News: CJ Exclusives

Farmer-Butterfield Faces Better-Funded Opponent in House District 24

Attorney Mark Bibbs says he would be more effective in NCGA than incumbent

Mark Bibbs says he would be a more effective legislator for the citizens of Wilson and Pitt counties than seven-term incumbent Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield. But lingering in the background of the Democratic primary for the 24th District of the N.C. House of Representatives is a question of whether Bibbs actually lives in the district he wants to represent.

“There is no issue [of residence],” said Bibbs, noting that the 10-day statutory period to challenge his residency following his filing for the primary election has passed. The question of domicile “is a whole lot of hot air and smoke.”

Farmer-Butterfield said she has consulted with an attorney about the possibility of challenging Bibbs’ candidacy should he win, but provided no other details.

No Republican candidates have filed to run in the district, which makes the winner of the May 6 primary likely to win the seat in the 2015-16 General Assembly, barring a write-in or unaffiliated candidate in the general election.

The North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation lists District 24 as a strong Democratic seat, with 68.7 percent of its voters registered Democratic and 64 percent of them black. Despite those numbers, voters in 2012 cast only 58.2 percent of their votes for President Obama, and 55.3 percent for Democrat gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton.

In 2012, Bibbs ran against and lost to Republican Susan Martin for the 8th District, which is adjacent to the 24th District but listed by NCFEF as a competitive district. The following July, Bibbs converted a space in the same building as his law office in downtown Wilson into a condo, a move he said he made to be part of downtown Wilson’s revival.

“It wasn’t something I did just to run against Jean Farmer-Butterfield,” Bibbs said.

If Bibbs has one strength to combat Farmer-Butterfield’s longevity in office and name recognition, it is a campaign war chest that totaled $61,644 at the end of 2013, according to NCFEF. Farmer-Butterfield had $3,198.

With respect to legislative issues that are pending before the General Assembly, the two candidates differ in their approaches to education and tax reform.

Farmer-Butterfield, a former educator and administrator in the Department of Health and Human Services, said that she supports a diverse approach to education. She noted that she is friends with JoAnne Woodard, the director of the Sallie B. Howard School for Arts and Education, a charter school in Wilson, which Farmer-Butterfield said is one of the best in the state.

“However, I do not believe you can rob Paul to pay Peter,” said Farmer-Butterfield, noting that more resources need to be made available to all public education in the state.

Bibbs said that he’s against taxpayer vouchers for private schools and the expansion of charter schools.

“I think both of those essentially sound a death knell to public schools as we know it, the public schools that made me who I am today,” Bibbs said.

He does not support amending the state’s constitution with the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which limits tax revenue to a formula based on population growth and inflation, unless voters pass a referendum to raise them higher.

But Bibbs favors abolishing the income tax. He said that a fairer approach would be to substitute income tax revenues with consumption tax revenue.

Farmer-Butterfield said that she was against the tax reforms passed in this legislative session.

“You can’t let people at the high end of the income bracket benefit and not others. It has to be more equitable and evenly distributed,” she said.

Both candidates noted that while there are tweaks that should be made to the Affordable Care Act, the state should have accepted the Medicaid expansion.

Citing a 2011 North Carolina Center for Public Policy effectiveness ranking which put Farmer-Butterfield at 115th out of 120 N.C. House members, Bibbs said that the citizens of Pitt and Wilson counties need more productive representation.

Farmer-Butterfield said that the only effectiveness ranking that she cares about is that measured by her constituents, noting the leadership positions she’s held during her time in the General Assembly, which includes two terms as the majority whip from 2007 to 2011, as true measures of her effectiveness.

Declining to say anything negative about her opponent, Farmer-Butterfield said: “Every constituent has the right to know who the candidates are, and they have an obligation to know about each one of us, and do their homework, and then make the best decision possible.

“I stand on my record.”

In December 2009, the North Carolina State Bar’s Disciplinary Hearing Committee suspended Bibbs from the practice of law for one year for behavior that resulted from incidences of intoxication, including two DWIs that occurred in 2004 and 2007.

Although the suspension was stayed for three years under the condition that Bibbs not consume alcohol, it was activated when he failed random alcohol screening tests that showed positive results for biomarkers of alcohol in his urine on seven different occasions between 2011 and 2012.

Bibbs said that the stress of defending criminal defendants was what drove him to drink.

“Representing people who commit crimes is a very stressful way to practice law. It’s that lifestyle that can cause you to drink more than you should,” Bibbs said.

In the last year Bibbs said he’s focused on living a healthier lifestyle, which includes attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He said he no longer represents criminal defendants since the State Bar reinstated him to practice law on Jan. 6.

“I’m a new Mark Bibbs as far as alcohol is concerned,” he said. “I’ve got a new lease on life. And it’s a whole new me, not just because of politics. It’s for myself, my health, and my family.”

Brett Lewis is a contributor to Carolina Journal.