill House 54 seat

Jan. 25, 2014 @ 05:04 AM

The N.C. House District 54 seat, which represents all of Chatham County and parts of Lee County, has been relatively devoid of political drama since December when former Rep. Deb McManus was arrested and resigned.

Friday evening, however, drama came back in full force as one candidate to be an interim replacement accused an unnamed local power broker of trying to coerce her to stop her efforts. About 10 minutes after Kathie Russell’s impassioned speech, and following a private deliberation, the selection committee unanimously picked one of her competitors, Robert Reives II.

Reives, an attorney at Sanford law firm Wilson and Reives who grew up in Lee County and whose father sits on the Lee County Board of Commissioners, thanked his supporters and promised to help the statewide Democratic Party return to its glory days. He’ll serve at least until the end of the year but has said he does plan to campaign in the November general election in hopes that voters will put him in office full time.“Today’s an opportunity, and today is a first step,” Reives said to the crowd of about 100 people gathered in the Historic Chatham County Courthouse after the committee announced he was their choice. “The reason that this happened is what we have sitting out here. I can name just about every person in this audience. ... Every single person in here, just about, has touched my life and pushed me on.”

He said he would champion a number of progressive causes, including a higher minimum wage, fewer restrictions on women’s rights over their own bodies, increased access to health care and increased public education funding.

Reives never addressed Russell’s accusations directly but did thank the committee for having faith in the process and in him, claiming: “I won’t get outworked. I won’t, at any point in time, be unreachable. You’ll always know who your candidate is, where he is, and that you can speak with him on any issue.”

That was his acceptance speech; all the candidates also got the chance to speak beforehand. George Lucier, a former Chatham County Commissioner and an environmental scientist, went first. He made a final pitch for himself, citing his scientific knowledge and commitment to public service.

Reives then got up and thanked his family, the committee, the local parties and the people in the crowd for being enthusiastic about politics. He also thanked his fellow candidates for handling themselves respectfully and professionally.

And then Russell, a Raleigh attorney who lives in Moncure, approached the podium with several sheets of printed text. She waved the papers, saying it was a concession speech she was emailed and ordered to give by someone she said she used to consider a friend — and wouldn’t name publicly — who offered her “political and financial commitments” to withdraw and also pressured her, accusing her of not being a good team player for the Democratic Party.

“I find it highly offensive,” Russell said, adding that she refused the person on all counts. “I think anyone and everyone here who’s concerned about open and transparent democracy should be offended. ... It’s the people’s seat, and who is speaking for the people if this is how the decision is made?”

Russell said she still believes she’s the best candidate and pledged to run against Reives in the primary election this May, should he campaign for the seat as he has said he will.

Several of those involved in the decision process declined to address Russell’s allegations after the meeting ended. Toward the end of the event, selection committee member and Chatham County Democratic Party Chairwoman Jan Nichols did say choosing an interim legislator was tough and that “the committee wishes to urge everyone to come together in support of the Democratic candidates selected in the primary process.”

So while the Democratic primary will likely consist of at least Reives and Russell, no one has declared from the Republican side yet. Cathy Wright of Chatham County was the candidate who faced off unsuccessfully against McManus in 2012.

McManus served about half of her two-year term before being arrested and charged with several felony counts related to her work as bookkeeper at her husband’s Siler City medical practice. According to the state, it is alleged she helped the business embezzle nearly $50,000.

In addition to Nichols, the committee to select an interim replacement was made up of Joshua Kricker, also from Chatham County, as well as Jimmy Love Sr. and John Kirkman from Lee County. However, Kirkman was removed because he doesn’t actually live in the district, a senior Democratic official explained Friday night, blaming it on the Republican gerrymandering which created the district in 2010.