Sam Searcy walked the hall of West Henderson High School with a stack of campaign posters stuck awkwardly beneath his arm. After being elected student body president of the 1994-95 school year, he would represent the interests of his 866 classmates and serve daily to protect their needs and wants during the school year. The thought of running years later to represent some of the 1.1 million citizens in Wake County, North Carolina was non-existent amid the thoughts of a busy high school senior.
More than 20 years later, Searcy stood in front of his campaign staff at the foot of a whiteboard with a campaign strategy scrawled out to do what he had never considered in high school. Plans, platforms and politics were laid out to flip the red Raleigh district to blue.
“This current legislature has just drafted very polarizing legislation and gerrymandered the state where our representation doesn’t represent what our state looks like, or what the political divides are,” Searcy said. “I just have had enough of it, and I couldn’t take it anymore. At some point, you really have to stand up and and and really be the change that you’re always talking about.”
Sam Searcy is a 40-year-old West graduate, former resident of Etowah, North Carolina and co-owner of Greybeard Distillery, a vodka distillery, who announced his candidacy for North Carolina Senate 17th District senator last December for the midterm elections on Nov. 6, 2018.
Making a difference is not a new thing for Searcy. During his years as a Falcon, Searcy served as a student body president, a yearbook editor and a cross-country runner on the team that placed 25th in the nation. The participation level and the traits developed through his years as a student have carried over to his career and been an integral part of his decision to run for senate and run an active campaign.
“[Cross-country] really teaches you a lot about competitive stress,” Searcy said. “You have all those butterflies, you know, right before you’re up, you have to learn to work through them. And you have to learn to perform and push through it. And then to be successful.”
Searcy’s experience growing up in Etowah and attending West did not only influence his character, but also key parts of his platform. His platform includes a strong focus on the education system, particularly on the topics of per-pupil spending in North Carolina and teacher salary. We rank 39th nationally in both categories.
“I really enjoyed my time at West. I appreciate the quality of education that I got even more now, looking back on it. We just had such good educators. I can still remember a lot of the teachers that we had, it was the kind of thing that, if a teacher could tell you were going through a rough period, or struggling with something, they would ask questions like, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘what’s going on?’” Searcy said. “West provided a very solid foundation for success, certainly in the future.”
He said that his decision to run for senate wasn’t a life long goal but rather a reaction to the controversial legislation known as House Bill Two, or the “Bathroom Bill.” The bill was passed in 2016, which caused many sporting events, concerts and businesses to drop their plans to move to North Carolina, resulting in the loss of potential jobs and millions of dollars for the state.
“We were in the process of finalizing the decision on what our bottles were going to look like for the company. And on the front of the bottle it says distilled and bottled in Durham, North Carolina. House Bill Two came out and business was cratering,” Searcy said. “We were so proud to be made in North Carolina and so I was just livid because the Republicans are supposed to be the party of business, and they’re literally doing everything they can to kill business in the state. I called up Patsy Keever who was the head of the North Carolina Democratic Party. And I said, ‘Let’s have lunch; I want to pick your brain and see what you think I can do to help get this mess turned around.’ She mentioned that I should run for state Senate. And that’s what we’ve decided to do.”
To win the election, Searcy, the Democratic challenger, will have to defeat Republican incumbent Tamara Barringer who has been in office since 2012, the outcome of three consecutive election victories. District 17 represents the Raleigh area in Wake County and has been voting Republican by increasingly narrow margins for the past three elections, providing what Searcy sees to be a favorable chance for a party flip. As of Nov. 5, the Democratic party, which makes up approx. 27 percent of the district’s registrations, has represented 37 percent of the early voting, a statistic that Campaign Manager Robert Phillips said makes him optimistic.
“You always want to run against someone who has a fairly bad record. She has records of votes against funding for public schools. She voted to allow magistrates to refuse same sex couples in terms of marriages. And she came out and supported HB Two,” Searcy said. “So the best advantage you have when you’re a well-funded challenger is having an incumbent with a record that I can keep going after her. The challenge is that I don’t have a record.”
Searcy’s strategy to win the Republican district has been to make use of targeted TV advertising that has highlighted his main platform points of education reform, expansion of Medicaid and the ending of partisan gerrymandering. He has also made extensive use of polling and digital advertisements.
The process of running for state office is not cheap. By Nov. 6, there will have been $1.25 million spent on Searcy’s campaign, with the majority being spent on TV ads to be aired in the Raleigh area.
“What people don’t realize is that when you decide to run for office, you decide to become a professional fundraiser,” Searcy said. “It’s all you do nine to 10 hours a day. Even today, I was driving from my campaign office to my mother in law’s house to let out her dog and I had to make four calls to ask people for contributions to keep all of our campaign ads on TV.”
While many would think that the process of running would be eye-opening and come with unforeseen challenges, Searcy said that it wasn’t unlike what he thought it would be.
“The process is not too hard, which is good for democracy, but the background work was tremendously hard,” Searcy said. “I had to meet with key members of the Democratic Senate caucus, have dinner with them and talk to them about what I wanted to do, which was to build so much support internally in the party that I was able to stave off the primary challenge. I knew this election was so important, that we could not have primary challengers trying to tear each other down and raise money because we needed to be focused for this cycle to be successful. Initially, I met with key members of the Senate. Gov. Cooper even called me to convince me to run once he found out that I was interested in running for the seat. And quite frankly, when the governor of North Carolina is talking to you, it’s pretty influential.”
Searcy isn’t the only former Falcon on the team. Zach Godwin, a 2017 alum, works on Searcy’s staff and shares the passion for change and for politics.
“He’s not just on the team. He’s an integral part of the team,” Searcy said. “He’s at events with me and he hears me talk about my upbringing and my public schools and all of that. I just think it’s just really neat, because we’ve shared that same experience. It’s nice to have someone around because Wake County now has 1.1 million people. It’s nice to have someone in the office that I can talk about Etowah and Horseshoe, and they know exactly where that is.”
Godwin has worked in campaigns before, such as the campaign work he did for U.S House of Representatives candidate, Phillip Price.
“Zach actually did a lot of research for us on our opponent and found things that we were actually able to use in the campaign that even our professional research team based in Raleigh and Washington missed,” Searcy said. “I think it’s his level of attention to detail. He has been a huge benefit.”
Searcy not only has a full staff, but also a full house. Searcy is the father of four children ranging in age from eight years to 15 months that he cares for, along with his wife, Shauna.
“There have been a few times I’ve had to say ‘you know, guys, I can’t go with you here. I can’t go with you there because I have to go to a function or an event.’ But really, the brunt of me not being here in the evenings has fallen to [Shauna],” Searcy said. “She’s handled it really well. It was something we talked about before we did this. She’s just been a real bedrock for our whole family. It’s been good to have that pillar of stability while my schedule is somewhat unstable from time to time.”
With elections on Nov. 6, the outcome of the whole campaign process is close to being revealed. Both sides of the race are hopeful, but only one will win. This doesn’t bother Searcy much.
“It’s just one from one thing to another. I will continue to help candidates and coach candidates who may want to try to also win in this district, Should I lose, I have a huge business that’s in five states to go back to, and there’s no shortage of time,” Searcy said. “I think I’m going to win but should I lose? I don’t even really have time to dwell on it, you just have to pick yourself up and move on.”
By: Bartel Van Oostendorp, Print Editor-in-Chief