Politics & Government

Tuesday's election will be a test for some of NC's most fiery conservatives

NC Rep. Larry Pittman: Obama No Traitor; He Hasn't Harmed Any Kenyans

North Carolina Representative Larry Pittman jokes to a group that he doesn't think President Obama wasn't a traitor because he hasn't harmed any Kenyans. Pittman recently caused controversy by comparing Abraham Lincoln to Hitler.
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North Carolina Representative Larry Pittman jokes to a group that he doesn't think President Obama wasn't a traitor because he hasn't harmed any Kenyans. Pittman recently caused controversy by comparing Abraham Lincoln to Hitler.

Three of the North Carolina House's most controversial Republicans are facing primary challenges for the first time in years — with opponents eager to highlight things like a statement about Adolf Hitler and a bill about secession.

Rep. Larry Pittman of Cabarrus County near Charlotte and two coastal lawmakers, Rep. Michael Speciale of Craven County and Rep. George Cleveland of Onslow County, have made headlines and sparked outrage, and they occasionally break with House leaders on legislation they don't think is sufficiently conservative.

Tuesday's election will be a popularity test for their brand of politics among the GOP faithful who participate in an off-year primary.

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The three legislators haven't raised as much money as House GOP leaders, but they've raised more than their challengers and are taking the primary seriously, with radio ads and even billboards.

Their campaign materials avoid mentioning their most controversial comments and legislation, and instead focus on legislative Republicans' accomplishments overall: things like tax cuts, teacher raises and Second Amendment protections.

Their opponents, however, want to make sure voters don't forget about the controversies, which they say makes their districts look bad.

"Some folks need to use their ears more and their mouth less, and he's one of them," Pittman challenger Michael Anderson said of his opponent. "I don't think he represents us well at all. He seems to only care about guns and the Civil War and public hangings and Abraham Lincoln."

Anderson, a professional photographer who's new to politics, was referring to a Facebook post in which Pittman called President Abraham Lincoln a "tyrant" similar to Germany's Adolf Hitler — as well as a 2012 email in which Pittman called for bringing back public hangings, including for doctors who perform abortions.

Pittman did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Pittman and Speciale have also floated the idea of arming teachers with guns, something their challengers strongly oppose.

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Pittman, Speciale and Cleveland are all facing criticism for a 2017 bill they co-sponsored that sought to eliminate a provision in the state constitution that prohibits secession.

"I don't think you should sponsor a bill that raises the issue that you're seceding from the Union," said Joe McLaughlin, a businessman and former Onslow County commissioner who's running against Cleveland. "It's an unnecessary distraction and red meat for the left."

Cleveland, who's been in the House since 2005, says the bill "tremendously got taken out of context."

The secession provision, he said, "was stuck in our constitution during Reconstruction. To me, it was a no harm, no foul — it was just a gesture to clean up some ancient stuff."

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For his part, Cleveland is emphasizing his record of sponsoring tougher immigration laws, something he says he'll continue if re-elected. Illegal immigration, he said, "costs the state $1.9 billion a year, yet I get all kinds of resistance from my peers in trying to reduce the problem. I'd like to see us take our tax dollars and use them for citizens and nobody else."

McLaughlin says he holds similar views on immigration but thinks Cleveland should also be more focused on local issues, such as the need for dredging in the New River Inlet.

Cleveland, meanwhile, argues that the district wouldn't get adequate representation from a freshman lawmaker.

"I wouldn't be sitting as chairman of three committees if I was not a senior member of the caucus," he said. "If anything that comes up affects my district or the county, I'm able to get my two cents' worth in."

But McLaughlin said Cleveland hasn't proven to be influential with House leaders. "He's not a chair of a powerful committee," McLaughlin said. "If he was effective as he claims to be, we wouldn't be having these discussions about the New River Inlet."

Eric Queen, a Marine Corps veteran, has a similar message in his primary campaign against Speciale. He says it's "important to have a representative who can work well with other lawmakers and bring resources back to Craven County. If you don't have that, you really don't have a voice in the General Assembly at all."

Speciale did not respond to multiple requests for an interview; his campaign materials say he has "accomplished much" since taking office in 2013, including efforts to allocate millions of dollars in license plate funds toward local economic development.

But Queen says Speciale's confrontational style isn't effective. "What's been setting us apart is our reputation and demeanor and how we conduct ourselves," he said of his campaign. "You'll see a clear difference in our personalities."

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Whoever wins Tuesday's primary will face a Democrat in November, and Queen says he'd have "a way better shot" than Speciale. "He does have the personality that will rile up the base of the Democrats' side," Queen added.

The three challengers have been unable to match the incumbents in fundraising, but they still have thousands of dollars to get their messages out.

With his previous experience running for insurance commissioner in 2016, McLaughlin has fared the best of the three: He says he raised about $15,000 so far this year (his formal report hadn't been posted as of late Wednesday). Cleveland has raised $17,525 this year.

Queen has raised about $8,300 to Speciale's $14,349 — totals that have meant newspaper ads and mailers for Queen and radio ads for Speciale, campaign finance reports show.

And in Cabarrus County, Pittman raised $6,412 in the first quarter but spent $13,377, including billboards and radio ads. Anderson raised only $3,187 and spent $2,065, but he says he's able to use social media as a cheaper alternative. Thanks to marketing for his photography business, he says locals are already familiar with his fedora logo (he owns 57 of the hats) and "hey now" catchphrase, which is an homage to radio host Howard Stern.

Anderson is also getting recognized for competing on the reality TV show "Relative Race," where he and his son compete to track down unknown relatives.

The three primaries have had limited involvement from House leaders and other legislators. The House majority whip, Rep. Jon Hardister, a Guilford County Republican, has endorsed Speciale and donated to Cleveland, and Pittman has been endorsed by Rep. Carl Ford, a Rowan County Republican who's running for Senate. House Speaker Tim Moore hasn't been involved (he did, however, attend a fundraiser for Republican Rep. Beverly Boswell of Dare County in her contested primary), and House Majority Leader John Bell has said he stays neutral during primaries.

The challengers say they're optimistic about their chances and that voters seem pleased to have a Republican alternative to the legislators who have run unopposed in the past few primaries.

"Win or lose, the incumbent is going to know his level of support," Queen said.