Opinion: Daily Journal

NC House Campaigns, Pt. 4

The Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina, including large swaths of territory on both sides of I-85, has become one of the state’s most strongly contested political battlegrounds. This will be true in 2002 House races in at least three cases.

In District 59, a swing district that tilts Democratic, incumbent Maggie Jeffus has won election five times (though the district has changed over the years). A former teacher, Jeffus emphasizes education issues and defended the recently passed budget for what it didn’t do. “Well, I think, under the circumstances, we did the best we could for education, especially since most of the cuts were not in the classroom,” she said. She added that at least local systems were given the flexibility to make cuts rather than having them entirely dictated from Raleigh. Hawkes, a builder, is running a somewhat low-key campaign so far, but he has reportedly signed the pledge not to raise taxes that was put forth by North Carolina Citizens for a Sound Economy.

In Rowan’s District 77, a swing district with a slight Democratic tinge, there’ll be a rematch between the 2000 nominees. Democrat incumbent Lorene Coates has explained her vote for two budgets that included tax increases as difficult but necessary. “There were hard choices to be made during the last legislative session,” Coates told a local newspaper, “and sometimes I had to make the best choice out of two bad ones. But I never took the easy way out and sat on the sidelines.” She speaks well of the budget’s expansion of preschool programs and teacher hires, and talks about preserving farmland and improving highway maintenance. Republican Charlotte Gardner, who represented Rowan in the legislature for 16 years before losing to Coates in 2000, advances a number of conservative ideas such as lower taxes, protecting property and 2nd Amendment rights, and opposing abortion. But she also has been a supporter of senior-citizen programs and helped run a savings-based welfare reform program at the N.C. Department of Labor. Gardner has described herself as “sensitive enough to care and conservative enough to be careful.” The key factor helping Gardner is name recognition and experience; the key asset Coates will have is a lot more campaign cash to get out her (somewhat defensive) message.

And in Davidson’s District 81, with overall voter preferences similar to District 77, Democratic incumbent Hugh Holliman faces Republican John Walser, an eight-year veteran of the Lexington City Council. Holliman has responded to the controversy surrounding Gov. Mike Easley’s seizure of local tax funds by proposing to transfer unspent funds from the Hurricane Floyd reserve to assist struggling localities. “We’re just passing our problems on,” Holliman said of state government. “With all due respect to the governor — I know he’s got to balance the budget — that’s just not fair.” Holliman voted for the last past two budgets and for the lottery bill. Walser is emphasizing a fiscally conservative approach to state budgeting, promising to bring “efficiency and effectiveness” to the job. “Effectiveness means doing the right things, and efficiency means doing the right things right,” he said. Not surprisingly, as a city official, he has also criticized state government for withholding funds from the cities and counties. And like fellow GOP candidates in Eastern North Carolina legislative districts, Walser has complained of “push poll” telephone tactics against him, though he does not necessarily blame Holliman for orchestrating them.

Tomorrow: The final four — House races to watch in Western NC.