McCrae Dowless' Last Spin

About 75 people showed up to lay McCrae Dowless to rest in the sandy Bladen County dirt on Saturday afternoon, not far from where his father is buried.

Most of the attendees were familiar cast members in his tragicomic life, those most loyal—or so they’d say—to Dowless as he went from small-town political operative to the kind of notoriety that gets you an obituary in The New York Times

County Commissioner Ray Britt, who once carried a $30,000 check to Raleigh to bail out Dowless in 2019, was one of the pallbearers. So was the son of Dowless’ lawyer, and the Union County politician and gun range owner who impersonates the Dukes of Hazzard character Boss Hogg.

Mark Harris, the Baptist preacher who hired Dowless to run a get-out-the-vote campaign in 2018 that put this county of just 30,000 people at the center of a roiling national debate over election security, even made an appearance via video. 

It was exactly the funeral Dowless would’ve wanted: weird, uncomfortable, colorful.

Dowless was 66 years old when he died of lung cancer on April 24, or to use a reference he would have preferred, about three weeks before North Carolina’s primary election. He was facing state charges on counts related to a fraud scheme; prosecutors say he illegally harvested votes in Bladen County in the 2016 and 2018 elections. He maintained his innocence until his final breath.

Most people have heard the tale: Harris, a Republican, claimed victory on election night with a lead of a few hundred votes in the 9th Congressional District, in a race against Democrat Dan McCready. But a month later, the state elections board declined to certify the results, citing voting irregularities in Bladen County and setting off a series of events that led to the first overturned federal election in at least a generation. After the race was thrown out, Dowless was indicted on charges related to election fraud. He was scheduled to stand trial in August. Prosecutors dropped the charges upon his death.

Nobody here at the funeral had forgotten any of it, that’s for damn sure. 

Britt, the county commissioner, stood at the preacher’s pulpit and said he was still “ill as a rattlesnake” about the charges against Dowless and how he was characterized. He stared down at the silver casket: “That was a good man. He was demoralized. He was destroyed. And I’ll stand up for him to the end.”

It was impossible to separate Dowless from politics, and those who spoke didn’t even try.

He loved sweet tea, Newports, and gossip. He lived to flip open his phone and call friends from early morning to late at night. He was also a self-described “flim-flam man,” a spinner of truth. He was famous for asking for a $20 spot from people he knew had a little more than he did. 

But more than any of that, he was the best numbers guy this side of I-95, knew everybody in the county and “how their family trees connected,” read the obituary his family placed on the local funeral home site. He knew who everybody in Bladen County voted for, and their preferred method of voting.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever really engaged somebody that worked harder and was more focused and more committed to what he was doing than McCrae Dowless,” Harris said in the video message.

Dowless was a lot of things to a lot of people. To Democrats, he was despicable, a Republican who tried to undermine democracy. To Republicans, he was a low-level fall guy who proved how easy it was to undermine democracy. In his two-decade political career, Dowless had worked for candidates on both sides of the aisle, and in the end he was put out of both.

To the people who gathered at Center Road Baptist Church on Saturday, though, he was a good man persecuted by state investigators and the press. Attendees railed against corruption they say courses through state and national politics and the judicial system. And of course the media is nothing but liars, they said. That included us, the co-authors of a book about the scandal, as we sat near the back of the church.

***

Over dozens of hours of interviews and conversation as part of the research for our book The Vote Collectors, we came to know Dowless as a small-town operative who was carrying out small-town grudges that became a national scandal because a congressional race ended in a near-tie. 

We spent about 50 hours in Dowless’s kitchen over three years, listening to his version of his life story while he burned through Newports. He regularly had “Carolina Pick 3” lottery tickets folded up on the counter, waiting on his luck to turn. There was always a potholder hanging on an eye-level cabinet that read, “Today is a beautiful day.”

Here’s who Dowless was: Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. was born on Jan. 3, 1956, the only child of Leslie Sr. and Monnie Margie Pait, but the youngest of Leslie Sr.’s 11 children.

McCrae spent his first 10 years on a 200-acre peanut farm off of Red Hill Road in Columbus County. Their home was so far back in the woods “you had to pump sunshine in,” he told us. It had no indoor plumbing or heat. In the winter, his mother boiled water on the stove for hot baths. In the summer, McCrae and his brothers took baths outside in a 55-gallon drum.

McCrae wouldn’t enjoy the luxuries of an indoor toilet until he was old enough to go to school.

“Back then, you shit outside and smoked inside,” McCrae said once. “Now you shit inside and smoke outside.”

