The North Carolina state House District 57 race is one that on paper Troy Lawson should have an easy time winning. Lawson is a black man running in a minority-majority district against Ashton Clemmons, a white woman. Both are first time candidates running for an open seat.
Minority-majority districts were designed to give minorities more representation in elected bodies and they have succeeded. If you look at the District 57 political race without one important factor, it appears it would be a shoo-in for Lawson; instead, he is in an uphill battle.
The factor is political party, not race. Lawson is a Republican, and not just any Republican; he is chairman of the Guilford County Republican Party. To win, Lawson has to convince a lot of voters to do something they have never done – vote for a Republican.
Black political leadership has lined up solidly behind Clemmons.
Lawson has a couple of good reasons why the voters in his district should vote for him. One is obviously because of race. He said that when he goes door to door, he tells people, “I look like you and your issues are my issues and they have always been.”
Lawson said, “I’m very aware of the issues in east Greensboro. I’m someone who comes from a community like that in Boston. I know what it feels like to have no hope.”
He said that when speaking to voters, he tells them, “You have to help me help you.”
And that brings up another issue, which is pure politics. Lawson says as a Republican in Raleigh he can get things done.
He said, “I tell them, ‘If they vote for my opponent and the Republicans are still in charge, it’s a wash. You get nothing – an elected official who goes to Raleigh and can’t get anything done. With me being in the party that is in the majority, I’ll have better access to things that are going to help the district.’”
Lawson said that a lot of the people in the district that he’s been talking to have never considered asking for assistance at the state level. He said that if he gets elected, one of the first things he’s going to do is take a group from the district to Raleigh and show them what the state government has to offer. Lawson said one of the problems he sees in east Greensboro is that not enough people are looking at the bigger picture because they are caught up in the bubble of Greensboro.
Lawson added, “This city has no reputation in Raleigh and what it has is terrible. I want to change that.”
He said he sees a lot that can be done at the state level to help east Greensboro and the current leaders can’t do it because they don’t have access.
He said, “First of all, I’ll have access. Unfortunately, we get a bad name as Republicans that we don’t care and won’t be helpful to a community like east Greensboro, but that isn’t true.”
He said that he asks voters, “What are your current leaders doing for you?” And the answers he hears is that they aren’t doing anything, which gives Lawson an opening to point out that he knows the state’s leaders and knows how to get things done.
The very fact that Lawson was elected chairman of the Guilford County Republican Party after living in Greensboro for three years is proof that he knows how the system works.
Another battle that Lawson is fighting is that most people don’t realize just how partisan politics is at the state level. At the local level the Guilford County Board of Commissioners passed the budget unanimously, and for years the Board of Commissioners had a Democratic chairman and a Republican vice chairman.
At the state level, not a single Democrat in the House or Senate voted for the budget. Gov. Roy Cooper, who is a Democrat, vetoed it, and it was overridden by the Republicans.
But there is an even better example closer to home of the lack of power the Democrats have in Raleigh.
In the 2018 session of the state legislature, Greensboro needed to get a local bill passed to change the appointment process for the Police Community Review Board, a fairly mundane and noncontroversial bill. A political novice with the best intentions enlisted Rep. Pricey Harrison and Sen. Gladys Robinson to introduce the bills and, despite the fact that they had Republican co-sponsors, both bills were sent to their respective rules committees where they are today.
Then former Greensboro City Councilmember Tom Phillips, who is more politically savvy, got involved and had Republican state Rep. Jon Hardister and Republican state Sen. Trudy Wade introduce new slightly different bills and they sailed through as the session was closing.
It’s a political reality in Raleigh that the legislature is controlled by Republicans, so what Lawson is out telling people is that if they elect him he can get things done that no other elected official representing east Greensboro can.
In fact, Lawson is already doing it. Lawson gave the example of a barber school in his district that needed access to financial aid for tuition. Lawson said he set up a meeting with Hardister and contacted 6th District Congressman Mark Walker, who represents the area, to get the ball rolling. He said that’s the kind of thing he can do now because he has the contacts, but if he were down in Raleigh he could do a lot more.
Lawson is attempting to turn the political equation upside down. He’s talking to people who don’t plan on voting for him only because of his political party and telling them that the reason they should be voting for him is political affiliation because Republicans control the state government.
It’s not an easy sell.
Lawson said that he hasn’t won the support of a single black elected official from east Greensboro. He said, “Some are listening. Others have said, ‘I’m not going to support you.’ But I’m not going to allow that to intimidate me.”
Lawson said that he thought the constitutional amendments on the ballot were important, some more so than others.
He said, “Voter ID is important; 33 states have that and it’s time for us to do the same.”
He said, “Asking people for IDs when they vote can be a little unnerving, but is it racist? Absolutely not. To me that’s just silly. Who are you suppressing? How is that suppressing the vote?”
He said, “That argument doesn’t carry any weight with me at all.”
Lawson said you had to show your ID now for all kinds of things, like renting a US post office box, and that wasn’t discrimination, so why is showing it to vote different.
He also said that lowering the cap on income tax was important because if it isn’t in the Constitution then a simple majority vote of the legislature could raise it back up, and he noted the economic progress that has resulted from the Republicans changing the tax structure needed to continue.
Lawson said that he thought claiming the Republicans weren’t doing enough for education in the state was “a lame argument.” He said, “Since 2012, the Republicans have raised teacher pay five times. The whole idea of Republicans not supporting teachers is wrong.”
He said, “We will continue to make sure that teachers get paid as well as we possibly can, but we have to do it within the confines of the budget.”
Before coming to Greensboro, Lawson lived in the Baltimore area and was the executive director of the Maryland Association of Private Colleges and Career Schools. He said in that position he had the opportunity to work with the state legislature in Maryland and really enjoyed it.
He said that for-profit schools were under attack mainly because they weren’t getting their story out there.
Since moving to Greensboro, along with politics, Lawson has been working on his MBA, which he said he recently completed.
Lawson said there was a lot of focus on his race because it’s a new district and one the Democrats think they can win.
The current District 57 state representative, John Blust, is retiring from the legislature, making it an open seat.
Lawson said, “I think I have a better message and will have better access to help the district, if I’m elected.”