Troxler challenger says he wants ‘even playing field’ in GOP Ag Commissioner primary

A political outsider running for the Republican Party’s agriculture commissioner nomination says allies of longtime Commissioner Steve Troxler have at least twice denied him the platform to state his case.

Colby “Bear” Hammonds is a Robeson County native who now runs a cattle farm in Holly Springs. He’s running in the primary against Troxler, who has been the state’s head agricultural official since 2005.

As the campaign rattled toward its conclusion in February, Hammonds alleges that he was denied the chance to have a booth at the Southern Farm Show, which is a key expo for the agricultural community. Hammonds also says that Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican, denied him the chance to speak at a Feb. 17 political rally.

Put together, the incidents show the challenges of campaigning against an entrenched incumbent, particularly one like Troxler who has cultivated powerful allies and connections over decades in public office.

“it’s very difficult to be able to put your foot in the door and I understood that and I expected that before I even put my name on the piece of paper to run,” Hammonds said in an interview.

Troxler’s campaign did not respond to a message seeking comment for this story.

The winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Sarah Taber, who does not have a primary opponent, in November’s general election.

Steve Troxler has been the N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture since 2005. Here, he’s shown listening to debate during a Council of State meeting in December 2022.
Steve Troxler has been the N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture since 2005. Here, he’s shown listening to debate during a Council of State meeting in December 2022.

Southern Farm Show’s Exhibit

Hammonds wanted to rent an exhibit at this year’s Southern Farm Show, an annual expo featuring agricultural vendors held at the N.C. State Fairgrounds. This year’s show was held from Jan. 31 to Feb. 2.

But David Zimmerman, the show’s longtime organizer, told Hammonds he doesn’t rent space to political campaigns. Besides, Zimmerman recalled in an interview, the event was already sold out.

Hammonds said he asked Zimmerman if Troxler, his opponent in the primary, would have a booth at the event and was told there would not be one.

So, Hammonds said, he was surprised to find a Troxler campaign booth at the show..

A video Hammonds posted to YouTube shows Troxler mingling with attendees at the show and inspecting a cardboard cutout bearing his likeness in front of a sign touting his candidacy.

“All we’re asking for is an even playing field, and the same rules should apply to everyone one,” Hammonds said in the video.

So how did Troxler’s campaign secure a booth, seemingly in contradiction with the show’s policies?

The Troxler campaign subleased part of the exhibition space from the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina, a trade group that Troxler helped found before entering politics. A campaign finance report filed this week shows that the campaign paid $400 for the space.

Graham Boyd, the executive vice president of the Tobacco Growers Association, said he told Zimmerman in a conversation that the group intended to allow Troxler to use some of the space it had leased. Zimmerman, Boyd recalled, had no problem with that arrangement.

“I don’t think he was surprised that all of a sudden Steve Troxler’s in our booth,” Boyd said.

Zimmerman said this week that he was unaware the agreement between the Tobacco Growers and the Troxler campaign had been a sublease. That violates the show’s exhibitor guidelines, which say show organizers must approve sublease agreements.

“They are supposed to let me know if they’re selling it but I have had people support different candidates in the past,” Zimmerman said, raising a slightly different situation where vendors have brochures for political causes or candidates in their leased space.

Zimmerman is a longtime Troxler supporter.

In January, a week before the Southern Farm Show, Zimmerman donated $1,000 to Troxler’s campaign, according to campaign finance reports.

Still, Zimmerman insisted in an interview that his personal support for Troxler has nothing to do with the sublease situation. Hammonds, he said, was afforded the same chances to cooperate with a friendly vendor.

“I told (Hammonds) at the time that if he has people he knows at the show or if some of his supporters are at the show, he’s welcome to work with them in their exhibit space and hand out brochures,” Zimmerman told The News & Observer.

Boyd, of the Tobacco Growers Association, said that while the organization doesn’t take a formal stance in statewide races, much of their membership would support Troxler, whom he called “an incumbent who is overwhelmingly supported.”

The booth wasn’t the only involvement Troxler and the Tobacco Growers Assocation had at the farm show.

The trade group holds its annual meeting on the Friday morning of the show, typically drawing about 700 people associated with the industry. Troxler spoke at that event three times this year. Boyd called the chance to speak at that meeting “more impactful” than handing out stickers or shaking hands in a booth that expo attendees may or may not see.

“But those are the advantages of the incumbent. We don’t invite candidates, it’s office holders who come and speak,” Boyd said.

Hammonds still feels like he was treated unfairly by the show’s organizers. If the event’s policy is no political booths, he said, there shouldn’t be a way to get it around it by subleasing from a friendly organization.

“I really don’t think there’s a loophole, I think it’s pretty clear, I think someone just disregarded the whole policy,” Hammonds said.

No chance to speak in Duplin

Less than three weeks after the Farm Show, Hammonds alleges that a legislative ally of Troxler’s denied him the opportunity to speak at a Feb. 17 political event.

Hammonds said the event was a Mark Robinson rally held in Faison, attended by 150 to 200 people. Typically, Hammonds said, Robinson allows other candidates for state office to speak for a couple of minutes to make their pitches to voters.

“That’s normal. That happens all the time,” Hammonds said.

Hammonds had registered online to speak at the event. Then, upon arriving a half hour before it started, he wrote his name third on a roster of speakers.

The event was particularly important, Hammonds said, because Duplin County is a key agricultural area.

“That’s the audience that I want to put my message out to,” Hammonds said.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Duplin County Republican who is influential in state agricultural policy, was serving as the master of ceremonies. When candidates started talking, Hammonds said, it quickly became clear that Dixon was skipping him.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon allegedly prevented Colby “Bear” Hammonds from speaking at a February 17 political rally in Duplin County. Here, Dixon is showing listening to debate in the N.C. General Assembly in 2022.
Rep. Jimmy Dixon allegedly prevented Colby “Bear” Hammonds from speaking at a February 17 political rally in Duplin County. Here, Dixon is showing listening to debate in the N.C. General Assembly in 2022.

After several other people running for statewide office spoke, Dixon said the portion of the program featuring statewide candidates had ended. At that point, Hammonds recalled, an audience member stood to ask if he would be allowed to make his pitch.

Dixon said Hammonds hadn’t signed up to talk. Hammonds, standing nearby, said he had and was still prepared to speak. Dixon, Hammonds recalled, said he would not be given the opportunity.

“It was clear to me that he was not only trying to voice or communicate his power to me in that venue, but based off the audience reaction, I felt it was directly intimidation he was doing to them not to vote for me,” Hammonds said.

Dixon did not respond to a voicemail seeking comment for this story.

This story was produced with financial support from the Hartfield Foundation and Green South Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. If you would like to help support local journalism, please consider signing up for a digital subscription, which you can do here.