Special Report: Mayor Trey Lewis

Elected at 23, Trey Lewis is one of the youngest mayors in NC history

By: Mary Helen Moore

Trey Lewis has lived in Macclesfield, N.C., all his life.

Little more than a five block by five block grid, the town is home to 471 people.

It has the necessities – a grocery store and gas station, a post office and bank, police and fire stations, a handful of restaurants and two churches.

But Trey cares most about what happens inside town hall.

At just 23, Trey was elected to serve as the town’s mayor and holds the distinction of being the youngest current mayor in North Carolina, tied for youngest to be elected in the state’s history.

“It’s pretty cool for me to think about,” Trey said with a Southern twang. “I’ve led meetings at the church before, but I’ve never led a town meeting. They were really excited for me at work. They threw a party for me and took my nametag and put ‘Mayor’ on it.”

Trey battled a 20-year incumbent and took home 60 percent of the votes in November. The campaign captivated the attention of the Edgecombe County town, which is an hour east of Raleigh, dividing people who had grown up together and drawing 131 people to the polls in one of the highest turnouts Macclesfield has ever seen.

“I can’t say that I have anything bad to say or negative to say about the way things have been done. I just thought it was time for an alternative option on the ballot,” Trey said. “I don’t have any radical ideas or anything. Like I said, just a different face.”

Trey, whose grandfather and uncle both served as mayors of Macclesfield, said his age was the main focus of the campaign.

“For each person who didn’t like me because I was young, there were two who liked me because I was,” Trey said from the couch aside his wife of three years, Danielle Lewis, who nodded in agreement.

After finishing a supper of fried chicken, potatoes and green peas, Trey got up to peer out the window at an unfamiliar car traveling down their dead-end street.

“We get a lot of nosey people,” Danielle said.

“After he won mayor, you’d think this was a major highway,” added his mother, Paula Lewis. “It’s like he’s a local celebrity.”

Trey now fits Monday nights at town hall into an already packed schedule.

He works in a veterinary office on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he attends class at East Carolina University, where he’s a senior political science major with plans to graduate this spring.

“I have my schedule worked out,” Trey said. “I don’t get a lot of free time.”

“We take it day by day,” added Danielle, who works in two nearby schools as she finishes her education degree also at East Carolina University.

“I would like to be home more,” said Trey, a self-described homebody, as he squeezed Danielle’s hand.

Trey likes professional wrestling, collects autographs and is a virtual walking encyclopedia of local and national political knowledge. He has high cheekbones and an upturned nose that give his face a childlike quality, and an easygoing nature that immediately puts those around him at ease.

“I like to talk,” Trey said, eyes flicking in his wife’s direction. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

“I’d say good. Bad when I’m ready to leave church and you’re standing around talking,” Danielle laughes. “But you know, you can talk to a 13-year-old or a 63-year-old. About SpongeBob or national politics.”

The campaign

Trey said the campaign for mayor was grueling and he lost 20 pounds during that time.

He heard many rumors of people spreading lies or negativity, saying that he was too young or that he was unrealistic or even that he planned to cut town employees’ salaries.

“It can be emotional when things would get back to us about what people were saying,” Trey said. “I think it was the hardest on my mom, because I’m an only child. I’m her baby.”

People who put up signs in support of his opponent were people he’d known all his life.

“I think it’s harder to run a campaign in a small town because you know everybody, and so when things are said you take it personally,” his wife said, adding that she’s glad it’s over.

Trey was up against former mayor Mike Keel, who has lived in Macclesfield for more than 30 years and served as mayor for the past 20 of those years. Prior to Trey’s challenge, Keel had never been opposed on the ballot.

Keel said he has stuck around Macclesfield because it’s a quiet town filled with good people.

“It’s just a good all-around place,” he said.

Cynthia Buck, town clerk, said she has known Trey for a couple of years and was surprised to learn he was running.

“Because of his age of course,” she laughed. “Now I think it’s going to be fine. It’s just a ‘you gotta deal with it’ kind of thing.”

Trey’s strategy was to go door-to-door, call people and use Facebook to ask them for their votes.

Trey recruited a few volunteers to help distribute fliers that included his cell phone number and a photo of him and his wife.

“He got a handful of people registered who had never voted before – people were just excited to see someone young and interested,” Danielle said.

“I did run into people who said they didn’t know we had a mayor,” Trey said. “I just want other people to be interested.”

Donna Vicker, a young mother who lives in Macclesfield, said she heard about Trey’s campaign on Facebook. The campaign contacted her later.

“They called my phone and asked me to vote for him and I let ’em know I would be,” Vicker said. “I haven’t lived in Macclesfield very long. What I do see of it, though, is that not a lot is getting done. I just hope he makes some changes.”

The work continued on election day, when Trey stood outside the polling place talking to anyone who came by.

“It swung at least two votes that I know of. But it was raining, cold, miserable and of course my nerves were tore up,” Trey said.

Suni Kumar, whose father owns Macclesfield’s grocery store, said he hadn’t registered to vote before this election.

“I voted because someone asked me to,” Kumar said with a smile, though he declined to say for whom he cast his ballot.

Trey said he knew by about 9:30 p.m. that he’d won. By that time, he was gathered with a small group of supporters in his mother’s house.

