Monday, June 27, 2022

Primary 2020: New Hanover Board of Commissioners, Democratic candidate Kyle Horton [Free read]

Dr. Kyle Horton, Democratic candidate for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. (Port City Daily photo / File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The primary election on March 3 will narrow a crowded field of candidates running for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners from six Democrats and nine Republicans to three from each party; winners in the primary will compete for three open seats in November.

Of three Board of Commissioners candidates with terms ending in 2020, only one — Jonathan Barfield — is running for reelection. Commissioners Woody White and Patricia Kusek have both opted not to seek additional terms.

All candidates in the 2020 primary were asked the same questions; candidates were not given word limits and were encouraged to broach any subject we didn’t ask about in the final two questions. Answers were edited only for typographical errors and for formatting.

Kyle Horton, Democratic candidate

1. Tell us a little about your background: how long have you lived in the area? What profession do you work in/come from?

To understand my background and motivation, my commitment to public service is rooted in my family and its legacy of service. Until I was 7 years old, I didn’t know my father had an older brother, Elwood. Dad told me my uncle, a Vietnam Veteran, was no longer with us. I naturally assumed he died in the war. Years later, I’d understand that Elwood passed just weeks after returning from Vietnam. The unfairness of losing Vets like Elwood stateside when they are supposed to be safe at home has stuck with me my whole life. And this legacy of loss and heartbreak has continued for so many families like mine. Too many families tragically lose their heroes because they fail to get needed care, or suffer tragic delays, or as they never get the benefits they earned.

I carry Elwood’s story with me every day. It’s a story familiar to so many of us. Even those who bravely served can’t rely on our government and political leaders, and are being left behind. I’ve seen it in clinical practice as I worked in the primary care clinics with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Year after year, our leaders pass continuing spending resolutions that spare no expense in fighting the wars, but fail to deal with the aftermath and Vets care needs. We expect the politicians to lead to give everyone a fair shake, and to stand up for our shared values, but that kind of courageous leadership is in short supply.

We deserve leaders who’ll fight for us and make sure no one is forgotten and no one is left behind. Leaders who respect democratic norms and who will live up to a basic standard of transparency and accountability to all of us. That’s why I’m running for County Commission. I came to Wilmington in 1999 to attend UNCW, and it’s been my home for most of my adult life. My family moved here nearly 13 years ago. For all these reasons, there’s no place that I’ve loved more or would consider home. You can learn more at www.ElectKyleHorton.com/about.

2. Let’s tackle the elephant in the room first: Where do you stand on the potential sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center? Weigh in on what’s already happened if you like, but please tell us where you would like to see NHRMC go in the future.

I oppose the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC). I have repeatedly called for a delayed, deliberate, and democratic process that respects the legacy of NHRMC as a county hospital created by a public referendum vote. Our campaign recently circulated a petition requesting that the Partnership Advisory Group and the NHC Board of Commissioners delay any change in ownership or refrain from any major mergers, consolidations, or restructuring of NHRMC until after the voters have their say electing new commissioners in 2020. We similarly asked that the hospital restore trust through a process that “respects the many doctors, nurses, allied healthcare providers, hospital staff, and community members who have adamantly expressed a desire to retain local control of our beloved hospital.” You can view and sign our petition here.

NHRMC should be our hospital with a fate determined by all of us. Whether you are a one-time doctor in the system, or a patient, or it is the safety net for your own family, we all deserve a voice in deciding what happens. New Hanover Regional is the county’s largest asset, its largest employer, and lives are at stake. Several years back my own mom Connie’s life was at stake. Having grown up poor without adequate medical care, we never knew she had Rheumatic fever in childhood that had scarred her heart valve. NHRMC was there for her to replace her heart valve, and it’s been there for so many of us. But once we give up on our beloved public hospital and its accountability to us, we can never get it back for families like mine who’ve needed it.

Both academically and professionally, I’ve encountered these mergers, consolidations, and acquisitions in healthcare. This is my lane. And unfortunately, this process is broken, backwards, and has failed to empower the most valuable asset any hospital has: its people. Respecting the people, NHRMC should be empowering its employees to grow in a smart way that expands its footprint and strengthens its access to capital in the surrounding counties. It should be looking to further enhance its academic partnerships to expand research opportunities and seek out innovative ways to improve the quality of care. 

