Candidate served prison time for drugs

Published 3:06 pm Monday, October 31, 2011

Southampton County Supervisor Capron District candidate Bruce Phillips sits at his Sebrell home with his dog, Rivers. GWEN ALBERS/TIDEWATER NEWS

CAPRON— A candidate for Southampton County supervisor served time in prison during the 1980s on felony drug charges.

Capron District candidate Bruce Phillips said this week that he expected his past to surface in the campaign.

It did after a letter was sent to The Tidewater News, suggesting voters not support Phillips, a two-time convicted felon — something he says is common knowledge in the Capron District, where the 62-year-old is attempting to unseat two-term Democrat Moses Wyche.

“I thought it would come up,” said Phillips, a deacon at Courtland Baptist Church who also serves on the board of directors for Southampton County Farm Bureau. “I’ve been very active in the community. I’m trying to give back. I’ve made changes in my life.”

And while campaigning door-to-door for the Nov. 8 election, he said, no one has mentioned his 1973 conviction for cocaine possession in Pima County, Ariz., or his 1986 conviction for conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to deliver in Virginia. Phillips served six months in jail in Arizona and 32 months in a federal prison in Virginia.

“They say ‘save your paperwork (handouts). We’re voting for you,’ and ‘what is your position on black powder (hunting with a muzzleloader),’” he said.

Phillips said his concerns for the county’s $69 million debt and rising real estate taxes outweighed the likelihood of his record becoming a campaign issue.

“We discussed this at length and we knew that someone would come up with it,” said his wife, Gayle, a registered nurse who has worked at Southampton Memorial Hospital for 38 years. “Everybody that knows Bruce says it doesn’t make a difference.”

Phillips believes he’s proof that a felon can become a productive member of society.

“My life has changed because I went back to church and rededicated my life,” he said. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s, I thought I was bulletproof. I really wasn’t. I got caught up in a group of people from college.”

Capron Realtor Windell Francis, who does not live in Phillips’ district, said she encouraged him to run while being well aware of his past.

“I’ve known him for a long time,” said Francis. “I know his character. I know he is very competent and very dedicated to what he does.”

She also believed Phillips could help stop what she calls the county’s uncontrolled spending.

Wyche, 69, said he, too, is well aware of Phillips’ criminal record, but has not made an issue of it during the campaign.

“I wasn’t trying to dig into his past,” Wyche said. “I think the people knew of his past and he has gotten his life together. People just need to be aware.”

Ralph Jones of Courtland wrote the letter to The Tidewater News about Phillips’ record. Phillips said he does not know Jones, who could not be reached.

Born in Richmond and raised in Sandstone, Phillips graduated from high school in 1967 and received a degree in history and political science with a minor in education from Virginia Wesleyan in 1971. Then he began traveling.

Phillips in 1973 came to Southampton County, where his family had owned property since the mid-1800s. In 1992, he began farming here and renovating a family home that had sat vacant for 50 years. Today, he and his wife live in that home and farm 400 acres while continuing to grow Raccoon Creek Outfitters.

In 1992, Phillips received an Outstanding Forest Stewardship award. He has served on the board of directors for the county Farm Bureau for five years and represents the agency at the state level on the Forestry and Natural Resources Committee.

He served on the Virginians Against the OLF and campaigned to make Southampton County a leader in Century Farms. A few years back, Rockingham County led. Today, Southampton County has 79 of Virginia’s 1,177 Century Farms and Rockingham has 47. The designation is given to a farm that’s been in the same family for 100 years and produces food or fiber.

Phillips is also a past two-term president and two-term vice president for Sebrell Civic Club, and serves on the county Board of Assessors for the current reassessment and the Franklin-Southampton Tourism Committee.

Phillips filed with the court to have his rights restored to vote, sit on a jury and possess a gun. In getting his gun rights restored, Phillips received the endorsement of county Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Cooke, Sheriff Vernie Francis and a circuit court judge. He also received about a dozen letters supporting his efforts, including from businessman Sol Rawls, County Administrator Mike Johnson and the late S.V. Camp, another local businessman.

Lynda Updike of Newsoms, who like Phillips belongs to the Southampton County Historical Society and Farm Bureau, said she would vote for Phillips if she lived in his district.

“I think he’s very interested in what’s going on in the county,” said Updike. “He’s a farmer and has a vested interest in keeping taxes down.”

“He’s never tried to keep it (his felony record) a secret,” she continued. “Nobody’s perfect. He has turned his life around. He’s a good Christian and he’s always given back to the county. He’s hard working.”

Friend and fellow church member Allen Applewhite said he will vote for Phillips on Nov. 8.

“Bruce is a kind person,” said Applewhite, a farm manager for the state Department of Corrections. “He contributes to the county through volunteering. He’s a man of faith.”

Kay Pope, who ran for the Capron District seat four years ago, got to know Phillips when both attended the county supervisor and planning commission meetings. Pope said she supports his bid for supervisor.

“He’s paid his debt to society,” she said. “He has a true interest in our county,” she said. “He’s well educated, he’s intelligent and he has conservative ideas.”

Gary Cross, a farmer from the Black Creek area, said he would have no problem voting for Phillips.

“His past is just that, his past,” Cross said. “I would have no problem voting for Bruce if he was my candidate. I don’t think this past crime should separate the good he can do.”