Dedicated observers of Wake County politics will see a familiar name this year on the House District 49 ballot: Republican Gary Pendleton.
The former chair of the Wake Board of Commissioners is pointing to his experience cutting spending and taxes in the mid-1990s as evidence he should keep the seat in the state legislature to which he was appointed in August.
But his challenger, longtime community activist and Democrat Kim Hanchette, believes the statehouse needs to move in a new direction, especially when it comes to education and health care. Pendleton’s record suggests he will keep the legislature on its current path, she says.
The district’s nearly even split between Democrats and Republicans, with a sizable portion of unaffiliated voters, has both candidates courting voters who may not share their party affiliation. The district stretches north from Wade Avenue in Raleigh to beyond Interstate 540.
Pendleton, a fixture for decades on state and local boards, including the North Carolina ABC Commission, is touting several high-profile endorsements from Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby, a Democrat, and Burley Mitchell, a former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Hanchette is eager to reach unaffiliated and female voters, including Republican women who she thinks are as disenchanted as she is with the legislature’s education policies.
The district’s voters are 34.8 percent registered Democrats, 35 percent registered Republicans, 29.7 percent unaffiliated and fewer than 1 percent Libertarian.
The campaign has had its share of twists. A year ago, most people expected the late state Rep. Jim Fulghum to run again for the District 49 seat he first won with 54 percent of the vote in 2012.
But the retirement of state Sen. Neal Hunt propelled him into the Senate race, and landed Pendleton, a close friend of Fulghum, in the House race.
After Fulghum died this summer just weeks after a cancer diagnosis, Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Pendleton to finish out his term.
Neither Hanchette nor Pendleton would have predicted life as a candidate several years ago.
Health care background
Hanchette, 56, worked in diabetes education for many years before founding Diabetes Management Solutions in 2001, a nonprofit that brings diabetes self-management education to patients in rural areas.
She’s also been a PTA president in Wake County schools and a community leader on projects such as working with the city of Raleigh to help homeowners hit by flooding.
She always thought of herself as a grass-roots leader. But when state officials decided against expanding Medicaid as part of the federal health care law, she decided to run.
After her years in health care, the decision struck her as shortsighted.
“The business case is a win-win. Economically, it’s a win-win,” she said. “It brings all of this money and jobs into our state, in addition to improving health for all of these working uninsured.”
The same business case held true for Hanchette’s views on education, which she calls her top priority, from preschool through college.
She wants to raise teacher pay to the national average, increase per-pupil spending and invest more in public education at the community college and university levels.
“All of those things directly correlate with a good economy,” she said. “And people get that.”
Hanchette has been endorsed by the North Carolina Association of Educators and the Wake County Association of Educators.
Pendleton, 67, president of Pendleton Financial, didn’t expect to run either. But when Fulghum, whom he had encouraged to seek office, started his run for Senate, Pendleton felt the timing was right to return to politics.
He was elected to the Wake County Board of Commissioners in 1992 and served one four-year term that ended with a smaller government workforce and a lower tax rate. When Pendleton left office, critics said his focus on spending and taxes had caused him to miss a chance to do more for education and other government services during a time of local prosperity.
Pendleton said he would bring the same passion to the state budget that he brought to the county’s spending plan. He said he’s not interested in playing politics and would value his independence if elected.
“I don’t care one thing about being a committee chairman. Nothing ...,” he said. “I’ve done all that stuff. I don’t need it.”
He wants to increase pay raises for state employees, improve mental health care, reduce regulations that he says hinder job growth, keep taxes low and find ways to shrink state government.
Pendleton said the pay raises teachers received this year were significant, but more may be needed. He thinks state spending and taxes are about where they should be though, which means finding room for raises by cutting other parts of government.
“To find these raises is going to cause us to have to go in like we did in county government and root out things that aren’t needed,” he said.