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Born to serve 

by League Communications Associate Jessica Wells

Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey has been around the world and back. Between his time as child in Spring Lake and serving as mayor, he’s traveled at least 25,000 miles between Ft. Bragg, Afghanistan and Iraq, graduated from the United States’ oldest law school, and cast a vote to elect President Obama as part of the Electoral College in Virginia. 

Although he’s lived a life of public service for nearly two decades, he didn’t always expect it to be that way, and he didn’t expect to return to Spring Lake either. 

“There were always people who thought I was going to run for office, and I didn’t believe that. It goes all the way back to high school when students came up to me and said, ‘You should run for student government,’ and I was like, ‘No, why would I do that?’” Rey said. “I ran track and field. I was an All-American. I loved running track. I was in Future Business Leaders of America, sang in the gospel choir, and that’s all I wanted to do.” 

He received a full scholarship to attend East Carolina University for track and field, and even at ECU, students and professors thought his energy and optimism would translate well in government. Again, they asked him to run for student government, but Rey said no. 

“Then I met Congresswoman Eva Clayton,” Rey recalls. “She literally changed my life.” 

Clayton was the first African American to represent North Carolina in the United States House of Representatives since George Henry White was elected to his second and final term in 1898. Rey said she showed him how we are all connected as human beings, and we have an obligation to one another. He was so moved that he finally ran for representative and chairman of the appropriations committee at ECU, became president of his community service-focused fraternity and started working on Clayton’s campaign. 

“I started knocking on doors asking people to vote for Clayton but also learning about their issues and what they were dealing with. I learned about the lives of people, and I was fascinated,” he said. “Even in the latter part of the 90s, there were people in eastern North Carolina living in conditions that surprised me. There were still people without indoor plumbing or running water.” 

Soon after, Rey’s public service career took an unexpected turn – his brother was in a serious car accident, so he left ECU to join the Army to help support his family. Rey served the United States for 7 years being responsible for communications and making sure soldiers in the battlefield could speak to the commander. He went to Iraq, earned a bronze star, went to airborne school and got his next assignment – Ft. Bragg, a 10-minute drive to Spring Lake. 

“I was like, ‘I promised myself I would never come back!’” he joked. “But I did, and I ended up commanding the Third Special Forces Signal Detachment, which was an honor.” 

After being deployed a second time and returning from Afghanistan, Rey got the opportunity to attend law school at William and Mary after working a brief stint on Capitol Hill for Congressman John Lewis, who Rey describes as a Civil Rights icon, amazing person and the most humble person in Washington D.C. 

“I learned so much from him as it relates to the importance of serving, and it was there that the political bug bit me,” Rey said. “And when I went to William and Mary, they talked about being a citizen lawyer. You weren’t going to law school to make the big money. You were going to law school because you understood the importance of people dealing with the toughest issues of their lives and that they’re going to need attorneys who stand in the gap for them.” 

While there, he also got involved with Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. He decided to run for one of the 13 elector seats to elect the President of the United States. 

“This one lady said, ‘I’ve been fighting for democratic principles since Truman!’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god. I’m never going to win this.’ I don’t know what I was thinking, but I ran, and I won,” Rey said. Another lady said to me, ‘Virginia has never gone blue, so you’ll probably never get to cast your vote.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m just honored to have the opportunity.’” 

Nearing graduation Rey was home in Spring Lake visiting family one weekend when he ran into a friend who asked if he’d consider moving back. Rey, who said he didn’t have the heart to say no, responded, “maybe.” 

“In the next breath, his friend said, ‘Man, I wish you would because we really need somebody here. Our city is dying. There aren’t opportunities for us.’ And that really stuck with me,” Rey said. He was on his way to his grandmother’s house after that conversation and he recalls sitting on her bed, where he had many conversations with her, and he told her he was moving back to Spring Lake to run for mayor. “I felt like I could bring a different kind of energy and new type of vision for our community,” Rey said. 

When he took office, the police department was facing corruption charges and lost most of its powers. Rey said the department went through a transformation to become a model department with a new chief, more resources and trust from the community as one of the first departments in the region to implement police body cameras. 

Fixing the police department was one of his main goals as mayor, but he said he also wanted to improve the perception that Spring Lake is the wrong side of the tracks by improving the quality of life and creating an environment that allowed for less unemployment and more businesses. One of his first initiatives as mayor was adopting the Ban the Box initiative, which eliminates the question regarding past convictions on the town’s job application and moves the background check to later in the hiring process. The initiative, which has since spread to private businesses in town as well, is meant to increase the chances of a convicted felon being hired for a job based on merit instead of being turned away based on prior convictions. 

Spring Lake added wireless internet to town hall, the recreation center and parks including the revamped Mendoza Park, paved roads that haven’t been paved in 20 years and instituted new events like the mayors walk with senior citizens and read with the mayor for elementary students. 

“Just little things that improve the quality of life and show people this is not the Spring Lake that you thought,” Rey said. “We’ve had more ribbon cuttings than I can count. The fact that there are still people who want to take a chance in Spring Lake speaks volumes to our board and their commitment to the vision of making Spring Lake a forward-thinking and innovative community.” 

According to Rey, the only downside to being mayor is not having enough time to do everything. In addition to being a father of three and a husband, he’s the executive director of Cumberland HealthNET, a nonprofit providing medical care for those who don’t qualify for Medicaid and don’t make enough to afford insurance on their own, and he serves as president of League affiliate organization, NC Black Elected Municipal Officials. 

Rey plans to continue his public service career either as mayor of Spring Lake or at the national level as he runs for a Senate seat in 2016. 

“I would say to anyone who wants to run for office, you need to start here first. You just do. If I were to do anything else outside the office of mayor, this will always be the best job I will ever have,” Rey said. “In the ability to be so close to people, I see their hurt, and I see their pain, and I see their struggle, but sometimes in their eyes you can see that they still believe government can help.”