Over the 24 years that Rep. Leo Daughtry was in office, House District 26 saw its political pole shift from Smithfield to Clayton. The two candidates vying to replace the retired Daughty embody that shift, each growing up in Clayton and each graduating from Clayton High School.
Democratic candidate Rich Nixon, 61, has taught high school history for 38 years, mostly in Johnston County and currently at Corinth Holders High School. Republican Donna White, 67, is a registered nurse and an aging specialist with the N.C. Division of Aging and Adult Services. She is mostly known locally as a 12-year member of the Johnston County Board of Education.
Johnston County gets split up when it comes to the N.C. House of Representatives, with District 26 taking the northwestern corner of the county and District 28 representing most of the the rest. Daughtry, a Smithfield lawyer, brought prominence to the district with his leadership roles in the House. As Clayton continues to gain influence and economic power among the areas east of Raleigh, the district looks to remain a player in the General Assembly.
Given the backgrounds of the candidates, education is at the heart of this race. Nixon says well-publicized raises for teachers haven’t worked out as well as most people think. As a veteran teacher, he said, he made more last year with the state’s one-time $750 bonus than he will this year with the state’s added money for teachers and Johnston County’s increased local supplements.
“I’m a classroom teacher, not an administrator; I’m in the trenches every day,” Nixon said. “I want to be an advocate for our public schools and for our kids, and I’ve seen firsthand the effects of recent legislation on our schools and classrooms. You see on television how great things are in the schools, but I’ve been doing this for 38 years, and I know that’s not true. I’m there every day and see what’s going on.”
Nixon said teachers and parents understand the challenges of the recession and the belt-tightening that came along with it. But now, almost a decade since the worst of the economic collapse, he said schools are still not where they need to be.
“There are situations where we don’t even have enough books to use in the classroom, let alone for every student to take one home,” Nixon said. “Not every kid has access to the Internet when they leave school. We’re not talking about bells and whistles here; we’re talking about textbooks. ... Public schools are the one common experience we share. It’s where you learn to get along with each other, with people who are different than you. Our schools are the forge of our democracy.”
White says more than the recession posed a challenge to North Carolina schools; it was a massive deficit left over by the previous administration. She sees the state just now above water but poised to thrive.
“Lower individual taxes, improving the business tax rate, this administration has put North Carolina in a better position,” White said. “I know there are two sides to the story. Teacher pay was increased 7 percent in 2014-2015; in 2015-2016, teachers received a bonus. In 2016-2017, teachers received a 5 percent raise. Salaries increase by years of experience, by level of efficiency in the classroom, by level of education. There are many, many factors that go into it. We had a large amount of debt; we had to pay it off. You do not change things overnight. It takes time to change.”
White pointed to her own school board’s performance during the recession, saying Johnston County had no layoffs and that teachers saw three local supplement increases. She said she would support more in Raleigh, if the state can pay for it.
“We still have a long ways to go,” White said. “If I could afford it, I would give every teacher a major, major raise out of my own pocket. I’ve seen how hard these teacher work in the classroom. We also need more school nurses; teachers should not have to put in catheters or provide trach care. But the only way to give is by taking a practical look at what we have and not extending ourselves beyond what we can afford.”
In recent years, Clayton has seen its economy buoyed on the promise of hundreds of jobs in the Novo Nordisk and Grifols expansions. Archer Lodge and Cleveland are filling out with residential growth, but Smithfield and Selma have not yet seen those successes trickle down to the east of District 26. White sees plenty of prosperity in this moment for those willing to see the opportunity and take it.
“When I was growing up, Clayton was a little teeny town, and Smithfield was the big deal,” White said, acknowledging things have changed in recent years. “With the expansion of Novo, within about eight to 10 miles of Selma, you’re going to have the third biggest town in Johnston County in the construction workers building these plants. There are no hotels on 70; Clayton has some, but not enough. This to me, if there are business people really interested in building Selma back up, this is the golden opportunity.”
White pointed to the need for hotel rooms for construction workers during the building of the plants, and she thinks some of those workers will stick around and call Johnston County home. She used the example of the renovated Clayton Center as the kind of creative development needed now for Smithfield and Selma, where older historic buildings could see a new life as renovated homes or bed and breakfasts or other attractions.
“The demand is there,” White said. “It can be sustainable; a lot of times when construction workers come to a place, they’ll like an area and turn it into their home base. Johnston County, if it is anything, is receptive, warm, with great people and great amenities.”
Nixon said the best thing Johnston County has going for it, in terms of economic development, is its road system. Two interstates and several well connected highways make the county an attractive place to do business, he said, but North Carolina also needs to maintain that road system.
“Clearly there’s growth, but it’s not even growth; the farther east you go on 70, the less you see,” Nixon said. “We’ve got to improve and maintain our roads. That’s what’s bringing this growth and jobs and prosperity. Companies and workers are looking for faster and quicker access to Raleigh; they come here to get away from Raleigh and yet get back in a relatively quick amount of time.”
In the praise of Novo and Grifols, Nixon said small businesses can get lost, and he thinks the downtowns of Clayton and Smithfield need support too.
“We don’t want people driving back to Raleigh to go out to eat,” Nixon said. “We do that by helping out small-business owners. The paperwork is so complex some have to hire a lawyer. They shouldn’t have that burden.”
The candidate who wins District 26 will likely encounter House Bill 2 in his or her first session in the General Assembly. North Carolina’s bathroom bill has been blamed for millions of dollars in projects and events leaving the state. Nixon stopped short of saying he wanted a full repeal of the law, but he said pretty much everything is wrong with it, pointing to provisions of the bill even beyond the restroom restrictions, such as minimum-wage limitations and controversial discrimination protections.
“I think, clearly, something’s got to be done about HB2,” Nixon said. “We’re economically strangling ourselves because of this law. To refuse to revisit that rushed, hurried legislation is just crazy. There’s a saying we have in the South: We’re cutting off our nose to spite our face.”
In discussing her stance on the law, White recalled being in the bathroom recently when a transgender woman entered. She said she detected fear and intimidation in the women in the bathroom. For White, the issue should be resolved based on anatomy, meaning whether someone has undergone sexual reassignment surgery. The law is currently worded to require people to use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate.
“I am not a person who discriminates,” White said. “Everyone should be treated fairly. But we can’t always decide a minority group has to be protected more than the general public. ... I do believe when talking about discrimination, it cannot always be to protect the minority or the majority. It should be something that protects both. This has been handled to protect the majority and has certainly affected the minority.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson
Education: attended Wake Forest University on a football scholarship; received bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from N.C. State University.
Professional experience: high school history teacher for 38 years
Political experience: first time seeking public office
Family: married with two adult sons, two stepchildren, four grandchildren
Education: Watts School of Nursing in Durham
Professional experience: registered nurse, aging specialist with N.C. Division of Aging
Political experience: Johnston County Board of Education member 2004-present
Family: previously married, two adult children, two grandchildren
The following precincts make up N.C. House District 26: East Clayton, North Clayton 1, North Clayton 2, West Clayton 1, West Clayton 2, North Cleveland 1, North Cleveland 2, North O’Neals, North Smithfield 1, North Smithfield 2, South Smithfield, Archer Lodge, Flowers Plantation, Wilson’s Mills, Southwest Cleveland, North Wilders and South Clayton.