News: CJ Exclusives

In SD 9, GOP incumbent Lee faces tough test from Democratic businessman Peterson

CJ file photo
CJ file photo

Senate District 9, New Hanover County.

• Michael Lee. Republican (two-term incumbent). Education: Wake Forest University School of Law, J.D., and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, B.A. Occupation: Lawyer. Career highlights: Co-chairman of the committee for Appropriations on Education/Higher Education.

• Harper Peterson. Democrat. Education: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Occupation: Partner in several local businesses. Career highlights: Teacher, former mayor of Wilmington, Wilmington City Council member.

After Hurricane Florence and the GenX scandal rocked southeast North Carolina, Democratic challenger Harper Peterson thinks he can oust Republican incumbent Michael Lee from office.

Each candidate is vying to prove he’s most capable of defending public drinking water and improving public education. The race is listed as competitive by the NC FreeEnterprise Foundation, which closely monitors elections.

“New Hanover County is the Ohio of North Carolina. It is very competitive, and it seems to swing back and forth,” said Jonathan Kappler, NCFEF executive director. “It is definitely one to watch — it has all the hallmarks of being a very close and competitive contest on election night.”

The hurricane and water pollution are major issues that could tip the scales election night. Outside groups, particularly environmental advocates, are funneling more money into the race, Kappler says.  

“Peterson has been able to use the water pollution issue to define him and his campaign,” Kappler said. “Senator Lee has had to respond to that, and when you are reacting instead of dictating the terms of the campaign, that is a challenging position to be in, especially for an incumbent. ”

Peterson has accused Lee of making “no aggressive action” to protect water safety and sacrificing public health to corporate interests.

“Industry writes the legislation, industry is behind the curtain and is calling the shots,” Peterson said. “They do not want us to know what is in the drinking water. This is a health issue, and that is the most important responsibility of an elected representative.”

Lee points to his record. He authored the Water Safety Act and passed other legislation that enables the governor to shut down polluters, strengthens the monitoring of water-quality, and increases the oversight and penalties on polluters.

“The only answer can’t be just to give the agency that missed something for 37 years more money. We had to change the system. So now we have a check and balance,” Lee told the Star News of Wilmington.

Multiple attempts by CJ to reach Lee for comment were unsuccessful.

Peterson calls for better renewable energy, restrictions on offshore drilling, and stricter protocols for disposing hog waste.

“Climate change is real, and it is going affect everything we are thinking and talking about,” Peterson said. “We better get serious of it, because this legislature is not.”

Peterson also calls for raising teacher pay to end “the plight of our teachers.”

“I think the foundation of a healthy society and economy is education,” Peterson said. “I believe in public education — I grew up in it, I believe in it, I believe in teachers. I wouldn’t be where I am without it.”

On his website, Lee says Republicans already raised teacher pay by 3.3 percent this year, and that he helped give public schools a $700 million increase in funding over the next two years.

Lee cited a bill he introduced to give teachers more control over their classroom. “All the money in the world won’t fix these problems. We have to start doing things differently than we always have,” Lee told WHQR News.

Kappler predicts the election will hinge on the public’s view of Trump. He also thinks the political fight over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh will drive up turnout for both parties.

“All the things that are happening in this race are happening in a larger political framework that is national in orientation. Trump is an ever-present issue, whether he is named or not,” Kappler said.

Support from Gov. Roy Cooper could shift the outcome, Kappler said. Cooper attended a private fundraiser for Peterson in August, when he expressed his support for Peterson, according to the Star News.

“To the extent that Governor Cooper is viewed favorably by southeastern N.C. voters, that may help Democrats,” Kappler said. “There may be some benefit for Senator Lee as an incumbent, but that is less potent than the governor, who is a much more visible figure.”