LAURINBURG — Taking a page from the playbook of some of the more successful presidential campaigns, observers say Matthew Block used dissatisfaction with the status quo to win back a seat as mayor of Laurinburg.
Block captured 59.4 percent of the vote to oust incumbent Mayor Tommy Parker.
According to unofficial returns, Block received 1,446 votes while Parker got 981 votes, or 40.3 percent of the ballots cast.
The former mayor outpolled Parker during the eight-day early vote with 840 votes to Parker’s 475. Block also won more votes in three of Laurinburg’s five precincts.
At the Scotland County Annex that serves as the Precinct 1 polling place, Block got 147 votes and Parker got 47 votes. There are 2,562 registered voters in Precinct 1.
In Precinct 2, where people voted at the Washington Park Learning Center, Block received 97 votes to Parker’s 29. There are 1,725 registered voters in Precinct 2.
Voters in Precinct 6, who voted at the East Laurinburg polling place, gave Block 21 votes to Parker’s 5 votes. There are 557 registered voters in that precinct.
Parker beat Block in Precinct 3, where voters cast ballots at Scotland Place. Parker garnered 205 votes and Block got 132 votes. There are 2,810 registered voters in Precinct 3.
At the National Guard Armory that serves as Precinct 4, Parker got 214 votes to Block’s 205 votes. Precinct 4 has 3,018 registered voters.
The county Board of Elections will canvass the Nov. 3 results on Tuesday at 11 a.m.
Observers credit the 51-year-old heart specialist’s stance on two issues — a promise to reduce city’s utility rates and prioritize building a recreation center over a new city hall — for much of his victory.
Block said as much himself right after Tuesday’s election results were announced.
“This is not about me, but about the positions on these issues that my campaign represented,” he said. “I hope that city council will use the time between now and when I take office to take a fresh look at things, now that the citizens have spoken.”
The mayor-elect also had a squadron of volunteers and used advertising and social media aggressively.
Terence Williams, a former school board member, said increases in city utility bills were an issue for him and a lot of people that he knew.
Williams spoke along with several other residents during a recent city council meeting about “sky-high” light bills. He said he never got the impression that city officials understood “how people were struggling.”
“I don’t know if Tommy Parker ever realized that residents and businesses too, had a real problem with the increases in electric bills that suddenly materialized,” Williams said. “Dr. Block made it an issue that he said he would do something about and voters could support that.”
Mark Schenck, chairman of the Scotland County Republican Party, said there were also large numbers of voters that favored Block’s opposition to a new City Hall. Schenck called Parker “a very nice person” but wondered if the current mayor and most of city council was out of touch with what Laurinburg citizens wanted. He said council was not listening to residents when it decided to spend money to study building a new City Hall.
“There are other ways of doing that with a lot better results,” Schenck said. “But the trend is for politicians here and in Washington to move away from talking with the people and representing their views. Instead, they vote however they want.”
Williams agreed, saying a majority of voters gravitated toward Block because they “were tired of not being at the table were decisions are made.”
“Those 1,400 people said pretty loud and clear that they were looking for a change and looking to be heard,” Williams said. “They want something different and they saw in Dr. Block a candidate who said he wasn’t going to be about business as usual.”
Block also campaigned on his performance in his prior term as mayor — during which the city initiated input sessions for the public, formed the Laurinburg Beautification Committee, hired Ed Burchins as city manager, and increased the number of monthly city council meetings.
Other observers said Tuesday’s election had more to do with Block’s “deep pockets” than issues.
Block, who owns Scotland Cardiology, gave his campaign $11,681, according to his election finance records for the period of July 9 to Sept. 22.
Of that amount, Block’s campaign spent $11,464 on T-shirts, banners, signs, voter lists, magnets, marketing, office supplies, appreciation certificates and filing fees.
The report does not include what the Block campaign spent from that period until Tuesday’s election. The deadline to file his next finance report is Jan. 29, 2016.
“That was the most money ever spent on a municipal election since I got here in 2006,” said Dell Parker, supervisor for the county Board of Elections. “That does not include the fish fry or other recent activities.”
Tommy Parker initially planned to stay under the $1,000 threshold that would negate the need to file a campaign finance report. He told the Board of Elections a few weeks before the General Election that he would exceed the $1,000 limit. The mayor will have to file a report with the Board of Elections by Jan. 29 on all campaign expenses up to Dec. 31.
“Tommy didn’t campaign hard until the end,” said a Laurinburg official who asked to remain anonymous. “Dr. Block on the other hand, out-campaigned and outspent the mayor and he was never able to catch up.”
Jim Willis, president of the Laurinburg Downtown Revitalization Corporation, said the size of Block’s victory caught him by surprise.
“Tommy Parker may have seemed like a slow-talking good ol’ boy, but he was actually a very good mayor who was articulate, understood government and was a great ambassador for our community.
“But there was a lot of resentment by all voters — black and white — about the utility rates and City Hall project that Tommy just could not overcome. I think it mirrored the anger expressed by voters across the country.”
Still Willis said the “money thrown around” by Block’s campaign was also key.
“You factor the resentment in with all the money that Dr. Block spent and the fact that he is a good-looking doctor and it was just the perfect storm of circumstances,” Willis said.
Reach editor Scott Witten at 910-506-3023