‘Outsider’ becomes an insider

Published 3:09 am Thursday, November 4, 2010

Staff Writer

At first, even Bill Cook was surprised by his victory.
Told by a reporter that it appeared he had triumphed in Tuesday’s general election, the Republican state House candidate asked, “Oh, does it?”
“Well, you know something, I don’t know,” Cook said in the midst of a noisy party at a Washington restaurant.
“All I’m seeing is 54 percent to 45,” he said, referring to returns, flashing across a television screen, that placed him in the lead but didn’t guarantee a win.
Shown the election totals for Beaufort County, which had him well ahead of incumbent Rep. Arthur Williams, D-Beaufort, Cook was taken aback.
“You’re bringing me news, buddy,” he said.
Cook’s astonishment reflected widespread disbelief that a four-term incumbent with a heavy campaign-financing advantage, and a lifetime spent in the area, could be defeated by a political newcomer who retired to Beaufort County from Washington, D.C., around six years ago.
The feeling that a somewhat-unanticipated seismic shift was taking place in state House District 6 began to set in the moment the first returns — the one-stop and absentee numbers — were posted at the Beaufort County Board of Elections’ offices in Washington.
These early figures showed Williams trailing his opponent by 537 votes, and the gap would only widen through the night.
The sense that something major was happening grew more acute as a few gasps and whistles were released in the room when the results for the River Road precinct were called, showing Cook had carried the territory with 334 votes to Williams’ 274 votes.
Later, when the Surry-Bath precinct tallies were released, Democrat Jerry Langley, chairman of the Beaufort County commissioners, stood shaking his head in disbelief and disappointment.
Cook won Surry-Bath with 434 votes to Williams’ 333 votes.
Despite Democratic disenchantment on election night, there were signals much earlier that Cook had tapped into a developing GOP wave.
The first-time office-seeker garnered the financial and moral support of Republican heavyweights such as House minority leader Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, and deep-pocketed conservative activist Art Pope.
Based on voter-registration numbers and other information, right-leaning groups identified District 6 as one of many that could swing toward the GOP this year. Despite past election trends that seemed to favor Williams’ re-election, the Republicans’ predictions proved prescient.
It didn’t help that Williams, who had been branded a conservative Democrat, was the target of a sustained advertising campaign designed to push him out of the House.
The onslaught was led by the conservative entity Civitas Action and the state Republican Party’s executive committee, which flooded the district with mailers assailing Williams for voting with the Democratic leadership in Raleigh.
One of the ads, a mailer distributed to voters around the county, depicted Williams’ head pasted on the body of a dark-suited man holding an Academy Award statuette, alongside left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore and liberal actress Jane Fonda.
The evident point of the mailer was to dismiss Williams’ favor of tax breaks for film companies that pump millions of dollars into North Carolina’s economy.
“This has been the worst campaign I’ve ever been through,” said Williams, who served as Beaufort County campaign chairman for the now-late state Sen. Ed Warren, D-Pitt, before succeeding state Rep. Zeno Edwards, D-Beaufort, in the House.
“I can take a little mudslinging, but this outright lying, I think it’s terrible,” Williams commented Tuesday night. “A lot of lies have been told on me.”
Larry Britt, chairman of the Beaufort County Republican Party, said the negative ads originated with outside political organizations, not Cook’s campaign. Britt acknowledged some of the those ads went a little overboard.
As for Cook’s success, Britt looked to the GOP wave and his candidate’s work ethic for answers.
“It’s all part of the overall results of the election, but I think in this particular district, I think Arthur Williams just got outworked,” Britt said. “Simple as that.”
Cook engaged in a “tremendous” outreach program, going door to door and meeting voters where they lived, according to Britt.
“I did not see a candidate that worked as hard in that person-to-person (way), working on the street,” he said. “He got out, got in front of the people.”
It was this direct campaign style, combined with the GOP’s big payoff Tuesday, that let Cook overcome a well-known — and popular — lawmaker, Britt indicated.
“Arthur is fairly well liked in Beaufort County,” he said.
For his part, Williams harbors no ill will toward the voters.
“I love all the people in this county, and they’ve been good to me,” he said.