Politics Aside at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds

A surprising tradition among a group of North Carolina legislators finds them on common ground
by Billy Warden | photography by Joshua Steadman

If politics seem more than ever like a savage and sinister jungle, a hilltop patch carved out of a swaying forest in east Raleigh may just offer reason for hope.

For years, the campsite at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds, just south of Carter-Finley Stadium, has quietly hosted a small group of legislators. They come from cities and hamlets far outside of Raleigh, called to the capital to conduct the ‘people’s business’ when the General Assembly is in session—sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes for months.

They come in SUVs pulling travel trailers and in self-contained touring coaches. They are Republicans and Democrats; conservatives, moderates and progressives. But while they’re here what matters most is that they are campers, reveling in the things that light up campers everywhere. 

As voracious outdoorsman and Republican president Theodore Roosevelt put it, “There is a delight in the hardy life of the open.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his Democratic cousin and fellow POTUS, echoed, “Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.” Given these endorsements, where better to escape the machinations of politics than in the arms of Mother Nature?

“You see so many people at the legislative building. You handle 10,000 things per day. It’s one thing after another. The campsite gets you back to the real world—even though, technically, it’s still close to inside the beltline,” says Senator Brent Jackson, a Republican, who captains a sleek Aspire Entegra from his home in Clinton to the fairgrounds. 

On site, Jackson strolls the rambling grounds. He talks to the security guards. He particularly enjoys chatting up the wide variety of collectors, capitalists and occasional cranks setting up their wares at the sprawling flea market.

In the evening, he eases into a lawn chair and soaks up the sights and sounds, which, depending on the season, might include a game or concert at Carter-Finley Stadium, a monster truck rally or an N.C. Campers on Crusade worship service at the Heritage Circle church near the Village of Yesteryear. 

Representative Brian Turner and daughter Eleanor.

It all makes for an experience markedly different from that of out-of-town legislators who opt to cozy up with all the creature comforts in hotels and apartments. It’s also more fiscally conservative: legislators get a daily stipend of $104 while the General Assembly is in session. At the campground, a ranger housed in a tiny cabin collects a mere $30 a night.

You get water, sewer and power hookups, plus access to the commodes and showers at the nearby James B. Hunt Horse Complex, where, by the way, the mounts get their hose-downs just across from the human facilities.

But the big draw, horse hosings aside, is the vibe.

“When you camp, people are a lot more friendly than at a motel, where in the elevator nobody speaks to anyone,” says Senator Jim Davis, who motors in 315 miles from Franklin, a town tucked deep in the Appalachian mountains. “Camping is more relaxed. When you camp next to somebody, before you leave you know the names of all their kids and grandkids.”

Davis, who’s retiring from politics, won’t be back for 2021’s legislative session. But camping endures because, as in politics, when a seasoned statesman exits, a Young Turk steps in. Representative Brian Turner, a Democrat from Asheville, previously rented crash pads on his own and with fellow legislators.

“It was like being back in college,” he recalls. “You’re asking, Who left the dirty dishes in the sink? Who’s using my milk in their coffee?

During the spring/summer session of 2019, Turner, acting on a tip from Jackson, tried the fairgrounds. “Camping was appealing because it’s the best of both worlds,” he says. “You have your own space and you’re part of a larger community.”

On his maiden visit, Turner met a couple three trailers down the dirt road from him. They got to talking, and it turned out Turner had gone duck hunting in Currituck county with the couple’s son. “Those connections,” he reflects, “make North Carolina feel like a much smaller state than it might seem.”

At the end of last summer’s stay, while on the final leg of a five-mile morning jog that loops him around PNC Arena, Turner glimpsed Representative Allen McNeill, a Republican from Asheboro, leaving the campsite for the General Assembly. Turner looks forward to seeing more of McNeill, Jackson and others at the fairgrounds for after-hours socializing once the 2021 session commences—though their talking points will likely be devoid of one item.

“Politics won’t be a focus,” he notes. “We might touch on policy. But when we get to that point in the day, we’re ready to talk about something else.

Aren’t we all?