Cumberland County has grown accustomed to political theater, especially when it’s engulfed by rumor and innuendo. And for the third straight state Senate election, the dirty drama has returned.
The race in state Senate District 19 matches two-term incumbent Republican Sen. Wesley Meredith against Fayetteville attorney Billy Richardson, who is trying to make a political comeback after being out of the state House since 1996.
Both candidates refused numerous opportunities to speak about their current matchup.
Meredith, owner of Cardinal Landscaping, spent five years on the Fayetteville City Council before challenging and defeating incumbent Democratic Sen. Margaret Dickson in 2010. That race turned ugly and eventually ended up in court.
Two years later Meredith survived his first re-election bid against George Tatum, an Democratic challenger the state Democratic Party did not support, and against whom a whistleblower lawsuit was filed involving his actions as commissioner of the state Division of Motor Vehicles. The race saw negative ads from both sides.
Fast forward to the present and Meredith finds himself ensnared in another murky contest.
Meredith is fighting a two-front campaign in which he is defending himself from allegations of improperly applying for welfare benefits in the mid-1990s, and attacking Richardson’s record as a member of the state House from 1993-96.
The Fayetteville Observer reported on Oct. 17 that Meredith and his former wife, Beth Longbottom Meredith, applied for Medicaid in 1996 for their son, and that she received WIC (Women, Infants and Children) welfare benefits around the same time despite having income considered too high to be eligible.
Richardson got behind the allegation and has made it a campaign issue.
Meredith recently started running advertisements attacking Richardson for supporting legislation that updated compensation and pensions for members of the legislature. Since 1997 after Richardson left office, legislators have been paid an annual salary of $13,951, while receiving an additional per diem of $104 when they are in session.
Richardson served two terms in the state House before stepping out of politics to devote his time to his family and law practice.
Meredith, who touts his conservative and small business-owner credentials on his campaign website, favors additional tax cuts and fewer regulations that he said are holding businesses back from growing more rapidly. He also said government spending needs to be reigned in even more.
Meredith was the primary sponsor of 41 bills, and signed on as a co-sponsor for 73 more during the last legislative session. Nine of his sponsored bills became law.
According to his campaign website, Richardson wants to undo cuts to education enacted during the past two years, to roll back the laws allowing fracking to proceed in the state, and to find better ways to foster job creation.
Meredith will have to rely heavily on his incumbency and war chest to hold off Richardson. He had just under $278,000 on hand for the June reporting period, compared with about $80,000 held by Richardson during the same period.
Based on past voter participation and the general demographic breakdown of the district, Meredith may have more to worry about than the mudslinging attached to the current campaigning.
Generally, the area of eastern Cumberland County making up the district leaned Democratic prior to Meredith’s election. He was able to ride the Republican wave in 2010, and then fend off the politically wounded Tatum in 2012.
The district is 41 percent Democrat, 31.4 percent Republican and 27.2 percent unaffiliated. Democrats dominated the 2012 election results, even with strong Republican incumbents in the Agriculture Commissioner and Labor Commissioner races.
But facing a stronger Democratic challenger in Richardson this election cycle, Meredith is finding a much more difficult test.
Joe Johnson is a contributor to Carolina Journal.