Ronald Reagan once said, “Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” County Commissioner Tony Braswell and school board Chairman Larry Strickland, both Republicans, have forgotten those Reagan words of political wisdom.
The two are seeking the GOP nomination for the District 28 seat in the N.C. House of Representatives, and they are frequently speaking ill of one another.
A mailing I received at home said this: During the recession, when Johnston tax coffers were lean, the school board, led by the conservative Larry Strickland, came to the county’s financial rescue, returning $20 million to the county so commissioners, led by the spendthrift Tony Braswell, could pay the county’s bills.
The mailing went on to say the school board could have put that money to better use, raising teacher supplements, for example. But no, the board had to bail out the free-spending county commissioners.
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I didn’t hear his response, but apparently, Mr. Braswell and Sheriff Steve Bizzell took to the airwaves after the mailing to skewer Mr. Strickland. And I must confess the mailing raised as many questions about the school board as it did county commissioners. For example, a school board that says it never has enough money to raise supplements had $20 million that, by Mr. Strickland’s admission, could have been paying teachers more but wasn’t. Why not?
In their defense, Mr. Braswell and Mr. Strickland are not the first Republicans to speak ill of one another. Presidential hopeful Donald Trump regularly speaks ill of his opponents, who are just now learning to speak ill of Mr. Trump.
But more important, the county commissioner and school leader are simply indicative of a split within the Johnston County Republican Party that threatens the GOP’s hold on nearly every elected office in the county.
I vote Republican as often as I can, but I don’t take part in party meetings or events, so I have seen the split only from examples like the Braswell-Strickland spat. But from what I hear, the Johnston GOP has two factions – one that supports county commissioners and Sheriff Bizzell and one that sides with the Republican majority on the nonpartisan school board. I don’t know which faction is right and which is wrong, and I don’t much care. What I do know is that Johnston County is getting poor leadership from both the school board and County Commissioners, giving Democrats their first real shot at winning an elected office in Johnston in years.
Among other things, Mr. Strickland has led a school board that was either ignorant or knowingly complicit in enriching retired superintendent Ed Croom at taxpayer expense. And no, it doesn’t matter if school leaders thought Croom was taking from state taxpayers rather than Johnston ones. Either way, that’s poor leadership.
Mr. Braswell, meanwhile, was at the helm when County Commissioners caved at the first hint of opposition to a CSX cargo-container hub in Johnston County. Now, Johnston and Eastern North Carolina might lose hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax base. That’s not leadership either.
As a longtime friend of mine likes to say, winning elections is easy, but governing is hard, and Johnston County is getting poor governance from its all-Republican Board of County Commissioners and its GOP-majority school board. And that creates an opening for what remains of Johnston County’s Democratic Party.
As recently as the 1980s, not a single Republican held elected office in Johnston County. But then voters took a chance on the likes of Leo Daughtry and Cookie Pope, who proved they could govern – Daughtry in the N.C. General Assembly and Pope on the Johnston County Board of Commissioners. After that, it didn’t take but a couple of election cycles for Republicans to hold most elected offices in Johnston.
When I turned 18 years old in 1979, I registered to vote as a Republican, because all Bolejacks were Republicans. But in 1996, I voted for Mrs. Pope not simply because she was Republican but because she promised to do something Democrats had refused to do, which was build schools for a growing county. And I continued to vote Republican because Mrs. Pope and the Republicans who joined her delivered on that promise without raising property taxes.
But now, Republicans aren’t delivering on governance or leadership. County Commissioners turn their back on the economic development needed to grow the county’s tax base. The school board, meanwhile, is throwing away the tax dollars that earlier Republicans fought so hard to give schoolchildren.
My friend who thinks elected leaders ought to govern says he won’t be surprised if Johnston Democrats win an N.C. House seat and a county commissioner’s seat in November. And if they do, he predicts it won’t be long before they return to dominance in Johnston politics.
If Johnston’s Republican Party leadership doesn’t want that to happen, it needs to mend its internal fences, and the time to start is now.