A challenger from across the Catawba River may pose the greatest threat 20-year incumbent Curwood Chappell has ever faced in keeping his predominantly rural York County Council District 5 seat, say a political scientist and former county GOP chairman.
Chappell, 82, – an iconic political figure with deep ties to southern Rock Hill and a reputation for his didactic outbursts, allegiance to his neighbors and antipathy toward government – seeks his eleventh term on the council in the June 12 Republican Party primary.
Chappell faces Patrick White, 45, a York County native, military veteran, and Fort Mill School Board chairman whose campaign focus has been on jobs, economic development and finding a more collaborative, countywide approach to both.
While grassroots campaigning is key to winning, geography is also a factor.
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District 5 spans from rural McConnells and southern Rock Hill to suburban Fort Mill. With the district’s recent shift farther north to include an urban area of eastern Fort Mill, the geographic divide created by the river may play a larger role in shaping the fight and create an advantage for a Fort Mill candidate, said Rick Whisonant, political science and history professor at York Technical College.
“Before redistricting, a challenger in the Fort Mill area where this new district is, would basically waste their time, because there just weren’t enough voters,” Whisonant said.
Redistricting following the 2010 U.S. Census resulted in the district gaining a more Fort Mill precinct and one in Rock Hill’s Anderson Road area, adding 2,000 residents and, as of May 20, more than 1,200 registered voters, according to York County redistricting and voter registration data.
The west side of the district lost territory west of McConnells, but gained some to the north. In the redrawing of lines, the district’s population decreased by about 125 people.
Even with the slight shift north toward Fort Mill, White says he doesn’t see the district as being much different than before. He said there are precincts where Chappell likely gained potential votes in the shift, too, which “balances out” the new Fort Mill territory.
To win District 5, White’s support will need to be firm in Fort Mill and cross the river, where Chappell has a lot of support “because he speaks the language of the people of southern York County,” which have always felt unrepresented, White said.
But gains in Fort Mill could benefit White in a district where the previous challenger lost by less than a few hundred votes, Whisonant said.
While Chappell has a “legendary political following” to lean on, White is turning out to impress as well.
Hamp Atkins, former chairman of the York County GOP, said White has the qualifications to be a successful challenger. He is a veteran, a graduate of the Citadel, and has a ten-year record of success on the school board where he “served in distinction,” Atkins said.
That, and a shifting district, could help White, especially since there are more Fort Mill people who’ve said they want more representation on county council, Atkins said.
White’s “coming from nowhere a month or two ago, and taking on a legendary political figure” with strong name recognition and 20 years of council experience is worth noting, Whisonant said.
“The fact that he’s making a lot of headway says quite a lot for a challenger, especially coming in, as many in this area would say, from across the river.”
Getting the votes
Since Chappell won the District 5 seat in 1992, he has been challenged three times. In 2000 and 2008, Chappell beat his opponents, taking more than 66 percent of the vote. His third challenger, Marty Taylor of Fort Mill, closed that gap, taking 45 percent to Chappell’s 55 percent in 2010.
Taylor won four districts in 2010, making his strongest showing in two Fort Mill districts and picking up two in Rock Hill.
From White’s perspective, his work is cut out for him.
“Obviously the biggest challenge I have is I’m facing a 20 year incumbent,” he said. “Regardless of what district it is, that’s always going to be a struggle to try to overcome someone who’s been in power that long.”
The most important factor in deciding the race will be who can get voters out when there are no other races on the ballot. White spent Saturday campaigning at the county convenience center in Lesslie. The Lesslie precinct went to Chappell in 2010 and voter registration there is already outpacing totals for the 2010 primaries, according to election commission data.
Taylor echoed White’s opinion on the challenges of facing Chappell.
“It was hard work, an extreme amount of work” and it all came down to who would come out to vote, he said.
“The thing about Curwood Chappell is he’s got 1,000 votes regardless. He can count on 1,000 people to vote for him,” Taylor said.
Taylor said his challenge was to get more than 1,000 people to vote. He started in January campaigning door-to-door. It was a challenge to find voters who were informed about the race, he said. He said it was “shocking” to see how many didn’t even know Chappell’s name.
He went into the election “feeling we had 1,300 people who were going to come and vote, and for some reason or another they didn’t. People have the best intentions, but people are busy,” he said.
‘An uphill struggle’
Facing Chappell on the campaign trail is also no small challenge. As Atkins put it, “Running against Curwood is like trying to bay the bulldog.”
Asked if he has a good chance of winning, White said running against any incumbent is “always an uphill struggle,” but he expressed confidence about his chances.
“If I was worried about it, I wouldn’t have gotten in the race,” he said.
“I’m wanting to make sure that people understand Mr. Chappell’s record. I think he talks a lot about not raising taxes, and he talks a lot about taking care of the common person, but if you look at his record ... he’s done some things that maybe have not have been in the little person’s best interest.”
At a debate in Fort Mill earlier this month, White criticized Chappell for supporting some tax increases over the years and caving to “special interests” in fighting to keep businesses out of York County that could have brought jobs and more businesses with them.
Chappell countered, saying he’ll fight to keep anything out of York County that other places don’t want.
The campaign season has already proven a tough one so far. White said he’s had campaign signs stolen , and others have been pulled up and thrown in the fields. Some have been replaced by Curwood Chappell signs, White alleged.
York County Republican Party Chairman Glenn McCall said the party deals with complaints about tampering with campaign signs every election season despite such activity being illegal.
Asked whether he was aware of White’s signs were being stolen, Chappell said, “I am from the area of moral principle and character, dignity and honor, and so don’t come here with that mess with me. I would not tolerate it with my crews, and I know they’re above that.”
He said, “Kids are more mischievous now than ever. I’m not going into detail, but I’m not going to be a whiny behind.”
White said he’s been campaigning door-to-door, hoping the people he talks with will share his message with others.
Asked how his campaign is going, Chappell said, “Nothing makes a failure except a try.”
“I have a wonderful organization that’s very much interested in maintaining this seat with a certain setter in it,...so here I am,” he said. “If you want me, you use me. If you don’t, I’ll find something else to do. I’m not through yet.”
He maintains he is “not running against anyone. I’m running for the seat that belongs to the people.”
“I’ve always been able to fight the fight,” he said, and he’s “usually successful due to having so many friends. We win the battle, so here we go.”