When he was 10, his mother and father moved the family across the county line to Bladenboro, the biggest place he ever lived, with a population of about 700. He’d run around turning faucets on and off, marveling at how water could be both cold and hot at the same time. He flushed the toilet with delight. How on earth, he thought, did I get so lucky?

In 1966, his father and uncle built a fertilizer store off Highway 41. McCrae worked at the store throughout his teenage years, pumping gas and loading trucks with farm goods. 

As an adult, McCrae’s working life started with construction jobs that took him to California and Puerto Rico, and he spent some time as a manager of a used-car lot. After one of McCrae’s employees died in a car accident in Columbus County in 1990, McCrae and his girlfriend took out a life insurance policy on him and backdated it to before his death. That landed him in prison for insurance fraud for two years.

When he got out, he wanted revenge on the district attorney who prosecuted him, so he started working in politics. He handed out flyers and started keeping track of voter lists. He worked for a time with the Bladen Improvement Association, a political action committee formed to increase Black representation on local boards. In the late 2000s, though, he went out on his own and switched to getting Republicans elected.

Politics became what he lived for. He had an office in Bladenboro with massive maps of the county all around. He still took odd jobs to help make ends meet. The last one was pitching in to help renovate an old industrial building for a company that exports smoked turkey legs.

***

Dowless died in a hospital bed in his daughter’s house, with the farm fields where he’d spent most of his life surrounding him. 

Nick visited with him not long before he died, days before Easter. Dowless was skinny and his skin was yellow. A seafoam green upholstered chair was positioned next to the bed for visitors. 

He talked soft and slow. He said he was proud he had stood up for himself and never admitted guilt. McCrae told Nick he was happy his arch rivals in the Bladen Improvement Association, featured in the Serial Productions/New York Times podcast “The Improvement Association,” had disbanded. 

Then McCrae looked at Nick and said, “I’m glad I never lied to you, and that I didn’t have to,” a thing most people don’t feel like they have to say to someone they’ve never lied to.

If we learned anything from our conversations with Dowless, it was that there’s a space between who people are and who they think they are. In all of our conversations, he never once conceded that he could be guilty of the charges he faced, even as he was indicted twice in two years. He’d tell us about all the people he couldn’t trust in Bladen County, while appearing to remain unaware as to why people wouldn’t trust him.

He saw himself as a simple “country boy,” but he was a numbers genius and master schemer who found himself at the center of a scandal that tore apart the county he loved.

He had countless contacts in his phone. In the end though, he had few true friends. Of all the politicians he’d worked for in his career, only a couple of them showed up to his funeral.

One of those true friends was Terry Dove, who owned the barbecue place down the street and presided over the funeral as pastor. Another was his attorney, Cindy Singletary, whose father was once McCrae’s parole officer after the insurance fraud conviction in the ‘80s. She sat three rows from the front, dressed in black. Her son was a pallbearer.

Another was Britt. The county commissioner said he’d do anything for Dowless—and he was sure to mention all of the things he had done in his remembrance. That he drove to Raleigh to bail Dowless out in February 2019, regardless of whether it would cost him his seat on the commission. Britt spent a few moments of his eulogy to explain his theory that the 2018 scandal was all part of a larger plan involving Harris and a casino. And Britt called out what he thought were “lies” in our book about how he came to post bond to get Dowless out of jail. This is all to say Ray Britt’s remembrance of McCrae Dowless was as much about Britt as Dowless. 

But Britt did nail one thing—that the charges and trials of the past few years did as much damage to Dowless’s health as the cancer. After all, Dowless couldn’t campaign anymore—not because he wasn’t good at it, but because of his reputation as a fraudster.

“That’s a lot of what destroyed my brother here,” Britt said.

Stony Rushing, the Union County commissioner, recalled in his remarks that Dowless would phone him before sunrise to see if he’d seen the latest news story about him. “If I could call him today,” said Rushing, “I’d say ‘McCrae Dowless, brother McCrae: Look who was in The New York Times this week.’”

Dowless would’ve enjoyed the service. For one, he liked being the center of attention, even if he didn’t let on about it. But more than that, for about an hour, the conversation was all about reassuring him that he hadn’t done anything wrong—even if he had, he would’ve appreciated that they told him otherwise. 

***

Michael Graff is the Southern bureau chief for Axios Local. Nick Ochsner is chief investigative reporter at WBTV.

Parts of this story are excerpted from the book The Vote Collectors, released in November 2021 by UNC Press.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, N.C. // Photo by Travis Long, The News & Observer via AP*.*