The reformer

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cindywatson
Cindy Watson, a former Republican state lawmaker, ran into fierce opposition when she tried to reform the pork industry. (photo by Alex Boerner)

by Ken Fine and Erica Hellerstein

Two decades ago, Cindy Watson learned how hard it is to reform the hog industry from the outside.

In 1994, Watson — a political neophyte from Duplin County — ran as a Republican for the state legislature. She found herself thrust into the swine debate during her campaign, fielding frenzied questions from constituents about her position on the “hog issue.” She had no idea what they were talking about; before running for office, she’d spent nearly two decades as a marketing agent in Wilmington, commuting to and from her home. Hog farming wasn’t on her radar. But she told her constituents she’d learn more about it. And learn about it she did.

The race for the 10th District seat was tight. Watson ultimately triumphed over her opponent, Democratic incumbent Vance Alphin, but just barely. Part of her unlikely success may well be attributed to the moment in which she ran.

“That’s when Newt Gingrich had the Contract with America,” she explains. “Conservative thinking was on the rise.”

After taking office, Watson began hearing about the hog issue yet again. She stopped by a meeting with a group called the Alliance for a Responsible Swine Industry, which recounted industry horror stories: crippling stenches, hogs loaded in dead boxes, swarms of flies so thick you couldn’t see through them.

She was stunned.

“I was thinking, What is going on here?” recalls Watson, who is now retired and lives in Rose Hill, not far from Warsaw. “I said, ‘I cannot believe that this is the way that we are doing things in this state.’”

Her line was flooded with calls from constituents describing deplorable conditions, she says. One came from Elsie Herring, a Duplin County resident who lived adjacent to a hog farm. Herring told Watson that waste was being sprayed all over her mother’s house. Watson says she visited the home and, upon arrival, came face-to-face with Herring’s neighbor, a hog farmer named Major Murray. The conversation was fraught, Watson recalls, with the farmer defending the spraying and accusing Herring of stirring up trouble.

Before the farmer stormed off, Watson says, he told her: “Just remember, I am a damn Democrat, and you must be just a n***** lover.”

(Herring recalls this quote as well. A call to Murray, who is in his eighties and has since sold the farm, was answered by a woman who told a reporter he would not talk to her “today, tomorrow, or the day after” and then hung up. In a subsequent call, the woman said Murray didn’t remember Watson and didn’t want to talk about interactions with Herring. She ended the call by saying, “You better not call here no more. We got something, we can take care of all this now — them, you, whatever. Now don’t call here no more.”)

“I really wished the ground had opened up and I had gone in it,” she says. “I looked at Elsie and she looked at me and said, ‘This is what we live with.’ I said, ‘I am so sorry, Elsie. We have got to change this.’”

Soon after, Watson says, “Crap hit the fan. They began to watch me in the halls of the General Assembly, all the lobbyists.”

Things got tenser after Watson successfully introduced a series of bills to regulate hog farming, including legislation requiring a 1,500-foot buffer between hog operations and houses and, in 1997, a temporary moratorium on the construction of new hog operations. Through her legislative pursuits, Watson knew she was taking on a powerful industry. But she wasn’t prepared for the death threat she says she received on her phone’s answering machine.

“It said, ‘If you don’t back off this hog situation and if you run any more legislation, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Watson says. “‘You might find yourself in that Cape Fear River floating face down.’”

Nothing ever came of the threat; to this day, she says she has no idea who left that message.

She didn’t last long in politics. In the 1998 Republican primary, Watson was hit by a barrage of industry-funded attack ads. A coalition of the state’s largest hog producers called Farmers for Fairness spent $2.9 million targeting legislators deemed unfriendly to the industry, including an estimated $10,000 a week against Watson, according to a report by the left-leaning Democracy North Carolina.

Watson narrowly lost to an industry-backed hog farmer named Johnnie Manning.

Watson made her way back to Duplin, enrolled in a gardening class, got a handful of much-needed joint replacements and focused on spending time with her family. But she says she was never able to shake what happened during her stint in the legislature. And she’s incredulous that, all these years later, the same systems that disturbed her then remain in place — and that people like Elsie Herring have been living with it ever since.