WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the better part of two days this week, rural counties in North Carolina had their concerns heard by staff and department heads of the Trump Administration — and Bladen County Chairman Ray Britt was front and center through it all.
“In my lifetime, this was probably one of the most informative meetings I’ve ever attended that relates to our government and taking party lines out of issues,” he said.
Britt was the lone attendee from Bladen County during the White House Conference for North Carolina county commissioners Tuesday and Wednesday. He said the event came up quickly and had “pretty rigid security” attached to it.
“We couldn’t carry a briefcase, satchel … nothing into the gathering,” Britt said.
He added that the event is an initiative by the president for county commissioners to meet his staff and department heads in an effort to speed up information between the federal government and county officials.
“This puts a little pressure on the states; Raleigh now becomes the middle man because we have a direct line to federal department heads who are very willing to help rural counties,” Britt explained. “In a nutshell, the meeting showed how we can make life simpler to achieve what we’re trying to accomplish and cut through the red tape.”
As an example, Britt said the county’s effort to get the federal DOT to make Hwy. 87 a four-lane road not only the rest of the way through Bladen but all the way to Wilmington shouldn’t only rest with the counties the affected area of Hwy. 87 passes through.
“We need to get county commissions in Bladen, Johnston, Cumberland, Columbus, Brunswick and New Hanover to send letters to Raleigh and request a meeting with the federal DOT head,” he said. “We do that and we are probably going to get 87 done.”
Britt said the group was supposed to hear from Trump during the gathering, but the president was tied up in California and didn’t get back in time. Britt did, however, get some one-on-one time with several federal officials. One of those was Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn.
“He told me the main focus (for the meeting) is to work directly with county commissioners so that we can consider the federal government as a partner going forward,” said Britt.
He also managed some time talking with Vice President Mike Pence.
“He is about as humble and open-minded as could be,” Britt said. “He genuinely seemed excited to make big government smaller and let the local level work.
“He really seemed interested in being able to swing the balance back toward the rural counties,” he added.
A few of the key points brought out during the meeting included:
— North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forrest told the group that, by the end of the year, the state will become the first in the nation to have high-speed Internet access in every classroom.
— D.J. Gribbin, special assistant to the president on infrastructure policy, said the Trumps wants infrastructure decisions to go through local governments, and that one-fourth of all federal dollars should be allotted to rural counties — staring with a $50-billion Tiger Grant that will be available.
— The gathering was also informed that 97 percent of agricultural products from North Carolina are exported, and that the agriculture industry had lost money over the past four years.
Britt was given the opportunity to ask questions during the five-hour meeting, and he took full advantage — including one with a powerful statement.
“I stood up and explained how, when I came up, we had 7,000 students in our schools with six school-board members and seven or eight sheriff’s deputies,” he said. “We also had, at that time, the power of prayer and the power of the paddle in our schools.
“Now, we have far fewer students, more board members and a lot more deputies — and we can all see the troubles we’ve got,” he continued. “I told them all that to get to this question: Why do you think we have so many charter schools, private schools and Christian schools; and if (the federal government) will clearly allow prayer and discipline back in our schools, don’t you think we’ll see things get better?
“There was a standing ovation,” Britt said.
Overall, Britt said the White House Conference was positive for the rural counties in North Carolina.
“I’m excited about the direction this administration is going to help rural government and communities,” he said. “I think it’s going to mean really good things for Bladen County.”
W. Curt Vincent can be reached at 910-862-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.