N.C. Rep. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, and real estate broker Jerry Evans say regulations are stifling economic growth in eastern North Carolina’s Senate District 1, a vast region of eight coastal counties.

Both describe themselves as fiscal conservatives and say government is too intrusive. And both say they entered the district’s Republican primary because residents want new blood in the legislative seat held for nearly three decades by Democrat Marc Basnight, the former Senate president pro tem.

“Folks here in Beaufort County asked me to run in the Senate because they felt they needed somebody who was a known quantity, who had performed well as a conservative,” said Cook, who lives in Chocowinity and currently represents Beaufort and Pitt counties in his House District 6 seat. “It’s an opportunity to give conservative representation to the folks on the Outer Banks, who haven’t had conservative representation for 20 years — a long time.”

Cook said his voting record illustrates his conservative views. “They might not agree with all of the issues I had to make a decision on, but they’ll find that there’s a trend there,” he said. “That trend is a conservative point of view, an attempt to get government under control, to stop all the spending of money we don’t have, and trying to control overly burdensome regulation.”

Evans said his business background and community involvement is fueling his support. “It comes down to the fact that I am a local small business owner. That’s what everybody is looking for now — that guy who has to meet a payroll, who’s in touch with it,” he said. Evans owns Century 21 Realty Group and is president-elect of the Washington-Beaufort County Board of Realtors.

“I’ve lived in eastern North Carolina all 63 years of my life, and my wife and I have called Beaufort County home for the last 41 years. I’m pretty entrenched in this area,” Evans said, citing his activism in opposing the Navy’s proposal to build an outlying landing field in the region and his work on storm water runoff issues.

Evans originally planned to run for the House seat Cook will vacate, but says he switched races after receiving calls from people who want to see him try to oust Senate District 1 incumbent Stan White, a Democrat. White was appointed to replace Basnight when the powerful Senate leader resigned last year after being re-elected to a 14th term. White is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.

The Senate race is Evans’ second foray into elective politics. In 2010, he ran unsuccessfully for the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners as a Democrat. He changed his party registration to Republican in March 2011. There’s “really not a whole lot” of difference in his views then and now, Evans said. “What I’m finding is that a business man is a business man. I got a lot of support, even from the Republican Party, when I was running last time.”

Cook characterizes Evans’ party change as an important distinction between the two men. “I was the fourth most conservative member of the House [according to the ranking of Civitas Action]. I’ve been a lifelong Republican — conservative. Evans has switched parties at least once or twice,” Cook said. “It seems to me you ought to have a point of view on issues and stick with it rather than changing parties like some people change clothes.”

Evans contends that people wonder whether Cook understands the concerns of the district, which spans the northeastern edge of the state and moves down the coast. It consists of Beaufort, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hyde, Pasquotank, and Perquimans counties. Evans said new ferry tolls are a key concern for his supporters. The tolls were included in last year’s state budget, which Cook voted for.

Tolls have been imposed on two routes that are currently free. Tolls will increase on three routes. Two routes will remain toll-free. Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, had blocked the tolls with an executive order, but on April 13 the state attorney general’s office ruled she had exceeded her authority.

Both candidates agree the tolls are a problem. Evans said it is unfair that locals who use the ferries to commute will have to pay, while a route that caters to tourists will remain toll-free. “I think that if you’re a resident of that area, you should get some kind of special rate. My thing is, fair is fair,” Evans said.

Cook said he’s working on a plan to give relief to locals. He hopes to address the issue in the May short session. Cook explained the budget’s toll provision as an attempt to recoup about $5 million of a $38 million annual tab to run the ferries.

“Tourists come down to North Carolina, they ride those ferries,” Cook said. “For them it’s a very cheap boat ride. However, it costs the state quite a bit. So what the people in the House and Senate were trying to do when they passed the budget bill was to get some money from the tourists. I think that got out of hand and we should have not tried to increase the ferry ride for folks who need it to commute, and I’m working with a consultant to try to lower these ferry tolls.”

Cook and Evans hold different views about the marriage amendment that will appear on the May 8 ballot. The constitutional amendment defines marriage as strictly between one man and one woman. Cook supports the amendment. Evans is undecided.

The pro-business North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation rates District 1 as leaning Democratic.

Donna Martinez is a contributor to Carolina Journal.