WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Not all of the candidates who spoke at Tuesday’s Power Breakfast hosted by the Greater Wilmington Business Journal are running for local seats, but the lion’s share of the conversation focused on local issues.
The breakfast served as a forum for business leaders to hear from those running for New Hanover County Commission, North Carolina State Senate District 9 and US House of Representatives District 7.
Candidates (as seated left to right at the event): Julia Olson-Boseman (D), Eric Lytle (R), Skip Watkings (R)-Incumbent, Rob Zapple (D)-Incumbent
Seats available: Two
The candidates were asked a series of questions, both by moderator Rob Kaiser, GWBJ publisher, and by members of the audience.
Main issues for each candidate:
- Olsen-Boseman: “Infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure. I believe that we need to do a better job at providing infrastructure, as far as water that we can drink, take into account traffic before new development is approved. It’s infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure.”
- Lytle: “I’d say economic growth and and vitality. That’s the main reason I’m getting into this race, for the next generation. I think we should really start taking a long-term planning approach to really attract businesses and jobs down here. That will help cure some of the other issues that we have. And making sure that the next generation has a good job if they want to come back here after college — a good job, the ability to start a business and to raise a family like we’ve chosen to do. That way our graduates don’t have to go to Raleigh or Charlotte when they get out of school. They can stay here, because they want to stay here.”
- Watkins: “Economic development, probably, because it covers so many facets of our lives. We’ve done, recently, we got $16 million from the Connect NC Bond to provide water and sewer up on Highway 421, basically our main industrial corridor. That balanced economy can come from that. We need some dirty-fingernail jobs. We also, I want to recruit clean industries, as best as possible. You know, we did due diligence on development, but development goes hand in hand with economic development, houses built. One thing I hope to get through, I think commissioners will support it, is an unincorporated area stormwater plan. I think Florence recently, that kind of made that sale for me.”
- Zapple: “I just cannot get over it — it’s the GenX problem. Our water, overall. We’re not going anywhere; we’re not going to see the growth that we’re projecting, over 100,000 more people; we’re not going to have the economic development that we need; we’re not going to have the businesses coming here, until we can solve this issue — so that when I can go in and turn my tap on, I know I have absolute security that I’m drinking safe water. We need to resolve this. If the county needs to step in and be an advocate for this in a stronger way, we need to get our state representatives to get out there and to solve this problem. The filtration system in there, whatever’s necessary, but we need to solve that problem. And right behind it, is support for our education, and starting with pre-k. That’s the foundation of our economic development throughout New Hanover County: creating that pipeline from pre-k to elementary, middle school, high school, and all the way up to the community college. That creates the educated workforce that we need that will then bring in the businesses that we want, and we have that knowledge-based workforce, so that we can expand business here in New Hanover County.”
With economic development being a consistent theme, Kaiser asked each how they would grade the county’s efforts to grow the area.
As incumbents, Watkins and Zapple both gave the county an A, citing the growth at ILM International Airport, Cape Fear Community College, tourism and National Gypsum. Watkins added he thinks the area is doing well on blue-collar jobs, but needs to bring more “white shirt” jobs in as well.
Zapple said the region could further “grab a hold" of its role as the economic engine of southeastern North Carolina, but that wise investments over the years have put the area in a good position.
Olsen-Boseman and Lytle were more skeptical.
Lytle said he’d give the area a B+/A- in that there are several initiatives he thinks are working well, including the county’s AAA bond rating. He noted that he thought the county could provide more incentives to businesses, “and maybe get some film jobs back.”
Olsen-Boseman said there needs to be more done to provide technical training to students, and to clean up the water as well as recruiting businesses that the area wants.
Infrastructure and Affordable Housing
Going hand in hand with economic development, candidates addressed the infrastructure concerns that go along with growth.
Responding to an audience question directed at her, Olsen-Boseman said she has ideas for some smaller items — such as left turns on red onto one-way streets — but that she wants to get feedback and ideas from people who drive on the roads or use the waterways every day.
