State Politics

R.C. Soles: no sign of slowing down

Back home in Columbus County, R.C. Soles Jr. is known by many names. The Godfather. The Boss. He's Mr. R.C. to a legal client facing a court date, a teenager with cut-off cargo pants and a tattoo on his neck.

In Raleigh, though, he is the dean. First elected in 1968, Soles is thought to be the longest-serving member in the history of the North Carolina legislature. Soles is in his 40th year as a lawmaker -- and seeking another term in the state Senate.

The legislature has changed considerably in those four decades. Back then, black and female legislators could be counted on one hand. Democrats fought each other for power, with no thought that Republicans could challenge them. Freshmen lawmakers were expected to keep quiet and move up the chain by proving loyalty to their leaders.

Soles seems immune, in many ways, to the changing times. A rich man from a poor county in the southeastern corner of the state, Soles is re-elected every two years despite the influx of Republicans to his district and complaints of corruption that never stick. He never plays to the television cameras that often dominate today's politics. Soles prefers to work behind the scenes to get what he wants.

And though the makeup of the legislature and the state have changed, with more lawmakers hailing from cities and their suburbs, it is often old-timers such as Soles -- white men from small towns who have worked for years to build power -- at the Senate controls.

"There's a history in North Carolina of that part of the state which is more sparsely populated having an outsized influence in the legislature," said David Mills, executive director of the Common Sense Foundation, a liberal Durham think tank. "Sometimes, institutions like that change slowly and don't keep up with other demographic changes that happen. The concentration of power tends to protect itself pretty well."

When Soles, 73, was first elected to the state House in 1968, he fit into a familiar profile for legislators. He was a local lawyer with growing influence in the county Democratic Party who was learning how powerful lawmakers cut deals. He was elected to the Senate in 1976.

The legislature can be a clamped-down place where big decisions are made behind closed doors. In the early years of Soles' career, the atmosphere was even more stifling. A handful of people made decisions.

"You had what I call several old war horses in each chamber that kind of ran the thing," Soles said.

Soles said Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat, "has opened that up; you can say anything you want in the caucus."

But even now there are limits to debate.

"Once the caucus decides," Soles said, "it's kind of a no-no to keep harping."

Soles is generally considered one of the most influential members of the Senate, but he's easy to overlook.

Soles once tried to get the chamber's top job, that of president pro tem. He lost to Basnight, who still has the post 15 years later.

"He, as the loser, could have easily had hard feelings," Basnight said. "I never felt it."

Soles and Basnight share an easy rapport, telling stories about the time Soles, the experienced legislator, buttered up the freshman Basnight to get him to back a controversial bill that would have changed the way courts viewed personal injury lawsuits. Basnight's decision brought him loads of trouble from the lieutenant governor and voters in his district.

Or about the time they attended the wedding of one of Basnight's former aides smelling a bit rank. Soles had persuaded Basnight to first stop to meet with some constituents who raised pigs. After the wedding, Basnight committed to helping a small town in Soles' district pay for improved sidewalks.

Taking care of business

Most lawmakers, particularly those who have been around a while, are known for their pet issues or projects: UNC-Chapel Hill, business causes, rural issues, the environment or budget cutting. Soles doesn't have an issue-specific identity.

Instead, Soles' career has been marked over the years by efforts to pass laws that would seem to help allies and friends. In 1998, for example, the Star-News in Wilmington reported extensively on his efforts to pass a law to help a longtime legal client, a bar owner, to keep the Fantasy Sports Club open despite repeated violations of state alcohol laws. Soles did so by adding five lines, applying only to that club, in an unrelated bill. He then moved the bill through a committee he chaired.

Soles said he was simply deciding a dispute that divided politicians in a nearby town, not coming to the aid of a legal client.

More recently, Basnight helped Soles land a new state prison for Tabor City. The prison was planned for Tabor City, but Soles discovered that Sen. Tony Rand of Fayetteville was suggesting Bladen County as an alternative.

The location was decided in a conference room next to Soles' office, where Senate Democrats meet privately. Soles was on one side of the table, and Rand was on the other. Basnight refereed from the head chair.

"It became a screaming match between me and Senator Rand about where it was going to go," Soles said.

Rand, the Senate's Democratic leader, doesn't remember a dramatic showdown.

"It wasn't such a big deal for me," Rand said. "It must have been for him. I would have been delighted to put it in Bladen County. I assure you that's true."

Basnight decided in Soles' favor and called one of the governor's top administrators with the Senate's recommendation for the new prison's location.

The new prison is seen as a jewel in Columbus, a county perpetually in hard times. It has led some to wonder why Soles, in 40 years as a legislator, hasn't done more to help his district.