“I had to go to school the next day, so it wasn’t really wild and crazy,” Trey said of the celebration. “I remember we had ‘The Voice’ on and it come across the bottom. I didn’t realize they would do it for, like, little towns. But that was pretty neat.”

Trey said he will focus on engaging with people before each meeting to get a sense of which concerns they want brought up. He said his ultimate goal is to simply get people in Macclesfield more involved in local politics.

“It’s literally right in their backyard,” he said. “It’s much easier to get involved with and see actual changes.”

Ashley King, a young cashier at the grocery store, said she didn’t vote in the election but is excited to see Trey take office.

“He might do Macclesfield some good,” she said. “I know his mama’s proud of him.”

Danielle is too. She said being the mayor’s wife has a nice ring to it.

“It feels good. It really does,” she said. “Most 23-year-olds are not ready to lead a town, but if you give him a chance, you’ll see he’s not your typical 23-year-old.”

“24,” Trey interrupted. He celebrated his 24th birthday in late November.

“Well 24 now,” she said, rolling her eyes and smiling.

High school sweethearts

Danielle was 16 and Trey was 17 when they met in AP English class at Southwest Edgecombe High School. They soon fell in love and took all their classes together senior year of high school.

“Mama didn’t have a problem with it and that’s all that really mattered,” Trey said.

They even took 90 percent of their classes at Edgecombe Community College together the following year.

“I knew from the very beginning,” said Trey’s mom, who affectionately calls her daughter-in-law Dani.

The couple was engaged on June 21, 2011. Trey proposed on the speaker of the house’s balcony while the pair was on a tour of the Capitol building.

They married less than a year later on May 19, 2012, before they were even old enough to drink the champagne left in their honeymoon suite.

“Looking back, everything happened really fast,” Trey said.

The newlyweds moved into a house they built less than 200 feet from his mother’s front door.

Trey said most young people move away from Edgecombe County, a fairly poor area with one of the highest tax rates in the state.

“Most people don’t grow up and stay here,” Danielle said of Macclesfield. “We’re content with it being kind of low key, though. We’ve never had a problem with crime. I leave the door unlocked most of the time. His mama would probably freak out if we moved.”

While Trey has never before held office, he’s no stranger to politics. He spent six months in 2015 working in Sen. Richard Burr’s Washington, D.C., office. It was his first time away from home.

“I learned an infinite amount of stuff in D.C.,” Trey said. “I spent all day long studying politicians. When I got off I would go to the Senate chamber and watch them. When I’d get home, I’d just start googling things.”

He said the hardest part was going weeks without seeing his wife, mom and three dogs, but that it was well worth the sacrifice.

“I love D.C. but it was a big difference. No farmland or anything,” Trey said. “Not to sound too much like Sarah Palin, but I could see the Capitol from my house.”

Trey and Danielle said having each other helped them get through the tough election.

“We’re happy and content and financially stable,” she said.

Getting down to work

The board of town commissioners meets the second Monday of each month in its half of a small building shared with the Police Department.

The walls bear various maps of Edgecombe County and calendars that commissioners consult occasionally for scheduling purposes, since notice about town happenings goes out in the monthly utility bills.

Trey is the youngest in the room by a measure of decades, but the commissioners treat him with respect. Five or six brown metal folding chairs line the cramped space, but they are rarely filled.

Business proceeds slowly around that rectangular wooden table. A couple of old radios let out the occasional tone or crackle as the board discusses issues in each department. Conversation feels deeply Southern – unhurried, gossipy and wandering. The commissioners appear resistant to change and deeply suspicious about the intentions others have with regard to the town.

“A lot of people just see Macclesfield as a joke, like we’re just rednecks,” Danielle had said.

As the sun sets and the occasional car passes on the two-lane highway cutting through the center of town, the commissioners discuss an Edgecombe County dog nuisance ordinance and a drainage concern.

Trey leads quietly, offering thoughts and asking for a motion or a second when appropriate. He appears comfortable in his role, but is noticeably less talkative than when he’s at home or school.

Everyone on the board knows the people and properties involved with each issue raised.

“We’re familiar with the issues because we’ve all been in town for a long time,” Keel said.

After the election, a former member of the town board of commissioners retired and members chose former mayor Keel to fill her seat, effective Jan. 1.

“We had a commissioner who got very sick and had to retire, and the board appointed Mike to fill her time,” according to the town clerk.

Keel said this is the last time he’ll ever run for elected office.

“I’m going to fulfill these two years and I won’t seek another term for anything. I’ve been here long enough,” he said.

Keel said he thinks Trey is a good guy, but that he’s inexperienced.

“Trey wanted it for a different reason than I wanted it. He wanted it because his uncle and grandfather were mayor, and he’s going to use this town and his mayoral duties as a stepping stone for his political career,” Keel said. “And I don’t blame him for that.”

Trey said he plans to stick around town for a while, but won’t overstay his welcome. His term lasts two years.

“I’ve told people, I don’t want to keep it forever,” Trey said of his position. “I can’t see myself holding office more than 10 years, because I think it’s just healthy to rotate people — for any position, not just mayor of Macclesfield.”

Trey said he hopes to go to law school soon after he graduates from college.

“My focus is on the town right now, but long term I’ve definitely got interest in running for Congress,” he said.

“So we’ll see.”