Suburban Wake County voters are being treated to some of the most competitive legislative races in the state.
Voters are finding their mailboxes stuffed with ads, canvassers at their homes, and their Facebook feeds filled with candidates’ messages.
The stakes are high. Republicans have a tight grip on the legislature and winning in Wake would help them keep it, while Democrats are looking to win at least enough seats so that they and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper have a stronger hand in shaping state laws and policies.
Republicans’ veto-proof majorities in the state House and Senate mean they can ignore Cooper’s ideas and impose their will. Democrats need to net four more seats in the 120-member House and six more in the 50-member Senate to end the veto-proof Republican majorities.
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Republican legislators are working to hang on to three of the four House seats and the two Senate seats in the Wake districts where the battles are most intense. A Democrat is looking for re-election to a House seat he won two years ago by defeating a longtime incumbent Republican.
Education at stake
Support for public education is a bedrock campaign theme for candidates of both parties.
Some Democratic candidates say they want to end gerrymandering, a practice in which the party with the most legislative seats draws election boundaries that help their party keep its majority. Candidates of both parties are talking about ways more people can have health insurance coverage.
Republicans are touting a five-year string of teacher raises and increased spending on education.
Democrats say the GOP hasn’t done nearly enough for classrooms or for veteran teachers who have worked for more than 25 years and are not eligible for annual state raises.
Base pay for teachers with bachelor’s degrees and 15 to 24 years is $50,000 a year, and is $52,000 for teachers with 25 years or more.
Average teacher pay, which includes bonuses and local supplements, was $51,144 in the last school year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. North Carolina ranked fifth among southeastern states, according to the National Education Association.
Republicans made investments in public education that Democrats never did when they were in charge, Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican, said in a phone interview. In addition to the raises, he said, the Republican-led legislature lowered tuition at three state universities to $500 a semester and guaranteed tuition at the others, so families know how much college will cost over four years.
“I think the Republican record in education is an outstanding record,” said Dollar, 57, who is senior chairman of the House budget-writing committee. “It’s outstanding for teachers. It’s outstanding for parents, It’s outstanding for our school children.” He’s running for an eighth term from House District 36, which runs along Wake’s southeast border and into Apex.
Democrats contend that Republicans have shorted public education, skirting opportunities to have schools benefit fully from the state’s recovery from the Great Recession.
Many school districts, teachers and parents were in an uproar earlier this year as they stared down a deadline to comply with a legislative mandate to reduce K-3 class sizes. Republicans said they had been paying for the extra teachers needed, but school districts said they could not afford the teachers or the additional classrooms.
Anxiety grew until Republicans yielded earlier this year and agreed to gradually reduce class size averages for K-3 students.
School funding is a big reason that Democrat Julie von Haefen, a former Wake PTA president, decided to run against Dollar.
“I know for a first-hand fact that it’s inadequate,” said von Haefen, 47, whose three children attend public school. The legislature has not devoted enough to classroom resources and teacher raises, she said in a phone interview.
Last year, von Haefen said, her daughter’s fifth-grade teacher told the class she had run out of pencils.
Schools are still getting less from the state than they did before the recession, she said.
Per pupil spending is below pre-recession spending when adjusted for inflation.
Education Week, in its annual report on school finances, put per-pupil spending in North Carolina at $9,217 compared to the $12,526 national average.
Booming area, new districts
Democrats have targeted Dollar in past elections, but they’ve come up short.
Von Haefen said she would work to end gerrymandering. Voters are aware that legislators are drawing district lines to serve their own interests, she said.
“I think people are really tired of all the unconstitutional gerrymandering that’s going on in our state,” she said. “The playing field is not even.”
The House changed the boundaries of Dollar’s district last year, which helped bolster his changes for re-election, said Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the NC Free Enterprise Foundation, an organization that does political research for businesses.
Wake is growing fast, and more left-leaning voters are living in the county now than there were eight years ago, when Republicans first won majorities in the state House and Senate, Kappler said.
Some of the national trends of the last year — in which suburban voters, especially women, who vote for Republicans have shown a willingness to vote for Democrats — may be repeated in Wake, he said.
“As it relates to the current environment, women voters are more oriented toward Democrats than Republicans,” said Kappler, but that doesn’t mean the shift is permanent.
“National politics is driving a lot of this — is setting a lot of the framework,” he said.
