RALEIGH — When nine-term state Rep. Joe Tolson, D-Edgecombe, announced he would not seek re-election, four candidates filed to run for the District 23 seat, which covers Edgecombe and Martin counties.

All four were Democrats — Taro Knight, Russell “Rusty” Holderness, Branson Williams, and Shelley Willingham. Because no Republicans filed to run, the winner of the May 6 primary or a July 15 runoff would be the presumptive office holder, barring a write-in or unaffiliated candidate in the Nov. 4 general election.

The North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation deems the seat a strong Democrat district, where 71.4 percent of registered voters are Democrats, and just 16.3 percent are Republicans. President Obama got 62.7 percent of the votes in the 2012 presidential election, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton won 61.9 percent.
Williams and Willingham did not respond to requests for interviews.

Knight told Carolina Journal that his experience on Tarboro’s town council, where he serves as mayor pro tem, would make him the best candidate in the field.

“Service is something I’ve always performed in my adult life, and it felt like just a natural progression from my current elected position,” Knight said.

Knight said his proudest achievement while serving on Tarboro Town Council was managing the town finances effectively since the council enacted a 5-cent tax increase when he first was elected to the council. Tarboro has not had to raise taxes since.

“We were able to continue providing the services while improving our financial position,” he said.

Knight is director of community relations and operations of North East Carolina Prep School, a Tarboro charter school.
Given his profession, Knight is an advocate for charter schools.

“If public schools were doing what they were doing 30 years ago, there would not be a need for charter schools,” Knight said. “Doing the same thing over and over again and not supporting a reform like charter schools is crazy to me. Why not try something different?”

That said, Knight still believes in North Carolina’s public school system. He said he did not support a separate state charter school board because North East “has a good relationship” with the state’s Department of Public Instruction.

Knight believes that public school teachers should have the “safety net” of tenure, but also believes there should be a process for weeding out poor teachers.

Teachers’ performance “should not be based solely on standardized test scores,” Knight said. “We need to look at the progression of students academically throughout the year and not rely on how a student does on one day taking a standardized test.”

On other issues, Knight said he disagrees with the legislature’s vote not to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act.

“To me it was a no-brainer, especially when the federal government was going to pick up most of the cost,” he said, adding that “smart budgeting would help the state fund Medicaid after the feds quit paying.”

When asked about the renewable portfolio standards requiring power companies to purchase an increasing percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, Knight said the issue doesn’t come up when speaking with potential constituents in a poor district with a high unemployment rate.

“Those things that are important today — whether or not [they’re] going to make it — are foremost in their minds,” Knight said.

Still, Knight believes “we must become energy independent, but we don’t need to do it at the expense of the environment.”

Holderness is in the real estate business in the Tarboro area. He has held several service positions over the years, including six years on the Tarboro City Board of Education.
Most recently he is serving as a founding member of the newly formed Edgecombe County Tourism Development Authority.
Holderness said he wants to go to Raleigh in order to better represent the interests of rural North Carolina.

“I’m at a point in life where I can devote the time and energy to it, so I decided to run,” Holderness told CJ. “I have a concern for rural North Carolina. Just because we don’t have what everybody else has doesn’t mean we don’t have needs. Our needs are different,” he said.

Holderness is a public school advocate, as evidenced by his time on the Tarboro school board, but said he “is not afraid of charter schools,” which “create competition for public schools to help them be more proactive and efficient.”

“I think early childhood education is a great investment in the long run,” Holderness said, citing Smart Start as an
example. “It’s the essence of a good foundation.” Holderness believes it should be a priority that North Carolina establishes a goal of setting teacher pay to a level that’s competitive with other states.

But he holds a slightly different view regarding teacher tenure, saying it should be a “negotiating tool to some degree.”

“The good teachers that I’ve talked to don’t have a problem with eliminating tenure because they know who they are,” Holderness said.

“I’m not so sure that tenure isn’t an obstacle to reaching the goals we really want,” Holderness said. “I know there’s a need to protect teachers, but with the knowledge and information I have right now, I’m leaning towards saying that tenure needs to be looked at and studied.”

Holderness said it was “absolutely crazy” not to expand Medicaid in North Carolina, given that “health is an issue” in District 23, where the population has high rates of heart disease and diabetes.

“It’s such an important part of life in rural North Carolina,” he said.

But it doesn’t have to remain that way, Holderness said. His son and daughter-in-law are dentists, and are seeing repeated cases of poor dental health among children in the area because parents are putting them to bed with bottles of juice instead of water, he said.

“They think that’s prosperity,” Holderness said. “It’s really about helping families understanding health issues.”
Based on his work on the fledgling tourism authority, Holderness believes tourism is a key to the future in District 23.

“Tourism and economic development are one and the same issue,” he said. “It starts with the realization of what you’ve got and who you are. It’s all about marketing who we are and getting people from the outside to recognize us.”

Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.