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Here’s where Cumberland County commissioner candidates stand on key issues

What candidates had to say about E.E. Smith High School, collaboration and GenX


Editor’s note: First of two parts for Cumberland County commissioner candidates. The second story, published Thursday, will feature Republican candidates.

After the polls close on the final day of the primary season on March 5, four Democratic and seven Republican candidates for the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners will learn if they’ll make it to the ballot for November’s general election. 

Three seats are up for grabs — the spot currently held by Vice Chairwoman Toni Stewart, who is seeking reelection, and the seats of Commissioners Michael Boose and Jimmy Keefe, who are not seeking reelection. Three candidates from each party can advance to the general election.

CityView spoke with the primary candidates on three of the biggest issues they may face should they take office. This series has been split into two parts by party, with the second part featuring Republican candidates to be published Thursday. Answers have been edited for clarity and length. 

Democratic candidates seeking a seat on the board this year include incumbent Vice Chair Toni Stewart, former Sen. Kirk deViere, Ronald Pittman and Karla Icaza. Icaza could not be reached by press time.


Commissioner Michael Boose told CityView in December that he felt he and fellow Republican Commissioner Jimmy Keefe had been locked out of decision-making by their Democratic colleagues. Keefe similarly said he believed he and Boose were kept out of the chairman and vice chairman positions because of their party affiliations. Boose and Keefe both announced late last year they would not seek reelection. 

With seven Republicans running for the three available seats on the board, we asked candidates how they would work across the aisle and promote bipartisanship. 

Vice Chairwoman Toni Stewart: That’s what I personally do myself. There’s been a number of times where I voted with Commissioner Keefe and Commissioner Boose and times without, but it had nothing to do with the letter behind my name. There are some issues that are party issues and some issues are people issues. The issues facing a health and human services board are not party issues; they’re people issues. 

Ronald Pittman: As a commissioner, we have to work for the betterment of all people, not just one party or the other. We have to come to an agreement and reach a neutral zone [where] we can benefit everyone.

Kirk deViere: First of all, I think my actions show that I work in a very bipartisan way in what’s the best interest of the community first. Right now, we need leaders that are gonna focus on working to strengthen our community, not divide it. That’s the way I’ve always worked. It’s the way I worked when I was on [the Fayetteville] City Council. It’s the way I worked when I was in the state Senate, and that’s how I’ll work when I’m a county commissioner.

E.E. Smith High School

The first two months of 2024 have seen much debate over the potential relocation of E.E. Smith High School, a historically Black school that has been located at 1800 Seabrook Road for over 50 years. Many alumni have spoken out against moving Smith, while others say a relocation is necessary because the school has outgrown its current site. 

The school board voted in January to recommend a site at the current Stryker Golf Course on Bragg Boulevard as the best option for E.E. Smith’s next location.

We asked the candidates where they would locate a new E.E. Smith, and why. 

Stewart: One thing that I consider is the fact that we need economic development. We have none out [at] Stryker [Golf Course], number one. We wouldn’t have anywhere out there to build homes if it went out there. With Jack Britt [High School], Gray’s Creek [High School], we’ve been able to build homes out there, so that is a concern. Another concern is them having not presented anything to us yet. I am looking forward to the board of education bringing us other options. As you know, they haven’t brought us anything as of yet. I’m really looking to see what all options they bring us before we say there’s a better place to build it … I haven’t seen anything and I’ve learned not to make decisions before I’m presented with options. 

Pittman: I feel that Stryker Golf Course is not a good location. My reasoning for that is it’s on a military installation … all the problems that we had with 9/11, it’s really changed the way the bases are locked down and stuff like that … If we’ve got families that are not allowed because maybe they have a criminal history or whatever the situation may be … I don’t think that’s a good idea. Therefore, I think that we need to put it in a general area close to where the school is now … if you look at Jack Britt High School, there was not a lot going on in that area, and then once the high school was built, people came … There would have to be a lot of research done on property that could be bought or how we could acquire it or whatever, but I think we could improve an area with a new school. We could have a lot of growth in that area.

deViere: It’s not my decision to put the school somewhere. I think we need a lot more input from the community; that’s obvious from what we’ve seen. I think we need some additional information from the school board supporting not only where are we going to put it, but what are the recommendations on how we’re going to fund it? What is it going to look like? Also, really, to step back, it’s not just E.E. Smith. We’ve got several schools across our community that need rehab, renovation, et cetera that we need to be looking at as well. I think as we begin to look at this, we’ve got to look at how we’re going to fund that across the community to make sure that all the facilities that provide education to our children are in the best condition and can serve and provide a sound, basic education.

