PEMBROKE, N.C. — The Converse factory, surrounded by cars wrecked by Hurricane Matthew, sits empty except for the pigeons that nest inside. The plant closed in 2001 and the floods came in 2016. Robeson County has yet to recover from either event.
Almost half of county residents identify as Lumbee, a Native American group that has fought for and been denied federal recognition since 1888. Now, they’re preparing for Hurricane Florence, set to hit the North Carolina coast Friday and deliver a potentially catastrophic amount of rain. The storm’s destruction, and recovery, that follow could prove a key factor in the race for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, which stretches from the Charlotte suburbs to Robeson and is a key target for Democrats this year.
While registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1, Robeson was one of the only majority-minority counties in the country to vote for President Trump in 2016, weeks after it was hit by Hurricane Matthew. In the storm’s wake, Trump had pledged a donation to storm relief, though the campaign did not provide details or proof of the gift. And Lara Trump, his daughter-in-law and a North Carolina native, visited and delivered emergency food, toiletries and gas.
“It meant a lot when Trump gave money to our area during the campaign. Symbolically, I think it showed respect. We’ve been blue for many decades, but people have felt ignored,” said Johnny Hunt, a former county commissioner who is Lumbee.
To take the seat this year, Democrat Dan McCready, a former Marine, would have to beat Mark Harris, a former pastor who defeated the incumbent in the Republican primary in May. Both candidates have targeted the Lumbee with direct appeals, giving them fresh hope for full federal recognition, a move that has been denied since they first applied in 1888 and would bring subsidized health care and education, as well as allow for a coveted casino license.
Trump’s campaign message on the dangers of trade and a lifestyle slipping away resonated here, one of the poorest counties in the state.
“A lot of Lumbees voted for Trump because of the jobs situation,” says Freda Porter, 60, a tribe official. “I don’t know what we make anymore. It has been difficult for us. I grew up on the tobacco fields with my family, now we aren’t together anymore. People die from opioids every week. We need a period of healing.”
She said the tribe’s deep evangelical Christian roots added to Trump’s appeal. “A lot of people saw Obama and thought, ‘That’s too liberal for me.’ We are a very traditional Christian community, some people thought the Republicans better reflected that.’”
With a month and a half to go until election day, McCready has made the most direct pitch to the Lumbees, making federal recognition a key policy. He says he has recruited a team of paid field organizers in the tribe and visited the county on several dozen occasions. “I want to show I care and will give my all for them,” he said. “I’ve been to powwows and homecomings. Recognition is a century-long injustice. There’s been a lot of lip service, but it’s failed.”
McCready also has refused to insult Trump and has adopted some of the president’s language when he talks about the region’s economic struggles.
“Families have been hurt by NAFTA and politicians have not stepped in,” he said. The Converse factory is seen as a casualty of the free-trade agreement Trump has discussed replacing.
Harris has focused more heavily on social issues, seeking to present himself as a natural fit for the Lumbee tribe’s deep Christian roots and conservative views on gay marriage and abortion. As then president of the Baptist State Convention, Harris led the successful 2012 referendum campaign to ban gay marriage in the state, before it was overturned by a federal judge. The measure had more support in Robeson County (86 percent) than anywhere in North Carolina. Harris also was a leading advocate for HB2, the controversial state law banning transgender people from using bathrooms that match their chosen gender.
“I’m not sure Dan McCready understands that,” Harris said. “He says ‘Mark Harris made a name for himself on gay marriage and HB2.’ He actually called me an extremist. I’m thinking, ‘Wow. If that’s his campaign, he’s helping me.’ ”
McCready has powered ahead in fundraising — as of the last filings in July, he had raised $2.6 million to Harris’s $930,000 — although a GOP campaign official said that a recent fundraising luncheon attended by President Trump in Charlotte brought Harris momentum and donations.
The 9th district runs from Robeson County to the Charlotte suburbs, where some of Harris’s socially conservative views may not play as well. In a 2013 sermon, he questioned whether a career was “the healthiest decision” for women and preached that women should “submit” to their husbands.
While Harris argues that his religious views resonate with the Lumbees, many in Robeson County are most worried about jobs and the opioid crisis that has hit here, as in many parts of the country.
“It’s sad what happened to our community,” said Chelsea Jones, 28, a Lumbee woman who works in a gas station and said she sees girls coming in with teeth rotting from drug abuse. Jones tried to vote in the 2016 election before being told she was not registered. She said she is considering registering in time for the midterms and that if she votes it will likely be for Mark Harris. “I might vote this time, I’m not sure. I like how Trump’s telling people to work for it, not handouts.”
Hunt, the former county commissioner, who is supporting McCready, said he wasn’t sure how the November vote will turn out.
“R wasn’t in our alphabet here, but the Republicans have grown. Some say the Democrats haven’t done enough. I hear that,” he said.
But he blamed Republican lawmakers for siding with the Cherokees, who have fought federal recognition for the Lumbees and expressed hope that McCready could change things.
“We’ve been promised the same thing for a hundred years. A hundred years. It hasn’t happened,” Hunt said.
Harold Collins, 60, a professional strongman known as Chief Iron Bear, sees a community destroyed by pharmacies and alcohol, as well as natural disasters.
“A lot of people haven’t recovered from Matthew, next week they may not even have a home,” said Collins, who once represented the United States in the World’s Strongest Man contest and now runs a local gym. “The Native American people have been here for a thousand years and we’ve learned to put up with it. We’re not leaving, we’re gonna ride it out.”