N.C. Tobacco Farmers Find Friend in State's New Senator

Hagan Was Only Democrat to Vote Against Historic Regulation Measure

The Washington Post's Phil Rucker discusses legislation that will give the federal government new powers to regulate tobacco and its impact on farmers. Audio by Sarah Lovenheim/The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

ROCK RIDGE, N.C. -- Along Highway 581 in this rural hamlet, past the Piggly Wiggly and the Country Doctor Museum and the Baptist church and cemetery, is Pender Sharp's tobacco farm. A sixth-generation farmer who tends to 500 acres, he is part of a dwindling breed whose political influence seems to be waning everywhere -- except in eastern North Carolina.

So this month, as lawmakers in Washington castigated tobacco farmers and cigarette makers as contributing to the deaths of half a million Americans each year, Sharp journeyed from Wilson County to Capitol Hill to try to stop another assault on his business. Instead, he and others here in the heart of what was once the world's largest tobacco market returned to watch Congress deal a historic blow to their industry.

Under legislation that allows the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the $89 billion tobacco industry, Sharp said it is only a matter of time before the agency imposes strict new rules governing his farming and threatening the business that has been in his family since the 1800s.

"Now those yo-yos got oversight over tobacco," the 57-year-old said in a deep drawl. "Let me tell you my opinion of the FDA. We can go back through time, to apples, strawberries or any number of crops. But last year, there was a salmonella scare, and nearly overnight FDA officials say it's in tomatoes. Once they make that statement, every tomato farmer in the United States goes broke. Nobody buys tomatoes. Well, a few weeks later, after all the tomato farmers are bankrupt, the FDA says, 'It's not in tomatoes. It's in peppers.' And the next day every pepper farmer goes broke and their families and their communities suffer."

To hear Sharp rant is to understand why Kay Hagan, North Carolina's new senator, joined Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and 15 other senators to become the only Democrat to vote against the tobacco bill. And if any tobacco farmer has Hagan's ear, it is Sharp.

Last year, when Hagan was a little-known candidate running in an uphill battle to unseat Republican Elizabeth Dole, she campaigned at Sharp's farm. The fiscally conservative tobacco farmers along the I-95 corridor here make up a constituency that often helps swing statewide elections, and they backed Hagan strongly.

Hagan, 55, is no stranger to tobacco. A former lawyer and bank executive, she spent summers as a child stringing the leaves on her grandparents' farm. In the state legislature, she represented Greensboro, the headquarters of Lorillard Tobacco, which employs about 2,500 workers there.

To call Hagan merely a defender of the "golden leaf" industry would be an understatement. She is among tobacco's fiercest backers. In 2005, as co-chairman of the state Senate's appropriations committee, she helped shave back an increase in the cigarette tax from the 45 cents a pack proposed by the governor to 30 cents. During last year's campaign, Hagan received $19,200 from the tobacco industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Hagan's staff declined repeatedly to make her available for an interview for this article, saying she has been on a personal trip the past four days. In a floor speech last week, Hagan said she opposed the tobacco bill because it would hurt major employers in her state, including the Lorillard and R.J. Reynolds tobacco companies.

"While this bill purports to reduce smoking among teenagers and to regulate tobacco products, it goes far beyond these two goals," she said. "This broad, sweeping legislation will further devastate the economy of North Carolina and the lives of many of my constituents."

Although the Tar Heel State grows more tobacco than any other, its economic power has been shrinking. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of tobacco farms here decreased by nearly 80 percent, from 12,586 to 2,622, according to the Agriculture Department. The tobacco industry employs about 50,000 people here, delivering an economic impact of $7 billion.

In Raleigh, the capital, and the cities of Charlotte and Durham, the industry has been overtaken by technology, scientific research and banking, and that translates politically. In May, the legislature banned smoking in restaurants and bars. Several of the state's congressional representatives voted for the tobacco bill, and Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) wants to increase the cigarette tax, moves that analysts said would have been political suicide just a decade ago.

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