Embattled second-term U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger this year faces a political newcomer, Democratic challenger Christian Cano, in the general election race for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

Cano, who has worked for two decades in the hotel industry, says he has the diplomatic experience needed to bring citizens and lawmakers together, while Pittenger points to his extensive background in business and politics as evidence that he should return to Washington for another two years.

Pittenger, who served three terms in the N.C. Senate and owned a real estate investment business before winning his congressional seat in 2012, is facing potential House ethics violations involving his family business, Pittenger Land Investments.

The congressman came under federal investigation last year when questions arose about whether he used money from PLI to fund his 2012 congressional campaign.

After winning the­ election, Pittenger handed control of the company over to his wife, Suzanne Pittenger, to comply with House ethics rules. He repeatedly has insisted that any continued dealings with PLI are legal, and that his company is cooperating fully with the open investigation. The FBI and IRS have interviewed investors, congressional staffers, and others who are connected to Pittenger and his company, the Charlotte Observer reported in March.

Pittenger narrowly defeated current Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts in 2012 by a 52-46 margin. He ran unopposed in 2014.

In March, Pittenger won a tight three-way Republican primary with 35 percent of the vote, defeating Rev. Mark Harris by 134 votes.

North Carolina’s 9th district includes all of Union, Anson, Richmond, Scotland, and Robeson counties, along with the southeast portion of Mecklenburg county and most of Cumberland and Bladen counties.

The seat is considered “safe” or “solid” Republican by national analysts the Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and Rothenberg & Gonzales.

Health care reform and job growth continue to be top priorities for Pittenger, who said the Affordable Care Act is hurting small businesses in the state by forcing owners to provide more services than they can afford.

“The reality that Obamacare is hurting small businesses and killing jobs is evident, and is a main focus of nearly all meetings I have with small business owners throughout [the district],” Pittenger told Carolina Journal. “Obamacare regulations were costing small business … $22.6 billion annually in 2014. One in four small firms intentionally are not creating new jobs as a result of Obamacare.”

Pittenger added that he believes a Donald Trump administration would overhaul regulations that stifle economic growth, including those in health care.

“You wonder why so many companies are leaving the country? We have the highest corporate tax rate in the industrialized world,” he continued. “The regulatory burdens on businesses, [and] the cost of health care [are problematic]. Well why don’t we look at the real problem of why they’re leaving and fix the problem?”

Pittenger also said he will focus on security, nationally and locally, especially in the aftermath of the protests and riots in Charlotte, parts of which are within the 9th District.

He called on leaders of North Carolina’s African-American community to advocate peaceful protests and denounce the lootings and destruction that draw attention away from concerns about the relationship between law enforcement agencies and black residents.

“Where are the leaders who embrace the ideals and the measured approach of Martin Luther King? We pay tribute to him. He’s endeared. But where are the leaders who speak out with the same calm? The same measured approach? That’s what I’ve been calling out for,” he said.

Pittenger recently faced widespread criticism for comments he made following the riots, particularly his statement that Charlotte protesters “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.”

He subsequently apologized for the statement, which he said was taken out of context. Pittenger also told CJ that — following the incident — he received letters of support from prominent Charlotte-based African-American pastors Robyn Gool, Cynthia Davis, and Charles Mack.

“These individuals know me very, very well, and they know what’s in my heart, and they know what’s real,” Pittenger said.

Cano’s campaign is focused on rebuilding community and collaboration across the 9th district, focusing on “what [I] can do as the next representative of this district to bring neighbors back together again,” he said. Infrastructure and education top his priorities, noting that he’s spent the last year traveling to meet with constituents and learn about their interests.

“Seventy-percent of bridges and roads in America are considered dangerous, and that is a serious concern to our business community, to our agricultural community, to any business that needs to get their products out to consumers,” Cano told CJ.

Cano added that education must continue to be both a federal and state investment, and that traditional public schools should be the central focus of funding and improvements.

“In North Carolina, we have five public education systems that we’re trying to fund and work on, and that makes absolutely no sense,” Cano said, referencing the state’s charter schools, vouchers, and other nontraditional education programs that he says misuse taxpayer dollars. “How can we think about making [traditional schools] better when we’ve now shifted our focus and … funding to four other programs?”

Cano seeks an enhanced role for the federal government to fund and create programs for traditional public schools in North Carolina and across the nation.
He also is focused on improving health care, and believes that — while Obamacare has helped the uninsured gain insurance coverage — medical access for patients still needs to improve. 

“I think that the majority of Americans will agree that the ACA has done a lot of positive things for many families,” Cano said. “My opponent has been running for his entire congressional career on how the ACA is destroying small businesses. He’s never been able to provide any data that this is truly hurting small businesses, because it mainly doesn’t apply to small businesses.”

Cano added that there is still work to be done to “make our health care more affordable, and to move to continue to maintain the quality.”

Security and the protection of citizen rights are another concern for Cano, who pointed to the Charlotte riots and Pittenger’s controversial remarks as evidence that civil discourse is sadly lacking during racial disputes.

“It’s unfortunate in 2016 that we would still have people who do not have the ability to filter what they have to say, because words matter,” he said. “We know that words can hurt … and what’s frustrating for me is that [Pittenger] has been making these [types of] comments for years.”

Funding for police body cameras should be increased, and steps should be taken to build public trust through transparency, honesty, and understanding, Cano added.

“One of the jobs … of a congressman, and of any elected official, is to be responsible with our words,” Cano concluded. “That is the most important thing we can do if we continue to have these issues — and we’re going to continue to have these issues.”