NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The county commission will welcome back one incumbent and also make way for a new, yet familiar face on its board come Dec. 5.
Republican LeAnn Pierce will join the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, along with returning commissioner Rob Zapple. Pierce was the top vote-getter with 27.3%, or 47,462 votes, in her favor. Zapple trailed behind by less than 2%, earning 45,144 of the total votes.
In the 2022 election, the two beat out Republican candidate Tom Toby and Democrat Travis Robinson, earning 23.94%, or 42,613 votes, and 22.8%, or 39,638 votes, respectively.
The results leave the New Hanover County board with a 3-2 Republican majority.
Zapple and Pierce share two precincts that each earned their strongest support: M02, Masonboro Elementary School, and H08, Ogden Elementary School. Both are predominantly white voters, with females casting ballots 4% more than males at both sites.
“You have to run like you’re in last place all the time so you don’t fall into a trap of saying, ‘I know this group of people will vote for me,’” Zapple said.
The two seemingly straddled the party line this election season and appealed to a broad range of constituents in the two precincts. Forty percent of the 13,044 voters in those areas were unaffiliated.
The result came as no surprise for Pierce who prides herself on being fiscally conservative but otherwise a “well-rounded, centrist candidate,” she told Port City Daily Wednesday.
Zapple called her “a perfect fit,” someone with whom he’s looking forward to working.
“She’s smart, has experience with local government, knows the players, [is] familiar with the issues, plus a small business owner, so she has that understanding of our community,” he said. “It’s a good outcome; ultimately a good outcome for the citizens.”
First elected in 2014, Zapple’s win marks his third term on the board.
“The way I interpret it, [the public] has been listening, watching closely and agreeing with what I’ve been doing over the past eight years,” Zapple said. “Sometimes in this kind of business you wonder if anyone is really paying attention. Yesterday’s vote was an unequivocal, ‘yes.’”
As a Democrat with bipartisan support, Zapple said he will continue to follow issues he thinks are of utmost importance to the county. He takes pride in the impact commissioners have already made, specifically in education, workforce and economic development and affordable housing.
After commissioners ditched plans for a $50-million housing bond, Zapple introduced the now adopted five-year plan. Implemented in the fiscal year 2023 budget, commissioners agreed to allocate $3 million annually, totaling $15 million for affordable housing initiatives. The framework also incentivizes builders to invest in workforce housing communities.
Zapple also voted to raise property taxes last year to help fund New Hanover County Schools employees, now some of the highest-paid teachers in the state.
“As a family man — with children and grandchildren — you want your children to grow up to get a good education and get a good job and stay in our community,” he said. “It’s every parent’s dream. I’d like to see us continue in the path we’ve been on developing good-paying jobs.”
Zapple said it will take more creativity to come up with new approaches to housing.
“We’ll never solve it, but we can find different solutions to the problem in New Hanover County,” he added.
Pierce campaigned on the idea to increase tax credits when tackling the affordable housing crisis.
She also pointed to a desire to “return fiscal responsibility” to the commissioners, in reference to the recent tax hike. She has been vehemently outspoken against it, especially given the current economic climate.
“I run everything like a business,” Pierce said Wednesday. “We need more of that type of thinking in our government.”
Twenty-seven years ago, Pierce opened Drifter’s Reef, a family-owned hotel three blocks from the Carolina Beach boardwalk, which she continues to operate. She told Port City Daily during the election her business acumen, as well as experience as former mayor of a town with a small budget would help leverage county money in creative ways.
Pierce was the first elected female mayor of Carolina Beach in 2019. She left her post in 2021 to campaign in the commissioner race. Prior to that she was on the Carolina Beach town council, so is no stranger to politics. She said she’s ready to hit the ground running.
“I already know a lot, but I don’t know everything on the county level,” Pierce said. “But I’m excited for a new adventure and new experience, and I expect to pick it up pretty quickly.”
Juggling incoming calls and texts Tuesday night into Wednesday, Pierce said she’s been in touch with county organizations, nonprofits and the county clerk to learn how she can assist.
“One thing that’s going to be something I bring to the table is improving the relationships between the county, city and beach towns — bringing that unity to the board,” Pierce told PCD. “The citizens, in their mind, we’re all on the same team.”
Pierce has worked with Jonathan Barfield and Zapple during her time as mayor and said she has recently worked alongside Deb Hays and Bill Rivenbark on committees such as Wilmington Urban Area Planning Organization and the NHC Port, Waterway and Beach Commission.
“Sure, we won’t always agree but that’s OK,” Pierce said. “Everyone brings something different to the table and I look forward to working with them. I imagine it’ll take off quickly that we’re a cohesive board.”
Current chair Julia Olson-Boseman’s term will expire this year after failing to win the spring primary. Hays, Barfield and Rivenbark each have two years left in their terms.
Making herself available to constituents is a top priority as well. Pierce said she is hopeful she can facilitate new ways to engage the people she represents more in the government.
“Citizens don’t always come to meetings; I think they’re overwhelmed by the process or don’t understand it,” Pierce said. “Maybe it’s town halls, going into their communities to hear what they’re thinking. It’s just interesting how citizens don’t get involved and have legitimate concerns. They may know more than we do.”
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