CARY — Two Cary residents are pushing into the final weeks of a contentious campaign for a local N.C. Senate seat.
Tamara Barringer, a Republican tax attorney, promises a hard look at business regulation and education reform, while Wake County Commissioner Erv Portman, a Democrat, casts himself as a business-savvy advocate of public schools.
Both are vying for a seat held by former Republican Sen. Richard Stevens. The race is Barringer’s entrance to politics, while Portman served four years on the Cary Town Council before local Democrats appointed him to the county board.
District 17 covers most of Cary west of Davis Drive and south of downtown, and practically all of Apex and Holly Springs. With a near-even split of Democrat, Republican and undecided voters, the race could go either way; but if history is any precedent, Portman has an uphill battle to overcome the Republicans’ 27-point margin in the 2008 election.
By June, the last date for which finance reports were available, Barringer was ahead in the money race. She had raised about $90,000, and Portman had about $30,000.
Some of the state’s loudest voices have made their votes known, with the N.C. Chamber of Commerce endorsing Barringer and the Sierra Club and the N.C. Association of Educators backing Portman.
The race has become heated for Portman, who says the state Republican party has tried to destroy his reputation with de-contextualized attacks in the final weeks of the race.
Ultimately, Election Day could shape expectations for years to come about District 17, which lost a multi-term incumbent and saw significant reshaping during the recent statewide redistricting.
No matter the victor, though, Barringer will be able to call herself a state senator, at least for now: With her party’s blessing, the newcomer took the oath last week to serve Stevens’ final months in office. She will not appear as an incumbent on the ballot.
Newcomer offers passion
Barringer, 53, traces her politics to her family’s story: After their tobacco barns near Shelby burned in 1960, her father found new employment at Fiber Industries, saving the family’s fortunes and later cementing her belief in the value of local business, she said.
As she grew up, frank family dinner conversations molded her open-minded approach, and a public education at UNC-Chapel Hill guided her and her three sisters to their posts in life, she said. Now the adjunct UNC professor’s best offer to voters is her passion, she said, for business and education.
Barringer, who has run a Cary law firm with her husband, Brent, since 1985, came to the race after Stevens gave her a week’s notice that he was resigning the seat.
“I nearly ran off the road” with the shock, she said. Barringer’s husband, a Republican, also resigned this year amid his third term on the UNC Board of Governors, saying he wanted to make more time for family and his wife’s campaign.
Barringer, a mother of three, is an intensely private person who says the most difficult part of campaigning is the “fishbowl” of scrutiny and attention. She believes that she is the candidate to spur economic growth that will lift all boats, though she hasn’t detailed an agenda of changes she supports.
With Election Day two weeks out, Barringer has offered a broad outline of her economic policy.
“The thing that will bring business here long-term and the best is a healthy economic environment – less regulation, lower taxes and a healthy environment,” Barringer said.
The candidate believes that government rules and restrictions are generally “toxic” to business, she said, and her website argues that “the high cost of regulation … is strangling our businesses with excessive overhead such that they cannot compete on the world markets.”
Asked for specifics, Barringer said slow permitting processes harm housing industries and described regulations as “the straw that’s breaking the camel’s back,” but she stopped short of outlining a change she would tackle.
“I don’t have any specific regulations in mind,” she said. “Just generally, the concept of regulation is onerous. There are a number of statutes that are placing burdens on business – so the question is, are we driving off business?”
She also indicated that the state’s environmental laws are “too tight” in response to a questionnaire by the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, and she said the state should lower its business taxes.
“There will be tax reform, I believe, because that’s what the (state Republican) leadership has said,” Barringer explained.
“I’m uniquely qualified to help in the process, but I’m not looking forward to that process,” she added with a laugh.
One of her strengths, she said, was that she would not go to the legislature with “any preconceived, iron-clad views of what I have to accomplish except the overriding goal, except to help create an equitable tax system that will be good for economics in North Carolina, and there’s a lot I have to learn – a lot that a lot of folks have to learn.”
Portman looks to leap
Portman, 57, has found plenty of traction in his last five years of politics, but his government involvement really started at age 19, when he joined the planning and zoning board of Oshkosh, Wis.
He said that growing up in a small town with a family of 10 instilled “the value of hard work – the need to build and create something with my life – the sense from my Catholic faith that we stand strong when we all stand strong.”
The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh graduate, who majored in urban and regional design, later served on planning boards in Wisconsin and in Cary – but he didn’t take elected office until 2007, when the Cary Town Council appointed him to a vacant seat after a months-long partisan logjam.
He won election to the council later that same year, but he didn’t serve the full term: Portman was tapped last year by county Democrats to fill the seat of Stan Norwalk, the late county commissioner for District 4.
In this season’s campaign, Portman, like Barringer, has claimed the mantle of a no-nonsense compromiser who puts economics and education first.
For Portman, a key facet of that image is his 50-employee business, which manufactures airplane parts and medical-device components at plants in Apex and Costa Rica. (President Barack Obama toured the Apex plant and had Portman introduce him at a Raleigh speech.)
“I think we’ve got too many people in the capital who know how to talk about creating jobs, but they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about,” said Portman, who describes his opponent as a “rubber stamp” for the Chamber of Commerce and business interests.
The county commissioner describes himself as a fiscal conservative, saying he helped push back capital spending in Cary during the recession.
“You’re a Republican, I knew it all along!” one voter joked as Portman canvassed.
However, the Democratic candidate hasn’t called for Republican hallmarks such as cuts to taxes or regulation. He told a voter last week that lower taxes aren’t the only way to attract industry. Though neighboring states have cheaper rates for businesses, Portman said that industries are willing to pay for superior infrastructure.
“It costs more to live in North Carolina than South Carolina,” he said. “It makes as much sense for the leaders of this state to be trying to sell North Carolina as a low-tax, low-wage state as it does for me to run my business trying to tell my customers that I will be the cheapest producer of medical and aerospace parts of anyone in the world, and if I did that I would go bankrupt.”
He has not named changes he would pursue for the tax code, instead suggesting that reform would come through a consensus process with public input. Moreover, he points not to lower business costs but to improved schools as the path to a healthier economy.
In an interview, Portman caustically criticized Barringer’s statements that she would “fix and then fund” public education.
“I do not think that we should pour more money into an education system that’s not doing well,” the former parent-teacher association leader said during an August forum. “I will not invest in your business until it is proven to be profitable. We need to reform the education system and then fund it properly.”
Portman argued that Barringer’s stand is tantamount to denying needed money for schools.
“What an arrogant statement,” he said in response to Barringer’s promise. “People have been working to fix education in this state, in this country, for decades. They’re all idiots? She’s smart, and she knows they’re all dumb, and she’s going to fix it?”
For her part, Barringer has called for earlier vocational and trade education and improved early literacy. She also says teachers should be paid more, but she wasn’t ready to say whether or how she would change the budgetary structure of the state’s schools.
Portman, meanwhile, is a critic of government-sponsored vouchers that allow parents to move students to charter schools, a practice he says threatens to draw funding away from public schools, while Barringer supports the schools as education laboratories.
Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary