Chatham's Reives: ‘If it’s not you, who is it going to be?’

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 1/13/21

Robert Reives II, then a teenager, was sitting in his childhood home watching TV when he overheard a conversation that would inspire a lifetime in public service.

His father, Robert Reives Sr., …

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Chatham's Reives: ‘If it’s not you, who is it going to be?’

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Robert Reives II, then a teenager, was sitting in his childhood home watching TV when he overheard a conversation that would inspire a lifetime in public service.

His father, Robert Reives Sr., had been leading the Black community for months in pursuit of fair political representation.

“It all goes back to my dad,” Reives said, “My father did not at any point in his life believe he was ever going to end up in public service or politics or anything.”

But in 1970s Lee County, injustice in the political sphere was reaching a climax, and the elder Reives was determined to affect change.

“It became acutely clear to him that we had a real problem in Lee County,” his son said, “and that you couldn’t elect anybody African American — or anybody who even depended on the African American vote — because of racial gerrymandering.”

Lee County’s Black community at the time was centralized inside Sanford’s city limits. Voting districts, however, were deliberately arranged to partition Black neighborhoods and dilute the community’s influence in selecting county leaders who would represent its wishes.

Said Reives: “Instead of treating it as a homogeneous community, what was happening is that it was being divided so that you had 10% in this district, you know, 15% in that one, that type of thing, where they never could affect the outcome of elections.”

Reives wasn’t privy then to what his father knew: the systemic issues infused into his county’s political system.

“I pieced that all together as I got older,” he said.

But he knew his father’s efforts were important.

“And so he ended up basically being in a legal proceeding that involved ultimately the Department of Justice,” Reives said of his father, “that caused Lee County to have to redraw their districts in a way that allowed more African American votes and presence in the community.”

It was a landmark victory for minority voices in Lee County. To Robert Reives Sr., it was the goal he’d set out to accomplish, and it would have marked the end of his political aspirations.

“So, you need to understand all of that background to understand the moment for me,” Reives said. “At that point in time, my dad was kind of back to living his life. He was really happy about what happened. But I believe if you asked a young Robert Reives (Sr.) at that time, he believed he had accomplished what he was trying to accomplish.”

But Ruth Reives, the senior’s wife, knew that bigger things were in store.

“I remember sitting in my living room and hearing my mother talk to him,” Reives said. “Basically, she said, ‘If it’s not you, who is it going to be? And how do you now abdicate this responsibility after bringing about such a significant change?’”

Ruth discussed at length the value of public service — the responsibility each person has to serve the community according to his or her ability. Her lecture achieved the intended result.

“He’ll tell you,” Reives said, “nobody else on this earth could have been able to get through to him on that. But she really talked to him deeply about it, again, about what it would mean to have his mind, his abilities, centered in that type of position.”

His wife’s admonition inspired Robert Reives Sr.’s political career. Today, he is serving in his seventh term as a Lee County commissioner and was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine last month, the highest honor that can be given for state service.

But what Ruth Reives didn’t know when she delivered her exhortation was that she had launched two political careers: Reives Sr.’s and his namesake son’s.

“It resonated with me,” the younger Reives said, “I’ve never forgotten it. And, you know, I wasn’t even involved in the conversation. I was sitting off to the side and just happened to be lucky enough to be home and to be present.”

‘We really need you to run’

His mother’s words stuck with Reives as he attended UNC-Chapel Hill, first to earn an undergraduate degree in business and then a law degree. They motivated him as he took up the cause of community ambassadorship, first as a prosecutor and then in private practice where he still works as a partner at Wilson, Reives & Silverman. But that Reives would eventually enter the political arena was only a question of timing.

“By the time it was time for me to go into politics,” Reives said, “there was no issue in my mind that I’ve got to give back — no issue in my mind that I should be doing something to benefit the public. The whole issue was working out how.”

That question was answered in 2014 when N.C. House Dist. 54 Representative Deb McManus resigned following her arrest for embezzlement.

“I got four calls on the day Rep. McManus resigned,” Reives said. “Two of those were from Republican friends of mine, and two of those were from Democratic friends of mine … They were saying, ‘You know, we really need you to run for this office.’”

