Every two years during primary season, federal, state and local politicians of both parties pay a visit to a meeting hall at the Lu Mil Vineyard just outside the small Bladen County town of Dublin.
At the event — called Politicians Appreciation Day — they give short stump speeches as dozens of voters and party officials eat barbecue.
The political operative who has been co-organizing the event is a felon who has struggled to make ends meet for much of his life, but who has shown an uncanny ability to connect with residents in this rural county on the eastern edge of the sprawling 9th Congressional District.
He’s Leslie McCrae Dowless, and he’s in hot water over his handling of absentee ballots in the 2016 and 2018 elections.
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His biggest client: U.S. House candidate Mark Harris, who narrowly won the 2018 Republican primary election over incumbent Robert Pittenger, and then appeared to have won the general election over Democrat Dan McCready with just over 900 votes. Dowless’s efforts in those contests and the 2016 election, when he worked for a third GOP congressional candidate, are now under investigation. They’ll be part of a State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement hearing to be held no later than Dec. 21.
Elections officials and the Wake County district attorney are looking into allegations Dowless’s get-out-the-vote operation broke state laws for the handling of absentee ballots. Two voters have said in an election complaint that his workers collected absentee ballots in unsealed envelopes — which meant they could have been altered — and election officials say there are an unusually high number of absentee ballots unaccounted for in Bladen County.
Dowless, 62, has said little about his work beyond denying any wrongdoing. On Thursday, he greeted reporters at his modest one-story brick home on the outskirts of Bladenboro with a “no comment” to several questions about the case.
The case has drawn national attention, pulling into the spotlight a lanky, graying former car dealer who continues to chain smoke despite suffering a heart attack within the past five years. The appreciation day events show how much Dowless has woven himself into the region’s political fabric, even as some of the politicians who have showed up for them say they don’t know him well.
But others say Dowless is one of Bladen County’s most popular residents, and can’t walk down a town street without shaking hands and saying hello to nearly everyone who crosses his path.
“Our county has 30,000 residents, and he knows probably 25,000 of them,” Jeff Smith, a sweepstakes parlor owner and Dublin town commissioner, said in a phone interview.
Smith had let Dowless use a vacant store for his campaign work during the primary, but said he kicked him out after learning Dowless was also working to help Sheriff Jim McVicker win re-election. Smith has sued McVicker and others over what he contends was an illegal raid of his sweepstakes business.
Dowless had long voted in Democratic primaries but became a registered Republican after the 2016 general election. In 2012, he was paid for get-out-the-vote efforts for competing Democratic candidates in a state House race.
News reports indicate he has been doing campaign work at least as far back as 2006. He told The News Reporter of Whiteville in a 2010 article that he worked on then-District Attorney Rex Gore’s campaign that year.
In 2010, Dowless worked for the man Gore defeated, Harold “Butch” Pope, a Whiteville attorney. During that campaign, Pope and Dowless had to respond to concerns about Dowless’ criminal record. In 1992, Dowless was convicted of felony insurance fraud after he and his wife were accused of taking out an insurance policy on a dead man and collecting nearly $165,000 from his death. He served more than six months of a two-year prison sentence.
Pope knocked out Gore in the Democratic primary but lost the election to Jon David, who remains the district attorney for Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties. Pope said when he ran for the office “two or three people” called and told him he needed Dowless working for him in Bladen County.
“Someone told me McCrae Dowless is the guru of Bladen County,” Pope said in a phone interview.
A love of politics
Dowless knew people at the county Board of Elections and in the public. Pope hired him to put up signs and hand out literature, he said. He paid Dowless $7,127.
“He told me right quick who would let you put a sign in the yard and where they’d let you put it,” Pope said. “You could tell this man loves politics.”
“He’s as country as a butterbean,” Pope said. But his knowledge of local politics seemed inexhaustible.
“Some people can quote ACC basketball statistics,” said Pope. “He can quote political statistics ... just rattling off these figures of the kind of votes of each little township.”