In my view, we should be doubling down on our commitment of leading our community to outstanding health in a way that moves us away from a sick care system to a preventive and more holistic care mindset. But this kind of outreach requires understanding our community needs, and a commitment to protecting the sanctity and institutional knowledge earned over our 52-year legacy of success as a county hospital. In the future, I hope that NHRMC will continue to prioritize and proactively address social determinants of health like housing by working in concert with community partners. I don’t have faith that this will happen if we sell our people out though. Bottom line: NHRMC is OUR beloved hospital—I trust the doctors, the nurses, the staff, the patients, and our community to do the right thing. I don’t want a boardroom full of out-of-town corporate consultants determining the future of our local healthcare. To learn more about my plan to save our hospital and improve healthcare, visit www.ElectKyleHorton.com/issues.

3. The county is completing its UDO, which will shape development on thousands of acres across the county. How will you balance a potential development boom with concerns about traffic, school overcrowding, and stormwater?

We need growth that is smart, resilient, and that respects the capacity of our infrastructure. There is no question that the planning going into the Unified Development Ordinance is critically needed, but we need to be real about the preliminary direction and foundations laid out thus far. As we are at a critical tipping point with both the pace and density of growth critically straining our infrastructure in unhealthy and unsafe ways, we need to do better. 

I am deeply concerned that the preliminary discussions of the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) are inadequate in addressing our unique geography and geology. Our residents are rightly concerned that traffic is horrible and that we cannot continue to build dense residential developments without the roads or transit options for more people. The capacity needs to be built in our schools, roads, and in our infrastructure now by working proactively at all levels of government before it is too late. Our schools are already in crisis, and it’s in part a crisis of our own creation in poor leadership. Physically many of our school buildings are crumbling and our stormwater has created untenable flooding that’s caused unnecessary property damage and displaced folks from their homes. While the current stormwater planning through the county engineer is an exciting 1st step, we need to do better to protect our kids on the roads, in their schools, and in our homes as we’re far too vulnerable to crises of our own making.

In the big picture, we need to put an end to the kind of fast-tracked and reckless planning policies that have enabled the likes of Chemours and Invista to poison our air, land, and water. We need to recognize how vulnerable ecosystems, like our wetlands in particular, are essential to our hurricane resilience. It is becoming increasingly clear that we need to focus less of our efforts on attracting the kind of heavy industrial development that doesn’t fit our unique coastal location, and instead focus on growth in cleaner, healthier industries like film, healthcare, tech, and education. We also need to strengthen the UDO sections on ‘Industrial Use and Manufacturing’ to better protect the public health and environment, including more stringent impact review standards and more public transparency during the approval process. Learn more about my plan for smart economic growth at www.ElectKyleHorton.com/issues.

4. Speaking of housing, how would you address the state of affordable housing in the region?

Affordable housing is truly a crisis in our area. The lack of diversity in our economy coupled with a failure to attract higher-wage jobs and pay workers fairly have contributed to this crisis. As it stands, if you are making the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, you’d have to work roughly 90 hours a week to cover the rent of an average new 1-bedroom apartment by the riverfront in downtown Wilmington. The affordable housing crisis means that even our first responders and teachers cannot afford to live in the communities they serve. 

New Hanover County needs to invest more resources into addressing the affordable housing crisis. This means continuing recent efforts allotting land for affordable and workforce housing. I would also explore more innovative incentives for funding and the possibility of a bond. We must recognize that housing is a primary social determinant of health. We must also acknowledge that a lack of affordable housing will harm our economy as larger employers will rate the affordability of healthcare and housing in determining where to locate. And actually, from public health research, we know that commuting times and access to transportation are often ranked as the top predictor of an individual’s ability to achieve economic success and escape poverty in many of our cities. This is why I’ll commit to planning and investing in affordable housing as well as to services like Wave Transit which are essential to many hardworking families. Learn more about how we can achieve smart economic growth at www.ElectKyleHorton.com/issues.

5. Let’s talk about affordable development. Years ago, the Garner report noted that the region’s economic development groups were ‘Balkanized’ — with overlapping and uncoordinated missions and a lack of unified direction. What would your approach to economic development be?

We live in a small county with a unique coastal location where our geography, geology, and storms can impact our economic development tremendously. In recent years, the Garner Report highlighted how our economy has not been particularly diverse, and there’s been no clear consensus or direction from most of our political leaders. This lack of leadership, combined with our infrastructure challenges, is hampering healthy growth and development in our area. We need courageous and visionary leaders who will work with responsible developers who respect our local geography and needs.

In the future, we should diversify our economy and focus on higher-wage jobs in healthier, cleaner industries like healthcare, film, aviation education and tech. Larger companies though will look at our failing infrastructure, the issues with our schools, our water, and reckless policies like HB2–then they’ll think twice about locating here. We need to do a better job in improving each of the above areas, and then we can focus on economic incentives that work and are a good deal for the taxpayers—like those that helped bring Castle Branch and LiveOak Bank. To learn more about how we can achieve smart economic growth, visit www.ElectKyleHorton.com/issues.