Now, six years later — and more than 30 years after his mother’s impassioned discussion of community responsibility — Reives is beginning his fourth full term serving Chatham County in the North Carolina House of Representatives and his first as leader of the chamber’s Democratic Party.

His quick ascension from fresh-faced appointee to party leader is probably historically unprecedented, but to some, fully expected.

Former N.C. Lt. Gov. Dennis A. Wicker of Sanford, a friend of both Reives men, said it was “no surprise” the younger Reives was elected minority leader.

“He is one of the most respected, well like, articulate and trustworthy legislators in the General Assembly ... a description heard about him from both sides of the aisle,” said Wicker, who himself served six terms in the N.C. House. “Robert understands the essence of public service. He knows he is there for the greater good, not for personal gain. He has driven to make the quality of life better for people than when he found it. It’s a value that he learned from his parents. The people of Chatham County are fortunate Robert is representing them in the legislature.”

Reives credits the indefatigable work ethic he learned from his father and a bevy of dedicated friends like Wicker with fueling his political success.

“At first, I had people really advocate for me to consider taking the position, but I thought it was going to be impossible,” Reives said. “At that time, I was a Lee County resident and had no business interest in Chatham, had nothing but my wife’s family in Chatham … And so, I literally just had to beat the bushes to get support. That experience served me very well going into the state House.”

'A natural leader'

Immediately after his appointment, Reives — who now lives in Goldston — had to file for reelection. He won the Democratic primary, but faced “a strong Republican candidate in Andy Wilkie.”

“It’s no different once you get into the House from before,” Reives said. “You’re working to kind of make people know who you are and get involved. Once I was in the House, I think I got really lucky to make some strong and good friendships right out the gate.”

Among those early friends were Rick Glazier and W.A. “Winkie” Wilkins, both now retired from the General Assembly, and Darren Jackson, who preceded Reives as Democratic Party leader.

“Darren was, at that point, first considering running for leader …” Reives said. “And so, we ran together as a ticket — which was the first time anybody had done that — to make sure that we were telling people that hey, if you vote for Darren for leader, you’re going to be voting for Robert for deputy leader.”

His partnership with Jackson launched Reives into the spotlight and amplified his political acumen.

“He just believed in me,” Reives said. “And so, I would say, I’m here now because of a lot of people and also Darren in particular just having such a strong belief in me as a person and as a legislator. I couldn’t have had a better friend in the General Assembly.”

Jackson won reelection to his House seat in the 2020 elections, but declined to run again for party leadership, opening the way for Reives. In December, Jackson resigned from the House to accept an appointment to the state Court of Appeals from Gov. Roy Cooper.

“The past four years Robert Reives and I have worked as a team,” Jackson previously told the News + Record. “Now that Robert is the House Democratic Leader, I am confident he will do a great job in bringing people together ... Robert is highly respected by Republicans and Democrats alike and he understands the needs of rural areas.”

As new leader, Reives hopes to salve the contentious relationship between parties and promote a cohesive General Assembly that will work together for N.C. residents.

“My focus is on broadband, healthcare, education,” Reives said, “and really getting people … to a point where they can have a sustainable economy around them that helps them get through the effects of this pandemic. Because passing out checks is good, but we’ve got to replace the lost jobs. We’ve got to replace economic opportunities. You’ve got to do all those things.”

For now, serving as leader of the Democratic party in the state House is the best way Reives sees fit to accomplish his legislative goals. But pursuing other political aspirations in North Carolina — like Jackson did — or in the federal government are not unrealistic, he says. He will do what it takes to best serve his community.

“I have tried to keep all options open,” he said, “because ultimately, I just care about this state, I care about my community, I care about this country. I want to be able to walk out of this, whenever I decide to retire from everything, and feel like I gave everything I had in service. And I want to leave that message with my kids and grandkids, making them understand this is an important part of our life — it’s something we’ve got to do.”

Wicker said that mindset is a part of what helps Reives “truly represent what is good about public service” in North Carolina.

“He is a natural leader,” Wicker said, “who I believe, is destined to play a bigger role in North Carolina politics.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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