In the primary, Pope won 56 percent of the vote. He racked up 259 absentee-by-mail ballots, to his opponent’s 114 votes. He said he never heard of Dowless doing anything improper and would have stopped him if he had.
“I had the feeling he would like to work his way up to bigger campaigns,” said Pope. “He enjoyed the process more than the candidates.”
But while Dowless thrived in politics, court records show he struggled to pay his living expenses. He faced eviction for failing to pay the rent in 2010. Three years later, Mitchel Tyler, a former Columbus County school superintendent active in politics, filed for a judgment against him for failing to pay back a $2,200 loan.
Tyler’s attorney, Bill Phipps, said Dowless didn’t appear in court to dispute the debt. Efforts to reach Tyler through Phipps were unsuccessful.
Dowless grew up on his father’s farm near Dublin. His father, Leslie James Dowless, also sold fertilizer, lime and other agricultural products.
McCrae Dowless faced some family friction growing up, said a niece, Patti Nance. His father had remarried after his first wife had died. They had had eight children, and Dowless was the first with his second wife. Some in the family were uncomfortable with the second marriage, Nance said.
It’s unclear how much of an education McCrae Dowless received. Bladen County Schools records only show him attending until the eighth grade, said Valerie Newton, a school spokeswoman. She added that the records might be incomplete.
Dowless made an unsuccessful run for the Bladen County school board in 2014, losing in the Democratic primary.
Over the years, Dowless worked in construction and ran the auto business that led to the criminal case. (It involved a fraudulent policy drawn up after one of his employees died in a car accident, The Fayetteville Observer reported at the time.) Today, the only paid work he appears to be doing is on election campaigns.
He won a seat on the county Soil and Water board in 2012 and kept it in 2016, but his concern over the surprising amount of votes a write-in candidate received in that 2016 race launched an election inquiry that now appears to have turned on him. Gov. Pat McCrory, who had narrowly lost his bid for a second term, seized on Dowless’ concerns as evidence of voter fraud to press for a state election board hearing.
The board ultimately found no issue with the write-in campaign, but also heard concerns with the absentee ballot efforts of one of Dowless’ campaign workers and referred the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
This year, some of Dowless’ campaign workers have told reporters about problems with absentee ballots. One told BuzzFeed she witnessed other workers bringing sealed ballots to his office. Two others told WRAL and WSOC they delivered absentee ballots to the office.
Michelle Wright, 34, of Bladenboro, told The News & Observer that she briefly worked for Dowless during the 2018 primary. She said he told her he would pay her $150 a week to help with getting out the vote, but he provided little more than gas money. Others told her she ought to not involve herself in politics, she said, and she quit within a couple weeks.
She knew about his criminal record, but she said she didn’t think he was a bad guy.
“He’s down to earth,” she said. “Pretty easy-going.”
‘It was because McCrae was there’
Nance said Dowless often asked his father for money, and sometimes her father, who tried to look out for his younger half-brother. When Dowless’ father died in 2001, the will on file with Bladen County made no mention of McCrae, with the estate being split up among the rest of the siblings.
“He’s a nice guy. He’s a good-hearted fellow,” Nance said in a phone interview. “He’ll try to do anything in the world for you. But I guess he makes some bad decisions every now and then.”
She got a sense of his political clout when her father, James “Levi” Dowless, died last year.
“We were at the visitation, we had judges there, we had attorneys there, we had a register of deeds there, and it was because McCrae was there,” she said.
Dowless and a few others launched Politicians Appreciation Day in 2007, according to the Bladen Journal. It had been running annually for a few years, but it settled into a biannual event. Dowless received special recognition at the 2016 dinner, BladenOnline reported.
One of those politicians gets some extra attention as the guest speaker. In 2016, Pittenger had that honor. This year, it was his chief opponent in the GOP primary and Dowless’ client, Harris.