The unsinkable Danny Britt

Meet Robeson County’s first Republican state senator since Reconstruction

LUMBERTON, N.C. — When Hurricane Matthew struck last October, it laid waste to many communities along the Atlantic Coast. Robeson County, N.C., which is an hour’s drive inland, was not spared.

But as residents hunkered down, Danny Britt stood up and got to work. 

“The whole town was thrown into absolute chaos real quick,” Britt told me at his law office in Lumberton. “Roads were shut down and there was no power, bridges were out all over the place.” 

In the ensuing deluge, which reached nearly 23 feet above flood stage in the Lumber River, which runs through downtown Lumberton, Britt summoned his “go-fix-it” personality and the skills he’d acquired in relief efforts as a National Guardsman, and did what he could to help. “I’m a good ol’ boy. So, when stuff like that happens, anything bad happens, I kind of jump to it,” he said.

He started by helping a friend’s aunt who had retreated to the roof of her house and then hooked up a boat trailer to his truck, delivered food and supplies to those in distress, and helped rescue stranded neighbors. 

Britt was in the middle of a closely contested race for the county’s state Senate seat. He didn’t go out of his way to broadcast who he was during the storm. “He never wore a campaign shirt. He never did an interview,” Mark Locklear, who works with Britt as a criminal investigator, told me. “He was just busting his ass to help people, and it was being noticed. People saw this. People began to talk about it — the passion that he had to help others.”

When calamity strikes, people pay attention to who shows up to help and who doesn’t. In this case, one of the people who showed up to help was a local attorney who happened to be the Republican state Senate candidate. “He was going door-to-door helping everyone he could, you know, helping people get out of their houses, doing whatever he could,” said Matt Walker, whom I met at his mother’s restaurant, Candy Sue’s Cafe. “He was rolling up his sleeves and getting dirty, and you just didn’t really see that from the Democrats.” 

Four weeks later, Britt won his 13th District (which encompasses Robeson and Columbus Counties) race by 4 points, becoming the first Republican to take the seat since Reconstruction.

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Danny Earl Britt Jr. was born in Robeson County in 1979. After college at Appalachian State University, where he walked on to the football team, and law school at Oklahoma State, he worked at a law firm in another part of North Carolina. But he soon found his way back to Robeson County, working first as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office and now as a defense attorney. He also spent time as a military prosecutor in the Judge Advocate General Corps in Iraq. 

Britt’s Senate campaign focused on jobs and education, both sorely lacking in the county. By some measures, Robeson is the state’s poorest county, with two-thirds of the population classified as low-income. Thousands of manufacturing jobs left in the years after NAFTA went into effect. Good jobs are scarce.

Britt said raising graduation rates is vital to attracting good jobs. A third of adults in Robeson County didn’t finish high school. In 2015, the Robeson County School District spent $741 per student. In Chapel Hill-Carrboro, a district to the north, the per-student average is nearly eight times as high. 

But Britt won his seat less because of the policy positions he took and more because of the commitment he showed to helping the county. He wants his children to have the option of living in Roberson County, so he is thinking about its future. 

Britt is a big believer in the power of showing up and getting to know his voters. A third of those constituents are Native Americans, mostly of the Lumbee Indian Tribe.

Locklear, a member of the Lumbee Tribe, said he initially had “a lot of concerns” about Britt’s candidacy because he was running as a Republican. He figured it would be “an uphill battle” because the Lumbee have historically voted Democrat. “We had never supported a Republican candidate to my knowledge.” 

Locklear drove Britt around Lumbee communities in his pickup truck and found that the simple act of introducing him was often enough to win votes. Britt also displayed energy. “Danny was a hustler. As a Republican, I still thought we had an uphill battle, but he’s a very likable and approachable person that has robust energy.” 

Britt visited every precinct in his district, Locklear said. “We had these little corner functions or went to the cafe, stopped at the station and went to the barber shop, or went and had a collard sandwich. He got out and done these on a daily basis. That resonated with people.” 

In Prospect, a small town of about 700 people outside Pembroke, 97 percent of the population is Native American. Locklear estimates that 80 percent of registered voters there are Democratic but Britt won them 5 to 3. 

Jarrod Lowery, who sits on the Lumbee Tribal Council, also thinks Lumbee support was pivotal for Britt and other Republicans, including President Trump, who won the county by 5 points four years after President Obama won it by 17.

“The reason Robeson County voted Republican is the native American population voted Republican,” he said. 

Britt hasn’t let up since his election. Besides his law practice, National Guard service and duties as a husband and father, he faces re-election in a year and a half. And he knows he needs to bring the same energy to serving his district that he exhibited in his campaign and in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. 

Britt said that during the storm people said, “‘Man, this dude doesn’t sleep.’ You know. I didn’t sleep much. Less now. But I think … a lot of folks just really like the idea of somebody that gets out and does rather than says.

“I think if I can continue to work as hard throughout my term in the Senate and get done all the things I’m trying to get done, then I will have done a good job.” 

Next: The hurricane that divided an electorate and united a community

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