Less than a month before election day, Parrish quickly walks up to the podium at the People Rising in Defense of Ecology political forum. Unlike the other political candidates who were dressed in collared shirts, and in Yarborough’s case, a suit and tie, Parrish arrived in his signature cargo shorts and a Chicago Cubs T-shirt.
“I’m going to do what I think is rare for a candidate to do, and actually be candid for a moment,” he said to the small crowd. “In all seriousness, I’m probably not going to win my race.”
In the crowd, Yarborough was inwardly smiling.
“I’m gonna continue to work hard and expect to win,” Yarborough said later in his small office in the Legislative Building in Raleigh. “I get the impression that my opponent might not be working that hard, but I can’t let that be a reason not to campaign.”
Running for re-election was fairly tame for Yarborough. In the 2014 election, he ran a close race against Person County Commissioner Ray Jeffers.
“The Yarborough and Jeffers campaign — it was really nasty,” Torian said.
Torian said negative mailers against Jeffers filled the mail boxes constantly. Jeffers lost the race to Yarborough 45.7 to 54.2 percent in Person County. The “nastiness” could have discouraged Democrats — except Parrish — from filing for N.C. House in the 2016 election.
“It was a winnable seat, but unfortunately it was just difficult to find somebody to run,” Torian said. “So when he did decide to file I was excited that there was going to be somebody who had views that I aligned with. And he had the time to put into campaigning, and so I was excited.”
Many of the Person County Democrats knew Parrish from his involvement in the Teen Democrats while he was in high school and applauded that a young person had interest in local politics.
But Yarborough, running for his second term, had more funding and connections than Parrish, who had never previously held a public office. Someone had even placed bright red Yarborough signs next to every navy blue Parrish sign in town.
Then the mailers came again, sent by a conservative political action committee, Citizens for North Carolina PAC. Yarborough denied having any connection to the independent organizations sending the mailers.
Parrish received one in the mail and laughed.
“Joe Parrish…we can’t afford his liberal vote,” the pamphlet read. He snapped a photo of it on his phone and posted it on Facebook.
Parrish was still active on social media, particularly on Facebook where he posted his almost daily criticism of Clinton, which upset his fellow party members.
The headquarters of the Person County Democrats sits across the street from a dry cleaning business, its flashing neon lights reflecting across the windows. A giant portrait of Clinton stands in the window, floor to ceiling.
“I think a lot of members of our Executive Committee kind of see [not supporting Clinton] as a non-starter when it comes to Joe’s campaign,” Torian said. “Most have the opinion that if you’re going to be on the Democratic ticket then you need to support the person at the top of the ticket. And whether you agree with that or not, that’s their opinion.”
The Executive Committee declined to comment on Parrish’s campaign.
Torian said he became concerned that Parrish was using his campaign social media sites for the sole purpose of bashing Clinton. On Oct. 11, a week before early voting started, he closed Parrish’s campaign Facebook account and campaign website.
Parrish admitted that he no longer wanted to use the account to campaign, but he said he should still be able to promote his interests as a candidate.
“Campaigns can serve multiple purposes,” he said. “I can still advocate things, still communicate things, still just have my name out there in the publicat least putting out ideas and trying create momentum for future political activism.”
Shortly after the shutdown, he created another Facebook page exactly like the first one, but by then he had lost almost all of his followers.
“I have to admit that I can’t win my race mainly because I don’t really have the support of my local party,” he said. “What it comes down to is that the Democrats here never forgave me for not being a supporter of Hillary Clinton.”
On the first day of early voting, Oct. 20, Parrish prepared for the election by surfing Facebook with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a mug of Coke rather than campaigning at the polls.
Since burning bridges with his party, he was isolated in his childhood room where he takes his place at a small dorm-style built-in desk under rows and rows of books. His chair is jammed in between the desk and a bunk bed where he sleeps coffin-style on the bottom bunk.
Parrish drives five minutes to the polling place at Helena Elementary School in Timberlake, where he used to go to school, when it first opens. A line has already formed out of the old cafeteria building. Members of the Person County Democratic party are handing out sample ballots in the small gravel parking lot behind the small “no campaigning beyond this point” yard sign. Parrish briefly says hello and walks into the polling building.
On his ballot, he votes straight Democrat, except for one Republican running for school board. He doesn’t vote for Trump or Clinton but writes in Bernie Sanders’ name.
That night at the Roxboro Community School, students in the Advanced Placement program served plastic bowls of soup to local candidates before they took the stage to present their platforms.
Yarborough floated among the crowd of candidates smiling nostalgically. All three of his children had attended this school, and the sight of the high school students made him remember well.
During the forum, the candidates sat in a wide half circle on a stage — including Jeffers who was running for county commissioner once again. The seat beside Yarborough was empty. Parrish decided not to attend the event despite his belief that he had more connections to younger voters than Yarborough. Earlier in his campaign, Parrish tried to mobilize the young voters in his county by holding Pokemon Go nights where he was the leader of “the blue team.” Months before, he had also made an effort to establish a Young Democrats group, but it never got off the ground.
“I think it’s important for young people to get as many experiences as they can,” Yarborough said. “I know I’ve lived my life that way with the home varying experiences from working in the space shuttle program to big industry to starting my own businesses to raising a family home. I think [Parrish] is a nice guy that is getting a very valuable experience.”
According to the Person County Board of Commissioners’ meeting, the senior population is projected to increase by 62 percent by 2030. This statistic discouraged Parrish further.
“I really think a lot of what has hindered me in my campaign comes back to the fact that a candidate really needs to match their constituency, and I’m a young guy in an aging, rural area that generally likes to chase its young population out,” he said.
By the time early voting began, Parrish had lost all hope for victory. Now the election was a waiting game, counting down the days until the formal announcement that he had lost.