The Wake elections have attracted interest from volunteers from outside the county who travel to knock on doors for candidates.
A group of Young Republicans traveled from Washington to Wake this summer to help Republican Rep. Chris Malone, who is seeking a fourth term. Malone is facing Democrat Terence Everitt in a rematch of their 2016 race. Michael Nelson is the Libertarian running in the district.
Dallas Woodhouse, the state GOP executive director, said most of the canvassing crews are working for him, and they’ve knocked on more doors in northern Wake County than they did two years ago during the presidential campaign.
A group called Flip NC started knocking on doors in southern Wake County more than 18 months ago — even before anyone knew who the candidates would be — to talk to registered Democrats and left-leaning independents with the aim of getting them to cast ballots this year.
“Talking to people about issues they cared about and being able to go back and connect them to the elections seemed natural,” said Amy Cox, a Flip NC co-founder who lives in Durham.
Flip NC concentrated on the district where Dollar, von Haefen, and Libertarian Robyn Haley Pegram are running, and in the neighboring district, where Democrat Sydney Batch is challenging Republican Rep. John Adcock, who was appointed to the seat last month. Guy Meilleur is the Libertarian in that race.
Guns a point of difference
More divisions between the candidates were obvious at a forum at Jones Dairy Elementary School in Wake Forest this month when candidates were asked about preventing school violence.
The issue has added relevance for parents there. They were on alert this fall when a Wake Forest man threatened on Facebook to shoot students.
Democrat Mack Paul, who is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. John Alexander, said he supports what’s called a “red flag” law, which would give judges the authority to order guns temporarily taken away from people in danger of harming themselves or others.
Paul, Alexander and Libertarian Brad Hessel are running in Senate District 18, which runs the length of Wake’s northern edge and includes all of Franklin County. Alexander is seeking a third term.
“I recognize nothing is perfect,” Paul said. “If we don’t do anything, we won’t see any change. “
Four House Democrats filed such a bill last year after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida left 17 people dead. It did not get a committee hearing .
Alexander, 69, said the bill was too vague. “I’m just not sure what the effect is going to be,” he said.
Hessel agreed the bill was vague. “It needs to be better fleshed out,” he said.
In an interview, Alexander said the legislature is prepared to keep giving teachers raises and offer teachers bonuses for student performance.
Alexander, owner of a truck dealership, said he has paid special attention to preserving the water quality of Falls Lake, Raleigh’s source of drinking water, and has come up with ideas to save the state money on building leases and state vehicles .
“I look at every bill from a fiscal point of view,” he said.
Paul, in an interview, said education would be his top priority. The state’s prekindergarten program should have money to enroll more children, he said. Paul, a 55-year-old lawyer, also wants improved workforce training so students can move easily from community college classrooms to employment.
Paul said his election would make for a less polarized legislature.
“I would offer a different direction, to move away from the polarization and bring a greater balance to our General Assembly so people would have to work together,” he said.
The audience at the elementary school asked more questions of the candidates running for legislative seats than they did three candidates running for Wake school board.
Leslie Fielding-Russell, the school’s PTA president and forum moderator, said the focus on the legislative candidates stemmed from parents’ experience with the threat to the school.
“It came to light for a lot of parents for them to make change happen, it has to happen at the state government level,” she said.
Four more races
Here are other Wake County races to watch:
House District 35 is in the county’s northeast corner and includes Wake Forest and Rolesville.
The major party candidates are in a rematch of the 2016 race. Democrat Terence Everitt, a lawyer who represents small businesses, is challenging Malone, a case manager for a security company. Libertarian Michael Nelson is also running.
Everitt, 44, said it’s important to focus on education and the environment, specifically on water quality.
“Folks are aware that we’re spending significantly less per pupil than we were,” Everitt said. “We’re at pre-recession levels. Folks can go to South Carolina and make more money as a teacher.”
Quality education, a clean environment, good infrastructure are reasons businesses will want to keep coming to the state and the district, he said.
“If we’re going to keep attracting these folks, and new businesses, we have to keep our eye on that,” Everitt said.
Malone, 61, who is seeking his fourth term, is chairman of the House health and human services budget subcommittee.
Malone said he pushed successfully for enough state funding to remove from waiting lists all children known to be eligible for the state’s prekindergarten program, and for increased spending on the early childhood program Smart Start.