GenX contamination

Cumberland County continues to battle with the presence of GenX, a “forever chemical” produced by the nearby Chemours plant, in well water throughout the county. CityView reported in November that the chemical has been associated with a bevy of health problems in humans and animals, including cancers, developmental problems and liver diseases. 

The county is in the first stage of developing a water and sewer system for Gray’s Creek, one of the areas particularly afflicted with GenX, that would provide clean water to residents. The county also sued Chemours in 2022 for its role in the contamination.

We asked the candidates to summarize their knowledge of what the county has done to address GenX and explain how they would tackle the issue. 

Stewart: I am definitely for countywide water, just as I am [for] countywide transportation. One thing that we have done that most people know is we have filed a lawsuit against Chemours, which was necessary. Since I’ve been on the board, one thing that the board seemed to be adamant about was getting water to the schools. That has not happened. The board started leaning toward the well studies, which I was against, and the reason I was against it is because it will further delay getting water to the schools … I know most people were confused about that because … one of the things that I run on is getting rid of GenX. I want us to do what we can do as soon as we can do it. You know as well as I do, you start doing these studies and stuff, then you’re looking at two to three years to get data and all of that. That’s what I was against. My thoughts are, let’s do what we can do as soon as we can do it. Let’s get water to the schools, but not just the schools — to the residents out there who are deserving of it. I am the only commissioner right now that lives in the area, although I have PWC [water]. My children go to school there. My friends are in Gray’s Creek. Again, my children go to school at Gray’s Creek High School now. My daughter went to Gallberry Farms [Elementary School] … There’s livestock being affected. Our children. Our health. Our elderly. So many people are being affected by this. Filing a lawsuit against Chemours can drag on for years. I am still just as aggressive as I have been in getting water out to Gray’s Creek.

Pittman: The folks out there, they do need clean, safe water like every citizen needs … We’ve got to come up with a solution to get those folks clean water. I have spoken with other folks about getting water from Bladen or Robeson [counties], and that’s not an option. We’re kind of limited as to what we can do, but we have got to move swiftly to get a resolution to this problem so those people can have the water that’s necessary for them to maintain a quality of life.

deViere: The county did a couple things under the leadership of former Commissioner Charles Evans. When he was the county chair, they actually finally sued Chemours, which I believe was the right step and something they should’ve done several years ago. As a senator, I encouraged them to do that. They also, through ARPA dollars or outside dollars, have allocated some dollars towards running water lines out to the schools, the two schools out in Gray’s Creek … This is one of the reasons I ran for state Senate [in 2018]. I’ll keep it really simple. I think we’ve gotta educate. Right now, we’ve got over 5,000 people that we know of that have contaminated water. That pollution is continuing to grow every day, and I think we’ve gotta do a better job of educating the population on the free resources that are in place to help them that were outlined in the consent order [between the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality, Cape Fear River Watch and Chemours] that was put in place several years ago. That education is an outreach program; it’s very targeted, it’s very direct, but we need to make sure we’re doing that, because the health and human services of our citizens is paramount. The next thing I would do is enforce. While we’re not an enforcement body in the consent order and we were not part of the consent order, there’s a lot of pieces of that consent order that are not being enforced. I won’t go into the laundry list of them, but there are several pieces of that consent order that are not being enforced accurately, and Chemours is not being the best neighbor when it comes to doing that. We as a body — and it’s not something I can do. One person is not going to be able to do this; it’s going to take us as a body to then use the commission to help to try to enforce that and compel Chemours to do some of these things, working with the state DEQ and others to ensure that the resources that are supposed to be provided to the citizens of Cumberland County based on the consent order are in fact reaching the people … I’m going to continue to advocate for how we fund and build out countywide water. And if we need to look at that in a regional approach, we look at that in a regional approach. This pollution is not gonna stay contained to Cumberland County; it isn’t now.

Reporter Lexi Solomon can be reached at lsolomon@cityveiwnc.com or 910-423-6500.

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Cumberland County Board of Commissioners, elections, primaries, GenX, E.E. Smith High School