A civil engineer, a storm-recovery expert, and a builder are vying for the opportunity to represent the residents of N.C. House District 16 in the state legislature. The stakes are high in this coastal region: Because no Democrat has filed, the winner of the Republican primary May 8 becomes the de facto representative.

Three Republicans — Chris Millis, Tim Thomas, and Jeff Howell — have filed in the district that encompasses all of Pender County and part of Onslow County. The heavily Republican seat is up for grabs after Rep. Carolyn Justice, R-Pender, announced that she wouldn’t seek a sixth term in office.

Justice had weighed a primary challenge to Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, in Senate District 8. She decided against it.

In the redistricting plan approved last year, Republican map drawers packed more registered Democrats into the 16th district. Even so, the territory now is slightly more Republican trending than it was in 2008 in terms of vote totals for president and governor. As a result, Democrats have ceded the seat to Republicans.

Budget, incentives

Justice has endorsed Millis, a 29-year-old civil engineer. Miller’s website describes him as “a warrior of the conservative cause,” a Christian, and a devoted husband and father. Millis pledges on his website that, if elected, he would serve no more than four terms in office.

“My heart of the matter is that we need to be prudent with state spending,” Millis said. “There is a proper role of government. It should be funded adequately — not too much and not too little.”

Thomas, who worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in disaster recovery, praised the budget approved by the GOP-controlled legislature in 2011, saying it was the best they could do under the circumstances. He also criticized past Democratic legislatures.

“The Democrats always just threw money at it and it always got worse rather than better,” he said.

Howell, a builder, wouldn’t comment on the budget specifically because he said he didn’t know enough details. But he emphasized that government must trim spending.

“We can’t give handouts to everyone who wants something because you can’t keep writing checks without a full bank account,” he said.

Millis and Thomas roundly criticized incentives, the use of taxpayer-funded payouts to lure companies to the state. Instead, they said that legislators should create a more tax-friendly environment to attract businesses and jobs.

On incentives, Howell said he couldn’t give a definite answer. “That’s a tough question for me, because I’m not a politician … it would depend on the situation and the money involved.”

Marriage amendment

All three candidates support the marriage amendment that will appear on the May 8 ballot. If ratified by voters, the amendment would define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Millis said that the amendment isn’t about Christian beliefs but about what’s best for society.

“There is a lot of misconception about what it does and what it doesn’t do,” he said. “This amendment is a measure that is the best for society in North Carolina, because it protects the institution of the family and what it means to freedom and liberty. It doesn’t demonize or take away rights.”

Thomas said he plans to vote for the amendment. “If the people want it, it should be up for a vote of the people,” he said.

Howell said that he has no problem with gays and lesbians, but he believes that marriage should be protected and not redefined.

Parsing differences

None of the three candidates criticized their opponents’ stances on the issues. But Thomas questioned Millis’ youth and experience.

“He’s worked four years out of his whole life,” Thomas said. “I’m 47. I’ve been in business for myself for over 20 years.”

In response, Millis acknowledged the legitimacy of the experience argument, but he said age shouldn’t be a factor. “I’ve been an example of having knowledge and articulating it,” Millis said. “In all aspects of my life, I’ve upheld conservative principles.”

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.

[Editor’s note: In response to Thomas’ statement that Millis has only four years experience, Millis submitted the following written statement to Carolina Journal: “I would like to address this incorrect statement by informing the readers that I studied at NC State for four years and graduated Valedictorian with a degree in Civil Engineering, I entered the workforce thereafter and passed two eight hour exams to receive my Professional Engineering License, and I have been practicing as a Professional Civil Engineer in North Carolina ever since. Therefore, the statement by Mr. Thomas is untrue. I was able to accomplish graduating as Valedictorian from NC State, receive my professional license, and practice as a professional all while being a dedicated husband to my wife of seven years, a devoted father, a youth Sunday school teacher at Freedom Baptist Church, and an advocate for sound government for this State and Nation. I believe that my testimony attest that I can confidently handle the job of State House representative and be an effective legislator for the citizens of the 16th District. I have displayed that I am willing to work hard, able to reason, and able to be effective.”]