ROCKINGHAM — When candidates file for political office, one of the questions they’re asked is if they’ve ever been convicted of a felony.
A last-minute Rockingham mayoral candidate was the only one during the recent filing period to answer “yes,” according to records with the Richmond County Board of Elections.
According to a disclosure form, Michael Dekota McRae wrote down that he was convicted of “conveying a threat.”
At 33, McRae considers himself the “underdog” in the race against Mayor Steve Morris and Mayor Pro Tem John Hutchinson, and admits to his conviction on his campaign website, McRaeForChange.com.
“Ten years ago, I made a mistake,” McRae told the RO during a downtown interview Monday evening. “In life, when you make a mistake, you have to own up to it, rehabilitate and move forward.”
McRae said too many citizens in Rockingham are unable to move forward with their lives after a mistake.
“One of the reasons why I’m running is to show young men in Richmond County that there is a path forward,” he said. “Man has plans, God has plans, and God is the best of planners.”
The Des Moines Register reported in September 2016 that McRae was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison after threatening his boss — Iowa state Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad — in 2012, in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin, when racial tensions were high in the U.S.
Abdul-Samad was an opponent of stand your ground laws, according to the Register.
McRae was a law student at Drake University and working as a legislative clerk for Abdul-Samad when he opened a racially charged letter containing a white powder — which turned out to be non-toxic — on the House floor, which resulted in a four-hour lockdown of the legislature, the Register reported. McRae even mentioned himself in the letter.
McRae’s plea agreement, filed Dec. 15, 2015, shows he admitted to writing the letter addressed to Abdul-Samad, placing it into a legislative mail receptacle and opening it on the chamber floor during open session “for the purpose of creating fear in other persons.”
The agreement features the letter in its entirety:
“Ako – The show that you all displayed on the steps of the Capital was downright shameful. Stand your ground gives citizens a right to stand up to the things in the streets that are ruining our communities. We don’t want any more ni–ers in office. It’s also a shame that you have Mike McRae another ni–a for office to advance this disgraceful political agenda. By November lets prepare. I am going to kill you and Mike. If you knock on my door, I am going to blow you away. That’s my God given right. F–k Traevyn (sic) and f–k you too.”
According to the agreement, McRae pleaded guilty to conveying false information concerning a biological weapon.
McRae’s defense attorney, Alfredo Parrish, said McRae wrote the letter because Abdul-Samad was trying to pressure the law student into running for office, the Register reported. McRae reportedly confessed and apologized to Abdul-Samad in 2013 before being indicted in 2015.
The Register quoted Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Griess as saying: “McRae sought not only to bring attention to a particular cause, but to inflame the racial prejudices and fears that lie all to (sic) close to the surface of contemporary American society. The addition of the white powder was merely icing on the cake designed to get the media’s attention.”
In 2014, between the time of the incident and his indictment, McRae helped organize a peace rally at the old Richmond County courthouse in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as this writer reported at the time for the Richmond County Daily Journal.
According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, McRae was released on April 20, 2018.
“Education does not save you from the effects of the criminal justice system,” McRae said. “I’m a firm believer in Jesus. I believe in redemption and I know my savior lives.”
McRae said he encourages all young people and anyone who has had any issues with the law to move forward with their lives “without shame, fear or depression.”
“I love the lyric (from the Donnie McClurkin song ‘We Fell Down’): ‘For a saint is just a sinner who fell down and got up.’”
REGISTRATION AND FILING
The Carolina Journal reported last year that a state superior court panel ruled 2-1 that felons who have served their sentences could register to vote.
The N.C. State Board of Elections in an updated memo announced that a convicted felon can register to vote if the following criteria are met:
- You are serving a term of extended probation, parole, or post-release supervision;
- You still have outstanding fines, fees, or restitution as a result of your felony conviction;
- You do not know of another reason that your probation, parole, or post-release supervision was extended.
According to his paperwork, McRae says his rights were restored in April 2020.
When a felon registers, the voter registration system flags felons and the local board sends the would-be voter a letter informing them that they cannot register, according to the Richmond County Board of Elections.
Records show McRae re-registered to vote in Rockingham on April 13, 2020. He then changed his registration to High Street in Ellerbe in January of this year, before changing it back to Clemmer Road, Rockingham on April 30.
Staff at the RCBOE said McRae first tried to register to run for Ellerbe’s town council, but was told he couldn’t because he was registered in Rockingham.
