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North Carolina casino debate fuels challenge to Nash County lawmaker

Opponents of legislation to open more casinos in North Carolina held a rally at the Legislative Building in September 2023.
Colin Campbell
Opponents of legislation to open more casinos in North Carolina held a rally at the Legislative Building in Sept. 2023.

Proposed new casinos in North Carolina have become a key issue in a Republican primary in Nash County.

Yvonne McLeod is challenging first-term incumbent Rep. Allen Chesser, R-Nash, for a House seat representing the Rocky Mount area. McLeod, an educator who was born in Jamaica, lost to Chesser in the 2022 primary by just 300 votes.

She’s a vocal critic of the Republican legislators’ proposal to add up to four new casinos in North Carolina, including one in Rocky Mount.

She argues that Chesser didn’t do enough to inform the community about the plan and push back against his GOP colleagues in Raleigh.

“The lack of transparency was huge,” she said. “Then when they actually did come out and say something, it was the mayor of Rocky Mount primarily and Rep. Chesser and some of the local businessmen that were just pushing the idea of a casino. They kept giving us statistics about this wonderful thing that was going to come without actually giving any of the pitfalls.”

Chesser attended community meetings about the casino plan last year and spoke about the jobs and economic boost it would bring.

“I don’t think we have the luxury of turning away jobs,” he said, according to the Rocky Mount Telegram. He told WUNC this week that he’d like to see a local referendum vote on the issue if the proposal resurfaces in the future — the same position as McLeod.

Chesser said the casino debate is a “wedge issue that my opponent is trying to use to justify her campaign.”

“My stance has always been that I don't have the moral heartburn that other people have over gambling and casinos,” he said. “I believe that it's not the government's job to tell us what we can and can't do with our money. I'm not necessarily pro-casino; I'm not against casinos. And I definitely don't care enough to force it down anybody's throat.”

Senate leader Phil Berger, one of the strongest supporters of the idea, recently told reporters that he doesn’t anticipate the legislation moving in this year’s short session. He'd initially wanted casino expansion included in last year's budget but dropped the plan in the face of opposition.

McLeod questions Chesser’s role in the process, pointing to his job as a vice president with a nursing home operator owned by Rocky Mount Mayor Sandy Roberson. Roberson has spoken out in favor of the casino.

McLeod said she’s heard from voters who support her campaign because of her opposition to casinos.

“I've had people who love to gamble, and they go up to Cherokee, they go to Virginia, but they don't necessarily want it in their backyard,” McLeod said. “They don't want it down the road, and some of that is because it would be too much of a temptation.”

Chesser, however, said he hasn’t “talked to very many voters where that is their deciding factor. Most of them that do have the question just want to know whether or not I support the local referendum.”

McLeod is getting some unusually high-profile support for a challenger to a sitting legislator. Two Nash County commissioners have endorsed her campaign, and one of them, Wayne Outlaw, even paid for newspaper ads outlining why he’s supporting her.

“I know there is development ahead for Nash County that will not deliver the long-term social ills of a gambling establishment,” Outlaw wrote in the ad.

Former Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, has endorsed McLeod along with the conservative N.C. Values Coalition. Chesser boasts endorsements from Roberson and most of the mayors in Nash County; he’s also backed by House Speaker Tim Moore and other colleagues in the House.

Chesser said he’s accomplished a lot in his first year in office, pointing to funding he secured in the state budget for water and sewer projects, as well as a major Rocky Mount affordable housing project.

“I think we've been able to deliver some pretty significant results for the community,” he said. “We've really been able to build a team of support that I think is going to have really positive implications on not only Nash County, but the region as a whole.”

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
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