By Peter Vankevich
Editor’s note: The Ocracoke Observer will publish a series of articles this year on candidates seeking to represent Ocracoke.
By Peter Vankevich
Many of the state’s political pundits think that there are only a handful of Senate General Assembly seats at play. One of them is District 1 comprising eight counties in the northeastern part of the state.
Incumbent Bill Cook (R-Beaufort) will run against Brownie Futrell, a Democrat from Washington, Beaufort County. Both Cook and Futrell were unopposed in the March 15 primary.
A life-long resident of Washington, Futrell is the former owner and publisher of the Washington Daily News where he worked for 32 years and sold in 2010.
“I always knew I wanted to follow my father’s footsteps and work in the newspaper business,” he said in a recent interview while visiting the island where he has a home in Oyster Creek. “I graduated from Duke on a Saturday and was working at the Daily News the following Monday.”
As to why he is interested in going into politics at this stage of his life, he explained that after working 32 years for his newspaper and five years after selling it, he missed being in a position to help others.
“Every day I went to work at the newspaper I felt I had an opportunity, to make a positive impact in people’s lives,” he said. “It’s not just about covering the news; it’s also about lifting up the community that you serve. I miss that.”
By jumping into the political arena, he thinks he can continue that service.
“I’m 59 years,” he said “I still feel like I have a high level energy and want to serve others.”
He is proud that in 1990 the Daily News won the Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service based on a series of stories that unveiled contamination in the city’s water supply.
As a legislator, he said he will vote based on his conscience–what best serves the region–and then as a Democrat. That’s what he told Senate minority leader Dan Blue in a meeting last summer, thinking that they would want someone else.
Instead, Blue said that is exactly the type of person they are seeking to run.
Unlike his opponent, who votes the party line, he strongly feels that the District must elect someone who can work with other delegates on both sides of the aisle.
Leadership of both parties is from urban areas, he noted, and their priorities are not those of rural areas like District 1.
One of his priorities as a senator would be to restore the public education system that he feels has suffered due to cutbacks over the past several years.
The average expenditure per student in North Carolina is the lowest in the Southeast, he said.
“There is no other more important government role than providing a strong public education system,” he said. “A dollar spent on education is not as an expense but an investment.”
While a longtime community leader, Futrell’s only foray into elective office was being a member of the Washington City School Board for 10 years, six of those as chairman.
“I started serving when I was only 24 years old,” he said. “I was probably the youngest member of an education board in the state. While serving on the board, I came to respect the educators and staff and their commitment to the education of the children.”
Education has always been part of his life. His mother was a teacher, as is his son, and his wife, Susan, had a career in education that included being a teacher, principal, guidance counselor and Federal Projects director.
Futrell expressed concern that good teachers along the Virginia border see how much better their colleagues are paid north of them and they will leave the state to take better paying jobs.
Another issue he feels strongly about is transportation, and that requires someone who can work with all of the legislators, especially as to the worth of the ferry system and that he is against ferry tolls.
“We need to convince legislators that bridges and ferries are an extension of our highway program that benefits all citizens,” he said. “They are not frills. I don’t begrudge money going to western part of the state for snow removal or handling rock slides, and they should look at ferries and bridges in the same way.”
One of his positions is that the state should work to preserve the natural resources of Eastern Carolina which would protect jobs in the fishing and tourism businesses. He opposes off-shore drilling and seismic testing that could kill marine mammals.
Futrell has long connections to Ocracoke.
His father, Ashley Futrell, Sr., served three terms as a state senator for the district, and Brownie (as he prefers to be called) remembers visiting the island as a young child while his father campaigned.
“The problem was, I was so busy with the newspaper that I didn’t have as much time to spend on the island as I would have wanted,” he said.
Since he has retired he said they are here a lot more.
For several years, his business also published the weekly newsletter “The Ocracoker” that reported news on the island.