A small Ferris wheel is erected on Main Street along with spinning tea cup rides, booths selling fried food and a stage where a bluegrass band of retirees play for a swing dancing couple. Canopies line the sidewalks along the side streets where local artists sell handmade crafts and fan themselves with flyers in the heat.
Every year in August, the streets of downtown Roxboro are transformed into fairgrounds for the Personality Festival, drawing in crows from all over Person County.
Past the Person County Courthouse at the end of Court Street, two tents fight for attention. A large, red tent and a tall GOP sign marks the Person County Republicans. The Democrats are parked across the street in their own blue and white canopy.
Joe Parrish stands in between the two tents handing out business cards. Parrish, a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter even after the primary elections, was running for the District Two seat in the North Carolina House of Representatives in a mainly conservative district. His opponent, Republican incumbent Larry Yarborough, stands across the street, shaking hands with passersby, sweat seeping through his white dress shirt.
But the tension between the two canopies wasn’t as palpable as the tension between Parrish and the Democratic Party. Shortly after the primaries, Parrish took to social media and vocalized his dislike of Hillary Clinton on his official campaign Facebook page.
Then there was an added twist. In February 2016, Parrish came out as asexual, drawing, as some members of the party believed, unwanted attention. After leaving the Festival, Parrish began cutting ties with his party one by one, even his campaign manager.
Parrish graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014, majoring in political science, but at 24 years old, he had never held a public office. Parrish knew that it would be difficult for him to defeat Yarborough at the polls as a first-time candidate, especially without the full support of his local party.
“I came in here with just my name and didn’t have much more to that,” he said.
No other Democrat in Person County filed for the seat in March 2016. Minutes before the deadline to file, Parrish seized the candidacy, quit his job at Duke Clinical Research Institute and began his journey on the campaign trail. Little did he know, his campaign trail would be riddled with obstacles that would test his faith in the election, his hometown, his own political party and himself.
Parrish grew up in Timberlake, a town 30 miles north of Chapel Hill with a population of 6,920, two country stores, an elementary school and a handful of churches. During his campaign, Parrish moved back into his childhood home on Crystal Springs Drive, a long road stretching into an open field punctured by rows of weathered mail boxes and gravel driveways. This could be considered the “suburban” part of Timberlake, the one part not reserved for tobacco, corn or cotton fields.
“A lot of it is farmland, and a lot of it that isn’t farmland used to be farmland,” Parrish said. “There are a lot of old-timey vibes to it of just being in the country in the South, but I like it.”
The Parrish house is a small cottage with overgrown bushes and trees shielding much of the view from the street, but anyone passing by can tell who lives there by the row of political signs by the mailbox. Parrish’s sign is displayed first followed by a handful of other Democrats running for office in the county. The only sign missing was a Clinton sign.