Election 2020 | N.C. House, Dist. 54

Incumbent Reives, challengers Gilson locked in battle of ideologies

BY LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 9/24/20

In competition for the N.C. House of Representatives District 54 seat – which includes all of Chatham County and parts of Durham County – incumbent Rep. Robert Reives II and challenger …

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Election 2020 | N.C. House, Dist. 54

Incumbent Reives, challengers Gilson locked in battle of ideologies

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In competition for the N.C. House of Representatives District 54 seat – which includes all of Chatham County and parts of Durham County – incumbent Rep. Robert Reives II and challenger George Gilson Jr. represent a dichotomy of ideologies that would likely result in antithetical legislative action over the next two years. 

Gilson, 46, an Illinoisan who moved to Chatham County in 2016, thinks the General Assembly is plagued by non-essential spending. As a Republican and a self-described “very conservative” politician, he said the state government’s current fiscal policy is outrageous.

Reives, on the other hand, is a 50-year-old Sanford native who joined the House as a Democrat in 2014 by appointment and is completing his third tenure as an elected representative. He has opposed legislative action to cut budgets and supports additional government spending with a view to long term civic improvement. 

Gilson is critical of Gov. Roy Cooper for his response to the coronavirus pandemic which, he said, has “stagnated the education side of things, business and the economy.” Reives applauds the current administration for doing “a heck of a job on the fly.”

While Reives feels Joe Biden is the best candidate to lead the country out of its pandemic doldrums, Gilson endorses Donald Trump’s decision-making, including his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Gilson was in favor of removing foreign citizens from voting rolls, reducing the franchise tax, the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Act, the Small Business Healthcare Act and an act to adjust the selection of instructional materials for public schools. Reives voted against all of the above. 

In almost every belief, the two men diverge. 

“I’m a sharp contrast to him,” Gilson said of his opponent. “I’m hoping that come Nov. 3, I highlight the difference between us, and we’ll see what the constituents are really looking for.”

Chatham County constituents are almost equal parts Republican and Democrat. The county’s political bent aligns with that of the greater Triangle region, favoring the Democratic side, but with a more moderate skew than neighboring Wake and Orange counties. (In 2016, Chatham County voted 53.6% for Hillary Clinton as compared to 43.5% for Donald Trump, according to Politico.)

This voting season, however, transcends the usual issues of partisan policy habits and political party allegiance. The winner may well be the candidate whose opinions on this year’s volatile social issues align with the majority of Chatham County residents’ — irrespective of political party. At least, that is what both candidates hope for in a rare instance of unanimity.

“It is ridiculous to me how badly partisan politics has gotten in the way of good government,” Reives said. “Party allegiance is getting in the way.”

Voters recognize the problem, he said, but still they perpetuate obduracy.

“You hear people always fuss and say they don’t like partisan politics,” he said. “But then you’ll hear things, like I’ve literally heard one person say, ‘You’ve done such good stuff. I really appreciate how you’ve stood for Chatham County and, I mean, man, if you were Republican, I’d vote for you in a second.’ That’s crazy to me.”

Gilson agrees that partisanship should be a secondary consideration to voters in evaluating candidates.

“Listen, I am conservative and I align myself more with the Republican Party,” he said, “but I think some decisions that the Republican Party have made have been bad for our country and our state. I also think the same on the Democratic side. Sometimes you have to look outside party allegiance and do what’s right for the state and the country.”

It will not be hard for voters to identify the candidate who most closely reflects their opinions of what the county and state need; Reives and Gilson are, again, oppugnant.

On education, for example, their respective plans to address issues with virtual learning are discordant. To Gilson, the solution is simple — children must return to in-person learning.

“I would have liked to have seen our kids go back to school in a hybrid approach,” Gilson said, “and then if it went well, get back to 100% in-person learning.”

As to whether prohibiting in-person schooling has limited the number of coronavirus cases in North Carolina compared to states that opened more aggressively, Gilson suggests reported figures from other states may be inaccurate or misrepresented in the news.

“I don’t believe they’re true,” he said. “There are many states who have gone past Phase 2 and have our kids back in school and have businesses open that are doing very well.”

Reives supports distance learning, but identifies inadequate internet connections as the primary inhibitor to an effective virtual experience. 

“I’m very proud of the school system and what they’ve done,” Reives said. “The biggest problem we have in Chatham County isn’t the remote learning system. The biggest problem is our lack of good broadband.”

Reives has observed firsthand how unstable internet access can detract from virtual learning.

“I live in Goldston,” he said, “and the broadband my kids get is completely different than what people are getting right up the street in Bear Creek right off of (N.C. Hwy.) 902. Right off 902, they have fiber. Where I am, they have DSL. And so, you know, unfortunately, that makes a huge difference.”

On bigger issues of racial injustice and social reform protests, Reives and Gilson further polarize.

“I’m a strong supporter of our First Amendment,” Gilson said, “and I believe people should have the right and exercise the right to protest. What I don’t believe in is violence. I don’t believe in rioting, looting. I don’t believe in people and groups pushing for division and I think that’s what Black Lives Matter and Antifa have done. I think it’s a bad movement and I think it’s going in the wrong direction.”

He believes also that BLM’s tenets are founded upon a mistaken perception of race in America.

“I don’t believe there’s institutional, systemic white privilege,” Gilson said. “If it means that white people who have worked hard in life to get where they’ve been are doing well, if that’s white privilege, I think that’s commendable.” 

He did concede, however: “I don’t know how they (the BLM movement) are defining white privilege.”

Reives takes umbrage at Gilson’s dismissal of calls for social reform. 

“I think it’s complete, willful ignorance,” he said. “You have people at times who, when they are not affected, they say there’s not a problem. Or they say, ‘If there is a problem, deal with it, that’s life,’ because it’s not them experiencing the problem.”

The suggestion that protests, in general, have augmented violence makes Reives bristle.

“We hear all about the violence that has been involved,” he said. “Well, Time Magazine did a full-on survey and they stated 93% of all protests have been peaceful protests.”

The Time article, published on Sept. 20, cited a study by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project that analyzed more than 7,750 BLM demonstrations across the country. According to the report, 2,400 locations reported peaceful protests with only 220 reporting “violent demonstrations.”

“So, to me,” Reives said, “the created problem isn’t the issue of the incidents that have occurred. The created problem is when people have spoken out about these incidents like my opponent has done, and they say, ‘All this is violence.’ I’d love to talk to somebody in Chatham County who tells me that they had their windows broken or something like that during a protest because it didn’t happen to my knowledge.”

Despite strong opinions on controversial subjects, both candidates list objectivity among their strengths.

“If you have that general capacity to listen to both sides of an argument,” Gilson said, “whether you like both sides or not, and to be able to sort out the facts and evaluate them without emotions, you can serve in any capacity in the government.”

Reives  the key to good governance stems from adopting perspective beyond one’s own experience.

“We’ve got to be empathetic,” he said, “but we’ve lost empathy completely in this country.”

For more of what you need to know about the 2020 vote in Chatham, go to cutt.ly/voteinchatham.

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