The filing rules from the NCSBE state, in part: “Candidates must be registered voters of the municipality at the time they file for office. If they are not already registered to vote, they can register at the same time they file their notice of candidacy.”
When asked about that, McRae answered “no comment,” but added that he’s lived in Richmond County his entire life — aside from attending UNC-Chapel Hill for a degree in management, and Drake University for law school.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
REASONS FOR RUNNING
McRae told the RO one of his reasons for running is to fix certain areas of downtown.
“I believe that all citizens, but especially younger generations … need a place to be able to go,” he said, standing in front of a broken glass door at the former bank on East Washington Street. “And our downtown area has been dilapidated for too long. These areas used to be the pride and joy of Richmond County.”
McRae recalled seeing a young mother pushing a stroller almost get hit by a falling piece of the ceiling from the front awning of the now-closed Rockingham Fitness Center.
“We can do better — we must do better for our kids,” he said.
McRae said he respects both Morris and Hutchinson for their service to the community.
Morris served four years on the council in the late ‘70s, rejoined the council in 2000 and was appointed mayor in 2013 following Gene McLaurin’s election to the N.C. Senate. Hutchinson was first appointed to the council in 2005 to finish out an unexpired term and has been reelected since.
“But from what I’m seeing, this is a disgrace for Richmond County,” McRae said, estimating that 75% of the buildings in Rockingham’s downtown area are empty or dilapidated and adding that he is “deeply concerned” with the structural integrity of those buildings. “We can do better as a city, we deserve better as a city.”
McRae cited the recent collapse of a building in Florida as an example of what happens when “things are not properly maintained.”
“I don’t want anyone, any citizen of Rockingham, to get hurt or killed because our buildings are crumbling,” he said.
Another tenant of McRae’s platform is to end veteran homelessness in the city limits.
“We have veterans begging on the streets, living under bridges, and we have veterans searching through trash cans for food,” he said.
If elected, McRae says no veteran in Rockingham will be homeless.
He added that the city will address the root causes of the situation, such as PTSD, mental health issues and drug abuse.
When asked how he would handle that with the city’s budget, McRae said Rockingham would have to partner with county, state and federal authorities “to bring the resources that Rockingham needs.”
“Veterans serve our country bravely,” McRae added. “They go to war and risk their life and limb. Providing programs for them is the least we can do to show respect.”
One of McRae’s first goals, if elected, is to leverage public and private partnerships to “finally” bring a YMCA, Big Brothers Big Sisters or similar organization to Rockingham.
“I feel that all kids, regardless of their background, should have a ‘safe space’ to go after school hours,” McRae said. “With a city our size, we should have more for our youth. We have to develop more programs for our youth such as financial literacy, suicide prevention and mental health awareness and gang-prevention strategies.”
He added that the city needs to invest in arts and culture, health and wellness initiatives, and educational and sports programs.
McRae also said that he wants to strengthen the relationship between police and the communities.
“We have to ensure that our law enforcement has the resources, training (repeated three times) and necessary support to do their jobs effectively,” he said. “Every citizen of Rockingham deserves to live in a safe community.”
McRae said he supports the expansion of small- and medium-sized businesses, plans to create an incubator and additional co-working space to bring more young professionals to the city, and supports apprenticeship programs with local companies for those who choose not to attend college.
“It’s time for the city of Rockingham to invest in revitalization,” he said.
CRITICAL OF THE COMPETITION
Self-admittedly, McRae is “not a politician.”
“I am a real, authentic person and I think that’s what this city is lacking,” he said. “You shouldn’t necessarily be worried about people like me that are 100 percent transparent about their past, you should be worried about the people that pretend to be so nice.”
If elected, McRae said he plans to “reset” the relationship between the city and the county, which was strained and recently slightly mended following a change in the method of sales tax distribution.
“The lack of communication and personality differences between some city and some county officials is holding Rockingham back,” McRae said. “We must do better.”
McRae also disapproved of Hutchinson not informing Morris that he was going to run for mayor.
“It’s a courtesy thing, it’s a respect thing,” he said. “Nobody likes those types of tactics, I’ve learned in life. We have to treat people well, and that’s what I intend to do. I plan to treat all of our citizens equally and to build up our city into the place that it can truly be.”
While Morris told the RO he didn’t know Hutchinson had filed, Hutchinson said he told Morris and others that he was considering a run.
The newcomer challenges Morris and Hutchinson to a debate “on the merits of the issues plaguing our city.”
UPDATED: 12:17 a.m.