Malone said he’s proud of what the legislature’s done to raise teacher pay and school spending, all while cutting taxes and building a robust Rainy Day fund.
With five consecutive years of teacher raises, “we’re committed to getting to the national average,” Malone said.
“Things are really moving well right now in the state,” he said.
House District 37 is in the southwestern corner of Wake County and includes Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs and some of Apex.
The race features two lawyers, Republican John Adcock, who was appointed to the seat in September, and Democrat Sydney Batch.
Adcock, 50, who runs a law firm and has a background in land-use planning, said he is interested in helping the district handle its growth, with a focus on education and increased state spending on roads in the district.
Adcock wants to lower class sizes and make North Carolina the leader in teacher pay among southeastern states.
“We have to do a better job of coordinating with the county school systems and understand what the needs are to improve the classroom,” Adcock said.
Adcock said he disagrees with the way the legislature handled the most recent budget. Republican legislators wrote the state budget behind closed doors and released it shortly before the chambers voted.
“It needs to be an open and transparent process,” he said. Legislators should have input, Adcock said, and the public should know what’s happening.
Batch, 39, a lawyer who also has a degree in social work, has affordable health care and improved education funding at the center of her campaign. Batch returned to active campaigning after treatment for breast cancer this summer.
“We shirked our responsibility to public education,” Batch said. North Carolina teachers should earn at least the national average teacher pay, she said.
Batch wants to expand Medicaid, which would provide health insurance to low-income adults, and work with health insurance companies to figure out ways to lower costs .
Some of the state’s rural residents don’t have access to medical care, she said. “There are things we can do in order to ensure we have accessible and affordable care,” she said.
House District 40 is in the northwest corner of the county. Former House member Marilyn Avila is trying to take back the seat from Democratic Rep. Joe John. John defeated Avila two years ago.
Avila ran unopposed in 2006, but drew challengers in subsequent elections. John, 78, won a narrow victory in 2016.
Avila, 69, worked hard on bills to change state law so 16- and 17-year- olds accused of crimes will no longer automatically prosecuted as adults. The law passed after she lost her seat, but Avila said she watched last year as legislators voted to approve it.
“I was thrilled to see that finally come though both houses,” she said.
Avila was known for her interest in health and mental health issues, but she said in a telephone interview that she does not go into the legislature with a to-do list. Rather, she looks for solutions to problems she’s presented.
“I basically pick up legislation when people come to me with ideas,” she said.
John, a former appeals court judge, was appointed to run the State Crime Lab in 2010 and left there in 2014, The News & Observer reported.
John became an outspoken opponent of Republicans’ attempts to redraw election boundaries for local judicial districts.
“The intent was to gerrymander the judicial districts for partisan advantage,” he said.
Republicans have made all judicial races partisan. John said the first bill he’ll file is to make them all nonpartisan again.
“In these hyper-partisan age, restoring party labels creates a dangerous threat to an independent judiciary,” he said.
He’s also wants nonpartisan, independent legislative redistricting to replace the current practice of legislators drawing their own disitrict boundaries.
Libertarian David Ulmer is also running.
Senate District 17 covers the southern third of the county.
Republican incumbent Tamara Barringer is facing Democrat Sam Searcy and Libertarian Bruce Basson.
Barringer and Searcy have dueling campaign ads. Barringer accused Searcy of not respecting women, pointing to an ad promoting his company that “portrays women as sex objects” and for his campaign donation to Rep. Duane Hall, a Raleigh Democrat who was accused of sexual harassment.
Searcy, 41, who co-founder of a vodka distillery, responded with a television ad saying Barringer, 59, was not telling the truth. In the ad, Searcy said he tried unsuccessfully to get Hall to return the $1,000 donation when the harassment allegations became public.
Searcy said he’d bring his business acumen and background in clinical research to the legislature. Searcy said he wants to expand Medicaid because it will mean 500,000 more North Carolinians will have health coverage and 40,000 jobs will be created.
He cited figures reported in a Cone Foundation study of Medicaid expansion.
He criticized Barringer for votes he said under-fund schools.
“This race is about the fight for the public school system,” he said.
Attempts to speak with Barringer were unsuccessful. At the legislature, she’s been at the forefront of attempts to improve foster care.
Voter registration information and sample ballots can be found at the State Board of Elections voter look-up site.