NEW HANOVER COUNTY — In the shadow of a global pandemic, ongoing water-pollution litigation and a census year, and with memories of last cycle’s narrow margins fresh in the minds of both candidates, now-incumbent Harper Peterson faces Michael Lee in the District 9 N.C. Senate race.
Two years ago, Peterson unseated Lee, who served two terms as the District 9 senator from 2014 to 2018, by 231 votes. In the final weeks of the race, a StarNews freelancer and a former New Hanover County GOP chair filed an ethics complaint against Lee, alleging he used his role in public service to profit in his private enterprise. Lee calls the accusations in the complaint baseless.
“That would require those city council members to be doing something that is a felony,” he said. “It would require a conspiracy of the planning commission. That the six Democrats out of the seven people on the city council were in conspiracy with the Republican.”
As a private citizen, Lee is an attorney.
“My practice involves land use,” he said. “It’s what I do for a living. It’s a very small piece of what I do for a living, honestly. It’s probably 5% of what I do, is land use.”
Peterson denies any involvement with the filing of the 2018 October complaint.
“Well, when you look at it, it’s an interesting association,” he said. “I haven’t used that in my political ads. It’s ripe for it, but I haven’t.”
No such last-minute surprises have been lobbed yet this cycle. Both candidates acknowledged the pandemic pressures levied on campaigning have made this election less about in-person outreach and traditional campaigning strategies, and more about the ideals and records of each candidate.
“He has a record now,” Lee said. “He hasn’t passed a single piece of legislation, and I think that’s important for people to know.”
Peterson said he considers Lee to be a tool of “special interests.”
“I see him as an ideologue for the Republican Party, a button pusher,” Peterson said.
Peterson entered the N.C. Senate in 2018 along with 20 other Democrats. A shift toward blue candidates in that election broke the Republican supermajority, leaving the GOP with 29 of the total 50 senators. Still, it left Democrats in the minority at the state legislature.
Peterson said all of his attempts reaching across the aisle have faltered because the Republicans view him as untouchable. Peterson received significant financial backing from state-level Democratic groups, who view his race as a must-win if the Democrats are to have hope for reclaiming a majority in the state senate.
“Anything I said or initiated was dead-on-arrival because they didn’t want to see me get credit for anything,” Peterson said about his two years in office. “That’s just the way it works up there. So I understood that going in.”
Advertising campaigns coming from both sides feature negative depictions of the opponent, as they did in 2018. Commercials and print advertisements coming from the Lee campaign accuse Peterson of racism and misogyny while he was mayor of Wilmington from 2001 to 2003.
“I didn’t say that,” Lee said, “The newspaper said that on multiple occasions.”
Critical advertisements running about Peterson cite Wilmington newspaper articles, namely editorials, from the early-2000s.
“Because a lot of people weren’t here when he was the mayor, they don’t know about those things,” Lee said. “Now, the people who lived here at that time knew about it, and that’s why he didn’t get re-elected to be mayor.”
Peterson said he and his campaign try to focus advertising on candidate track records rather than personal attacks.
“It’s a mud-wrestling contest for them, a world wrestling show,” he said. “ I take offense to being called a racist and a sexist. That’s absurd. They fabricated that.”
Lee said he anticipated Peterson would have an influx in high-dollar contributions and intensified his own fundraising to prepare. Though limited by the pandemic, he said he still has worked on growing a strong donor base as the election draws near. Virtual fundraising, he said, is not ideal in a race like this, which prior history shows could come down to the wire.
“Now, a lot of folks just won’t attend a Zoom call for whatever reason,” Lee said. “I continued to try to fundraise without having events, so I could compete against the money that was coming into his campaign from other places.”
The need for education reform drove Lee into public service. In his opinion, schools in the state should have more leeway on how they’re able to use funding, and in general, success metrics should be geared toward evaluating learning rather than test results.
“The system is built around this construct to get the most money; it’s not built around the best way to educate children,” he said.
For Peterson, the issue of choice that sparked a re-entry into public office was clean water. In 2018, Peterson focused much of his campaign on accusations that Lee — who was then holding the position of District 9 Senator — failed to properly respond to the GenX scandal and related water crises. Peterson wants to see more funding for the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, which has lost more than one-third of its funding over the past decade.
Lee said the issue isn’t only about funding. By his assessment, Governor Roy Cooper should have banned polluters from continuing to conduct business, which is an ability within the governor’s reach. Governor Cooper has said water laws passed in recent years by the Republican legislature actually make it more cumbersome for his office to order shutdowns of companies accused of polluting waterways.
DuPont and its spinoff Chemours, the two companies under scrutiny for the release of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) into the public drinking water supply, are now being sued by the state for contaminating the environment.
Peterson accuses the companies of treating local waterways like a dumping ground.
“I compare that with a house on fire with people in it,” Peterson described. “It’s not as immediate, but it’s cumulative and it’s the same thing. It’s a crisis you respond to. You don’t study it, you jump on it and correct the problem.”
Both candidates argued that local Wilmington bureaus, like the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, need to elevate their voices in this discussion. Peterson said CFPUA needs to be reimbursed for the cost of work done in recent years to mediate water pollution, and Lee said it was unacceptable that CFPUA was not proactively included in litigation talks by the state before the lawsuit was initiated.
On development, Peterson said he would like to see a cautious approach, with considerations made to surrounding communities and potential impacts of soaring growth.
“We’re not here to accommodate every request for development, rezoning, special use,” he said. “These have to be taken individually, and they have to ask some very primary questions.”
Lee said that private development is an issue best left to the local authorities, and he does not see development in New Hanover County as an item in his his potential purview.
“I know how I would like it to develop, but it’s really up to those who are elected by the people of New Hanover County,” he said. “The general assembly is not there to micromanage local elected officials.”
Both candidates align on the issue of redistricting. They admitted to favoring an independent districting process rather than one motivated by partisanship, the current model. According to Lee, any significant reform would involve amending the constitution.
The Peterson-Lee rematch will conclude in 17 days, Nov. 3. Early voting is now open and will close Oct. 31. Absentee ballots can be requested through Oct. 27.
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