6. How would you steer the county in addressing environmental concerns?

New Hanover County’s career politicians have failed to protect our drinking water and coast for too long. Instead of fighting for us, they’ve engaged in polluter protection with policies that are even too dirty for many developing nations to tolerate. We deserve leaders who aren’t afraid to hold the likes of DuPont/Chemours and other big polluters accountable, including for medical monitoring as we deal with the aftermath and health consequences of decades of contamination. As your county commissioner, I will never give up on the need for health-protective drinking water in all our schools and homes. I have both a personal connection to Flint, Michigan and to the tragic loss of life on the Deepwater Horizon. I know all too well how reckless environmental decisions can cause irreparable harm.

If given the opportunity to serve, we’ll focus on developing a foundation for clean air, land, and water. Know that I’ve been a leader when it comes to PFAS contamination (chemicals like Gen X), and that I will continue working with the CDC and ATSDR to better understand the health impacts from PFAS. I’m also working to educate and engage our medical community to deal with those impacts to help us heal. I will work with Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and fight to make the polluters pay. We’ll work to ensure our taxpayer dollars don’t end up in the pockets of Chemours as we keep PFAS out of our landfills by purchasing products that are PFAS-free and educating community members to do the same. We’ll also support existing innovative solutions and adaptive strategies to fund essential beach renourishment as well as the preservation of dunes and coastal marshes working local, state, to federal. To learn more about how we can protect our environment, visit www.ElectKyleHorton.com/issues.

7.  What other county initiatives would you like to see created, continued, or scaled back?

New Hanover is the 6th wealthiest county in North Carolina but ranked 20th for funding our public schools. Politicians have been failing our children for too many years, and it’s never been more evident than with the current crisis in our local schools. For years, there’s been a failure to fund Title IX related programs, nor to enforce related policies, which has led to harassment and a culture in which predatory abuse went on for decades. We need a clear zero tolerance policy for harassment and abuse in our schools as well as direct accountability and transparency between the NHC Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education in a prolonged and deliberate public budget process. We deserve leaders who’ll stay focused on strengthening public education for our kids. 

We should invest in pre-k programs and increase access to affordable vocational training as we know that dollar for dollar these investments pay off for us as taxpayers. We should build a structure of incentives that foster economic growth in ways that respect our unique quality of life and that bring jobs in healthier, cleaner industries. This includes that we should grow our creative economy as the Arts and Culture bring jobs and is a part of the very fabric and fiber of our community. As far as other initiatives, we have discussed many that would be top priorities including infrastructure and stormwater, as well as environmentally related initiatives. Our coastal beach renourishment must be continued. We must invest in affordable housing and sustainably fund Wave transit. Learn more about how we’ll get it done at www.ElectKyleHorton.com/issues.

8. What else would you like voters to know?

I came to UNCW in 1999 and graduated summa cum laude while earning the highest Student Affairs Leadership Award. I went on to earn both my MD and MBA in a 5-year dual degree physician leadership development program. For a number of years, I cared for veterans as an internal medicine physician with the US Department of Veterans Affairs. This is where I taught a new generation of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers how to better care for those who have served our nation. 

I first got into politics as I nearly lost Veteran patients of mine to suicide while they were awaiting mental health care. Across the generations of Vets for whom I cared, it became evident we were repeating the same mistakes of the past in confusing how we treat the soldiers with how we feel about the war. And even as the heartbreaking Veteran suicide report revealed we were losing an estimated 22 Veterans to suicide a day at that time, there was little action in the VA care system. Even as daunting and frustrating the culture of inaction was, know that I didn’t give up on getting political action over several years. I will not give up on what I know to be the right thing to do. And in fact, I put 20 stars in my campaign logo to represent the lives of around 20 Veterans a day who are still lost to suicide. I never want to forget why we need vision, commitment, and follow-through in our leaders.

Today, my medical work focuses on medically complicated cases to assist Veterans in getting their much-deserved benefits—many are dealing with cancers related to herbicide exposure in Vietnam. There shouldn’t be a need for what I do, but we are failing to live up to our promises in this country. I would love to bring my unique combination of experience, expertise, and tenacity to the NHC Board of Commissioners as we strive to build a healthier future for New Hanover County going forward. From the hospital to our schools and our water crisis, know that I will both listen and work to protect your families every day as your commissioner. To learn more about our campaign or to contact me, visit www.ElectKyleHorton.com.

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