Though 20 years have gone by since he was first elected, York County Councilman Curwood Chappell’s campaign strategy hasn’t changed much.
His mantra? He wasn’t elected by government, but by the people.
At 82, Chappell – a cattle farmer and retired lay veterinarian who “never went to vet school” – enjoys folk-hero status among some residents of his district, whose causes he has championed over the years.
Now Chappell is seeking his 11th term representing District 5, which spans from rural McConnells and southern Rock Hill to southeastern Fort Mill.
In the June 12 Republican Party primary, he faces Fort Mill school board Chairman Patrick White, 45, who some say has a better shot than Chappell’s past challengers of winning now that redistricting has pushed Chappell’s territory north into Fort Mill and away from some of his base.
Chappell has always been a feisty character with colorful opinions often delivered in folksy adages or controversial rants. It’s not unusual for Chappell to bring up historic dictators at council meetings when taking a stance against the government, or to compare fellow council members to those dictators.
White and his supporters have criticized Chappell’s style, calling it at times more emotional than factual – and an obstacle to the county’s progress.
But to John Hunter of York, a longtime Chappell friend and prominent member of the York County Republican Party, that aspect of Chappell’s character is “a plus” and an indicator of where he comes from.
“You know where Curwood expresses himself,” Hunter said. “He does it a little bit more forceful than some people, but he grew up plowing fields and taking care of animals.
“He says what he thinks, and what he thinks, he says. I don’t find that as a fault.”
Chappell is “a fellow, if they called him in the middle of the night about a sick cow, (who) would go up and see about it,” Hunter said, “and you don’t find a lot of doctors who are willing to do that.”
Chappell’s style at first took some getting used to, said friend Martha Haynsworth, but she’s grown to respect him as a “godly man” and a “gentleman.” “He’s so honest and upfront that you can’t help but admire him.”
‘The people’s seat’
Chappell’s list of accomplishments consist largely of the battles he’s waged to keep out of District 5 the things his neighbors find undesirable – including sewage, landfills, mobile homes and some road projects and businesses.
Chappell often calls the seat not his own, but “the people’s seat.”
“I’ve known him for 30 years, and he’s taken the side of the people every time,” Hunter said.
That dedication to his neighbors plays a large role in why his supporters are committed to him – but his opposition to some projects has critics wondering whether he has the best interest of the county in mind.
Chappell’s opposition to allowing CSX to build a truck and rail terminal in the Catawba community years ago has emerged as an issue in the District 5 campaign. Chappell opposed it, arguing that truck traffic would destroy roads, impose on the residents in the area, and bring in no tax revenues for the county.
A bitter fight ensued over the terminal, ending with a tie vote on a request to rezone the property to allow for the terminal. That led to the effort’s failure.
Perry Johnston, a York County Councilman at the time, supported the terminal, which he said would have brought tax benefits to the county through warehousing operations and other businesses the terminal would attract.
“It would have been a good deal for York County,” Johnston said Friday, adding that not all projects can please everyone.
White has said he would have supported the project based on his understanding of the project and wondered publicly whether Chappell allowed “special interests” to guide his vote.
Hunter said Chappell and his allies on council received flak for blocking CSX, but made the right choice.
“That was not a very popular decision, but it was the best thing for the people in the neighborhood,” Hunter said.
‘Protecting’ the taxpayer
White has criticized Chappell for claiming to serve the taxpayer while having supported budgets that have raised taxes on residents.
When asked to respond, Chappell told The Herald, “I’m not denying that when times were good, we took care of the people.”
But Chappell didn’t accept all the blame for government growth.
“I got on here for roads, police department, fire protection and sheriff’s department,” Chappell said, “and they’ve added everything before I got here and since.”
Asked about his plans for improving economic development, Chappell said “we have to go after small business” by working on what types of incentives the county can offer them.
He then went on to say how there was a time when families took care of one another, people more disciplined and less dependent on government, and the American economy was stronger – a popular refrain for the councilman.
When asked how he could help improve those problems from his seat, Chappell said he has improved them “by setting an example for everybody’s kids. Moral, principle and character. Duty, obligation and respect with responsibility.”
Chappell said he’d continue serving as long as the voters elect him, but White has criticized Chappell for staying too long in the seat and, at the same time, not seeing himself as the establishment.
“You would think the challenger would be railing against the status quo more than a sitting incumbent,” White said. “When somebody’s been in office for as long as (Chappell) has, either they fixed everything they wanted to fix or by this time they’re not going to be able to fix it.”
How long Chappell has been in the seat has little impact on how he defines his own leadership, which doesn’t include being a “politician” – a word he used derisively in an editorial he wrote in 2005, more than a decade after he was first elected to office.
After accusing his fellow council members of corruption, Chappell wrote, “Accountability, responsibility and credibility are essential to great leadership, and when you violate these principles, you have become a politician.
“Remember, politicians are like baby diapers; they need to be changed quite often, usually for the same reason.”