Democratic N.C. House candidate Taro Knight
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Democratic N.C. House candidate Taro Knight

Four Democrats seek to replace retiring lawmaker

By Darla Slipke

Staff Writer

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Four Democrats from Edgecombe County are competing to take over the District 23 seat in the N.C. House of Representatives, which currently is held by N.C. Rep. Joe Tolson of Pinetops.

After 18 years of service and nine terms in the N.C. House, Tolson is not seeking re-election this year.

Bronson Williams of Rocky Mount, Shelly Willingham of Rocky Mount, Taro Knight of Tarboro and R.B. ‘Rusty’ Holderness of Tarboro are vying for the position, which represents Edgecombe and Martin counties. The candidates share a number of common core values and priorities, such as strengthening public education and promoting economic development. However, they also have a variety of experiences and ideas that set them apart.

Holderness, 64, is licensed real estate broker who is president and owner of Rural Equity Corp., a real estate and business advisory services company. He farmed for about eight years before going into real estate.

Holderness has been actively involved in the community in a number of ways, including serving as a past president of the N.C. Society of Farm Managers, a past president of Tri-County Industries and a founding member and past chairman of the Down East Partnership for Children. He is chairman of the Edgecombe County Tourism Development Authority.

Holderness said he is concerned about what’s going on in Raleigh, particularly how rural North Carolina is not being represented.

“It seems like we’ve been forgotten about,” Holderness said.

One of his goals if elected would be to bring more resources and opportunities to residents of Edgecombe and Martin counties. He said his top priorities include education, economic development and job creation, transportation and health and wellness, all of which he said are interrelated.

Holderness said he believes in education from conception to death.

“Education is a highway that you get on and off of during the course of your lifetime,” he said.

A motivating factor for Holderness running for office is his children and grandchildren.

“That’s kind of my chip in the game,” he said. “If I go up there and try to do what’s good for them, I’ll do what’s good for everybody else.”

Knight, 45, is director of community relations, middle school and operations at North East Carolina Prep School. He has a variety of other professional experience, including working as a social worker, teaching adult high school education at Edgecombe Community College and serving as president of the East Tarboro-Princeville Community Development Corp. Knight is serving his second term as a Tarboro town councilman and mayor pro tem.

“I believe that my policy-making experience in today’s world has given me the necessary tools to go up to Raleigh and learn, form coalitions and try to do whatever it is legislative-wise that needs to be done to bring things back to Edgecombe and Martin counties,” Knight said.

He said one of his strengths is bringing people together and building consensus. Progress is not necessarily on the far right or the far left, Knight said.

“Progress is somewhere in the middle where everyone may not get what they want, but everyone gets a little something, and then that’s a starting place and we start from there,” Knight said.

If elected, he said he will do everything he can to improve the lives of all the residents in District 23. He said he is guided by some core principles.

“I’m always going to be a person that wants to treat everyone fairly,” Knight said. “I’m always going to be a person that believes if much is given to me then I owe much back to make sure that I can pull someone else up along with me.”

Williams, 28, has a variety of experience working in several different fields, including radio, television, real estate and childcare. He said he has a heart for people.

“When my neighbors are doing well, I’m doing well,” Williams said. “ … We all are our brother’s and sister’s keepers, so each one of us has an opportunity to do something that’s going to impact a person’s life. In my case, I want to have a positive impact.”

Williams said he doesn’t want to be a career politician, and he hopes that he might inspire more young people to become involved in politics. The world today is much different than the world 50 or 60 years ago, Williams said.

“We’re in a different type of time, so we have to do different things,” Williams said. “That’s why I believe that we cannot continue to elect the same type of people to office ... We’ve got to have some type of innovation.”

Williams, who has a degree in communications, said one of his strengths is his ability to communicate with people. Some people have become so divided that they talk at each other rather than to each other, which keeps them from having genuine conversations about what the issues are and how to solve them, Williams said.

He said he would bring energy to the job, and he would work to make sure residents of District 23 stay informed.

“I believe we have to create win-win legislation that benefits North Carolina and particularly Edgecombe and Martin counties as we try to grow and get out of this hole that we’re in with our economy,” Williams said.

Willingham, 70, has had a variety of work experience throughout his professional career, including serving as a teacher for Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools, vice president of an economic development corporation in Louisville, Ky., and a police officer and undercover narcotics agent in Washington, D.C. He is a licensed real estate broker.

He also has served as a county commissioner, a school board member and a state representative. Willingham serves on the N.C. Association of ABC Boards’ board of directors, and was the immediate past president for that board.

He said he is focused and determined, and he wants to use whatever skills and talents he has to help people.

“I’m not going to give up just because the odds look like they might not be the best,” he said. “If it’s the right thing to do, I’ll work at it.”

Willingham said he has experience serving in the N.C. General Assembly, so he knows what to expect. He represented District 72 in the N.C. House during the 2002-03 session. At that time, the district included parts of Edgecombe, Nash and Wilson counties.

“I think experience is going to be the thing that makes a difference,” Willingham said.

One of his goals if elected is to work to raise the level of expectation of people in the district.

Willingham said he has talked to a lot of people who feel like nothing is going to change and who don’t expect much from their elected officials.

“I think politicians ought to think of themselves as employees rather than employers and also should think of themselves as servants rather than masters,” Willingham said.