A district in decline

Miles of roads cut through woods and fields to connect small towns hurt by the decline of the tobacco and the textile industries. Soles' law office in Whiteville sits across the street from the courthouse. The downtown in Tabor City, where Soles also has an office, is nearly silent in late afternoon. There is no one on the sidewalks, and most of the offices and restaurants interspersed among the empty storefronts have long closed for the day. Columbus County ranks among the state's poorest, with its poverty rate over the past 30 years more than 10 percentage points higher than the state's rate.

Some of Soles' political opponents say he hasn't done enough to lift the district.

"As long as he's been there, he should have done more," said Jack Swann, a Republican who ran against Soles in 2004.

Soles' supporters, though, wonder what shape Columbus County would be in without him.

Soles was key to getting money for parks and a health services training center at the local community college. And then there's the prison, set to open in a few months. It will eventually have jobs for more than 500 people.

"He's been a big help in helping us stay on our feet," said Andy Anderson, a businessman from Whiteville. "Most folks would have just given up."

Soles' professional and political lives blend seamlessly in Columbus. One recent Monday afternoon, Soles met up with one of his law partners, Sherry Prince, at the courthouse. Prince is also chairwoman of the county Democratic Party. Her husband, R. Mitchel Tyler, an ardent Soles backer, has a part-time job as the trial court administrator. On the bench is Judge Bill Fairley, a Republican who ran against Soles two years ago before he was appointed to the judgeship.

Soles has a stature in the small towns of Columbus County that he probably wouldn't enjoy in a bigger city. Strangers recognize him after 40 years in politics and more than that practicing law. Soles says he has probably had half the county as clients at one time or another.

Soles, a lifelong bachelor, has a reputation in the county for spreading his own money around. He paid $110,000 for his church's sound, lighting and video system in 2001 -- a gift from Soles and his sister. Soles helped an ex-convict after his release by buying him a pickup truck and opening his lakeside home for the former prisoner's wedding.

Even a federal indictment and corruption trial in the early 1980s didn't shake Soles' hold on the seat. He said it made him stronger.

Soles was indicted in 1983 as part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation. Several people were convicted, but a judge threw out three charges against Soles. A jury found Soles not guilty of helping a political associate receive bribes, and newspaper editorials criticized the prosecution's weak case.

Tabor City residents threw a party for Soles the day after his acquittal.

"I had more people supporting me after I got out of that thing than before," Soles said.

Uphill battles

The political landscape is changing in Soles' district.

Democrats still dominate county politics, and voter registration runs 5 to 1 in their favor. But while the hardest campaigns in the district used to be between Democrats battling it out in primaries, Soles has recently found himself facing stronger Republican challengers and more criticism of his activities.

As a result, Soles' campaigns have become more expensive. While he has a large Democratic base in his home county, the other counties in the district, Brunswick and Pender, are more Republican. Soles spent about $600,000 on his campaign two years ago, including $160,000 of his own money, to win by 5 percentage points.

Soles finances his own get-out-the-vote operation, a responsibility most often shouldered by county and state parties.

Campaign finance records show that Soles pays residents thousands of dollars in $50, $100 and $200 increments to develop voter lists, campaign for him and drive people to the polls. His voter drive in the weeks before the 2000 election cost about $3,000. Three elections later, in 2006, he spent more than 10 times more.

The payments have raised suspicions among critics. Last week, Doris Strickland of Tabor City filed a complaint that ended up at the State Board of Elections, claiming that a supporter whom Soles paid to work for him may have been working as a precinct official at the same time. Soles once represented her in a personal injury case that she lost. She said her court case didn't have anything to do with her elections complaint.

Soles has faced other complaints from constituents. Residents from Hampstead filed an ethics complaint against him last year when they didn't like his response to their request for a bill that would incorporate their town.

Soles said he did not agree with all they wanted but eventually sponsored a bill that required a vote to incorporate.

Golf isn't his game

Most 73-year-olds, especially those as well off as Soles, have given up the grind of regular jobs for a comfortable retirement.

But that's not a model that Soles is familiar with. His father, Robert C. Soles Sr., still goes into his office each day to manage rental property, and attends social and political events with his son. He is 96.

"Politics has been my golf game," the younger Soles said. "I bought a set of golf clubs once and I gave them away, I was so bored."

Besides, it is hard to picture the 6-foot-2 man with the crisp white shirt in golf shoes hunched over a putter. He seems at home moving quietly but regally through the Legislative Building, a slight smile on his face.

"The legislature is his life," said Sen. David Weinstein of Lumberton, a colleague who has known Soles since they were teenagers. "He loves to work."

(News researchers Paulette Stiles, Becky Ogburn and Brooke Cain contributed to this report.)