As They Mourn Deb Hays, Local Republican Officials Begin Process Of Recommending Replacement

By Cece Nunn, posted Mar 27, 2023
Deb Hays (from left) sits with fellow commissioners Rob Zapple and Jonathan Barfield during the Cape Fear Housing Coalition's breakfast March 23 at UNCW. Hays died March 25. (Photo courtesy of Clayton Hamerski)
As they mourn the death of County Commissioner Deb Hays, the New Hanover County Republican Party is preparing to undergo the task of recommending someone to fill the 64-year-old's vacant seat.

"We're absolutely devastated by the untimely passing of Deb Hays. She was a phenomenal community servant and leader and an even greater person," according to a statement from the party, which is chaired by Nevin Carr. "Unfortunately we do have to go about the business of replacing her and we will be following a process similar to what we did with the recent opening at the register of deeds. We will open applications ... and we will begin an interviewing process in the coming days with an objective to have a name to the commissioners by April 14." 

Because Hays was a Republican, the Republican party recommends a person to fill the seat on the Board of Commissioners, explained county spokeswoman Jessica Loeper in an email Monday. "That recommendation will come to the Board of Commissioners, but then it is the board’s decision as to who fills that seat. The person must be a resident of New Hanover County and registered as Republican, since Commissioner Hays was elected as a Republican. This process must be done within 60 days of a seat becoming vacant."

Hays, who died of what was likely a heart attack Saturday, was elected to the board in 2020.

The board of commissioners, which now has two Republicans (LeAnn Pierce and Chairman Bill Rivenbark) and two Democrats (Jonathan Barfield and Rob Zapple) doesn't have to approve the party's choice. In 2012, the commissioners voted against the New Hanover County Republican Party's nominee to fill the seat that had been occupied by Rick Catlin, who left as a result of his election to the N.C. House of Representatives. Instead of physician Derrick Hickey, according to a WHQR story at the time, the BOC voted for Republican Thomas Wolfe to fill the vacancy.

But filling the seat was not on the minds of Hays' friends, colleagues and fellow elected officials Monday as they tried to absorb the news. In addition to serving as a county commissioner, Hays was a Realtor with Wilmington-based Intracoastal Realty Corp.

"Our team at Intracoastal is shocked and devastated by her passing. She had been with us for almost 20 years and was part of our company’s cultural foundation. Deb was a servant leader, first and foremost," Trey Wallace, president of Intracoastal Realty, said Monday. "She always put her family, her clients, her friends, and the community above all else, and was doing great work for many of us as a recently elected New Hanover County Commissioner. 

"In today’s polarized world, she was one of the few bridge builders, and selfless champion that the world is already in short supply of."

In addition to her roles as commissioner and Realtor, Hays had served on other community boards, including chairing the Wilmington Planning Commission. She was most recently the chair of Wilmington Downtown Inc.

Barfield said she is already missed. "Deb Hays was very passionate about the work she did in county government. She wanted to see downtown businesses flourish, and she had a big passion for education. I am still trying to process this news; [she died] at such a young age. I'm grateful she was with her daughter and grandchildren; they were the highlight of her life."

According to Pierce, "This is a difficult time for the county and its citizens, mourning her loss. Deb's true passion was to represent the citizens of New Hanover County, and she was good at it. Right now, we're just working through everything and passing our condolences along to her daughter and grandchildren."

As of about 2 p.m. Monday, funeral arrangements for Hays had not yet been announced.

For the community, her death is a major loss, Wallace said.

"She has been involved in so many things, and in so many people’s lives, and there will be a void for many of us with her passing, me included, that may never be filled," he said. "We will miss her energy, her smile and her huge heart. The best way we can remember her is to be more like her, and if we can all do that, the world will be a better place, which is what she would have wanted."
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