With early voting underway in North Carolina, candidates for local seats are visiting polling locations and meeting voters. New Hanover County reports that more than 13,000 people cast ballots in the first three days of early voting.
Among the local races, voters will have contests for seats in the North Carolina General Assembly. While two seats serving Wrightsville Beach are uncontested, the area also features one of the state’s more closely watched races in Senate District No. 9, covering New Hanover County.
State Sen. Michael Lee is the Republican incumbent and local attorney seeking his first re-election. Challenging Lee is Democrat Andrew Barnhill, an assistant to former U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., who now works in local politics and is a licensed minister.
Candidates said top issues in the race include jobs, economic development, teacher pay and the controversial HB2 state law.
Lee said one of the focuses of the next term would be raising pay for teachers who may not have gotten much of a bump in the last round of pay increases, which went mainly to less-experienced teachers, some of whom hadn’t received a raise since 2008, the last time the state raised teacher pay before 2013.
“You may have seen a lot or a little,” Lee said of the teacher pay raises, noting that his position on the Senate’s Education Appropriations Committee would give him opportunity to continue working on teacher pay. “We tried to focus on the low end of the scale first.”
Lee wants to give teachers more flexibility in the classroom, while also fostering more online and career technical education (CTE) courses, including introducing career trade learning programs in middle school. Lee sees opportunities to improve community college offerings as well.
“There’s a shortfall in trades and there is good money to be made in the construction and industrial sectors,” Lee said. “Hands-on learning can keep kids engaged and interested.”
Barnhill said he differs from Lee on education in that he believes funding should be directed at the public institutions, and not through programs like charter schools, which sends public money toward private education programs.
Barnhill said the economic impact of the controversial HB2 “bathroom bill” law in North Carolina was one of the top concerns he heard from voters. Barnhill cites a study from Wired Magazine that concluded the bill would have a $400 million economic impact on the state, including lost sporting events and businesses. Barnhill said the bill was just part of a recent decline in North Carolina’s national business reputation.
“North Carolina was the leader of the new South by demonstrating innovation and a strong education system,” Barnhill said. “But we’ve seen that reputation slip away from us. HB2 is the most recent example of that.”
Lee said he wasn’t sure how much of an impact the bill had economically on the state, but acknowledged that it “hurt the brand.” He said he would be open to reconsidering parts of the bill.
Barnhill is also drawing a distinction from Lee on offshore oil drilling, including launching a website through his campaign that focused on the issue.
“Offshore oil drilling is a major issue for the voters here,” Barnhill said. “They want a Senator who is willing to investigate the impacts of oil drilling proposals and not make a quick decision to support it.”
While Barnhill vows to continue opposition to all forms of offshore drilling, Lee has said it would be worth considering natural gas exploration with all rigs beyond the horizon line, since it produces electricity with fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal. Lee said the royalties from offshore natural gas exploration could provide another source of education funding.
Other local General Assembly seats before voters include House District 19, covering Wrightsville Beach, where Republican incumbent Rep. Ted Davis Jr. runs unopposed, and House District 20, where first-time Republican legislator Rep. Holly Grange also faces no challenger.