Community center brings RNC’s message to Robeson County

Members of the Lumbee Tribe perform at the opening of the Republican National Committee's community center in Pembroke on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. Matt Mercer, North State Journal

PEMBROKE — A near standing-room only crowd came to downtown Pembroke on Friday, Jan. 28 to open the Republican National Committee’s newest community center for minority engagement. The office, one of 21 nationwide, is part of a multi-million dollar effort dedicated to continuing to improve the GOP’s standing among non-white voters. The office is the first in the nation dedicated to reaching Native Americans, focusing on the region’s Lumbee Tribe. 

In attendance at the event were NCGOP chairman Michael Whatley, Robeson County’s current U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, potential new congressman U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, and RNC national spokesman Paris Dennard. 

Whatley gave remarks to open the event and thanked the community for showing up on a night when snow and ice was expected to fall across the area. 

“We want to go into communities that matter. Robeson County is at the top of the list,” Whatley said. “The metric for success of this office is the relationships. We want to show that your issues matter, not just a few weeks before an election.” 

Speaking after Whatley was Jarrod Lowery, a well-known Republican who is seeking a state House seat in 2022. He is also the younger brother of the Tribe’s current chairman. Lowery said the fact that Republicans are coming to them and genuinely wanting to hear from them is important to the Tribe. 

A list of upcoming events shows the office will be a busy one – four days a week, staff will host phone banking and voter registration drives. 

According to an RNC spokesperson, the community centers that are open in other states host events such as pastor’s roundtables, potlucks, and movie nights that extend to shared values, not just political interests. 

Friday’s event was also a showcase opportunity for the Lumbee Tribe’s culture team. The team, which goes around the United States to show the Tribe’s heritage, said they were honored to be asked to give a demonstration at the center’s opening. 

The presentation included a song from a Native American recording flute made from sugar cane that is still found in select places along the Lumber River and a song complete with drums and chants that energized the crowd. 

U.S. Rep. Bishop gave remarks about his time spent interacting with the Tribe, first as a state senator, co-sponsoring bills with state Sen. Danny Britt (R-Robeson) focused on tribal sovereignty, but particularly when he first ran for Congress in 2019 in a special election. It was then, said Bishop, he realized how the Tribe’s values aligned with his own.  

“Every conversation I had, it came back to Robeson County,” said Bishop. “God has a plan – and being your congressman was part of a bigger goal.” 

He told of his first visit to a tribal event, the annual Warrior Ball, and said he saw a patriotism that night “that has stayed with me.” 

The political tilt of North Carolina’s largest county by land area has earned sustained national attention since 2016, when Donald Trump won Robeson County with 50.78% of the vote. Following that race, Bishop would lose Robeson County by less than 300 votes but go on to win the congressional seat. 

By 2020, Republicans would win many of the races on the ballot, with Trump and Bishop both attaining more than 58% of the vote. 

“The Republican Party has changed. The Lumbee Tribe has changed. We’re at an intersection in history,” Bishop said. 

The night’s final featured speaker was Paris Dennard, who serves as the RNC’s national spokesperson. Dennard said he met obstacles with travel from Washington, D.C., to Pembroke but made it in time, “and I knew why when I walked through those doors,” alluding to the enthusiasm from those inside the community center. 

Dennard fired up the crowd by saying that never before has minority engagement been done to this extent by the RNC. 

“Engagement is how we win,” he said. “The red wave is here and it’s time to retire Nancy Pelosi! The Biden administration doesn’t have a plan for anything. The Republican Party is listening.” 

The night also featured a special award given to one of the party’s field directors. In a video presentation, RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel congratulated Abigail Blue, a Tribe member who worked for the party in the 2020 election. McDaniel awarded her a champion award, presented by Dennard, for her efforts. 

The recognition caught Blue off guard, and she became emotional, reflecting on the passing of her younger sister eight months ago. She told the crowd that her sister loved politics and that was her motivation to go on. Many of those in attendance showered Blue with compliments and praise for her determination. 

On a night that celebrated togetherness, the Lumbee Tribe showed that it cares for its own. Republicans are hoping that same level of commitment results in favorable results for its electoral chances in a state that’s perennially divided.