Lytle questioned her line of thinking, asking why she hadn’t addressed infrastructure issues in her last term as county commissioner, to which she responded: “I want to know what the heck your plan is, instead of pointing fingers.”
Lytle went on to say he thinks more attention needs to be paid to long-term planning for existing infrastructure improvements and the needs that will come with continued growth over the next 20 to 30 years. He said his professional experience would help in that effort.
Watkins and Zapple said the county is doing that long-term work, and many of the issues and concerns are addressed in the comprehensive plan the county put together over the last few years and finished in 2016.
“It’s designed to help identify trends, current conditions, land use, economic development, and it is a long-term plan,” Watkins said.
Stormwater, sewer or drinking water were also concerns. Lytle and Olsen-Boseman said they think the county needs to do more to expedite getting projects going, and Watkins said he has plans to introduce a stormwater plan for unincorporated areas.
Along with infrastructure, how the candidates would address the need for affordable housing was a common question throughout the day.
Zapple, Watkins and Lytle all referenced incentives to encourage the marketplace to facilitate development of more affordable housing options. Watkins said the focus on increasing the number of mixed-use developments will help bring more apartments, and therefore more affordable housing.
Olsen-Boseman said she wants to listen to the experts who have presented options for bringing in more affordable housing.
“We have to do something different,” she said, referencing the conditions of the shelters during Hurricane Florence, and the housing crisis afterward.
Candidates (in the order they spoke): Harper Peterson (D), Michael Lee (R) [Ethan Bickley of the Libertarian Party did not speak]
Seats available: One
Each candidate was allotted 15 minutes onstage, beginning with time to speak freely and followed by questions from the audience. Candidates were not given questions ahead of time and Lee did not hear Peterson’s remarks.
Peterson, a former Wilmington mayor and city council member, said he decided to run for office in order to put the region back on the agenda for legislators in Raleigh. He said his main focuses are on providing clean water and holding industry accountable for how it affects the environment, bolstering the education system and providing for teachers and for building up the economy and providing a future for the area.
After going through Hurricane Florence, Peterson said there has to be a lesson from the destruction.
“Climate science has to be part of our policy, our planning and our budget,” he said, because the area cannot take another $13 billion hit. The state, Peterson said, also needs to find creative solutions to “turn the corner” on depending on fossil fuels.
Lee, who is the two-term incumbent in the race, said he wanted to begin by addressing the campaign advertisements “third parties” have been running about him.
“If you believe the television ads you see, you think I don’t care about clean water,” he said.
He said he actually co-wrote the bill that is helping to study and mitigate GenX, and was in support of funding for the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Lee said he, like Peterson, is also passionate about education, but thinks the issue goes beyond just increasing funding.
“We need to transform education in our state. We don’t need to just throw more money at it,” he said.
Rainy Day Funds
Both candidates were asked about the state’s rainy day fund, which had grown to $2 billion before Hurricane Florence, and was the major pool from which storm relief money was drawn.
Peterson said he thinks the rainy fund is important for events like Florence, but he isn’t sure it needs to be as large as it had become. He said some of that funding should be “re-injected” into communities and programs that need it.
Lee also said the fund was critical for responding to Florence.
“The rainy day fund really saved us,” he said.
Like the county commission candidates, Peterson and Lee were asked what they would do to help with the shortage of affordable housing in the Cape Fear region and beyond.
Peterson said the issue isn’t just the price of housing, but the fact that wages are not high enough to meet those prices. He gave the example of public school teachers, who he said have to work two to three jobs to afford to live in Wilmington or the surrounding communities.
“This is a problem,” he said. “It’s a regional challenge”
Lee said there needs to be a distinction between affordable housing and workforce housing because the former can be addressed by stimulating the economy and bringing up the supply — and lowering the price — of housing.
Candidates (in the order they spoke): Dr. Kyle Horton (D), David Rouzer (R)-Incumbent
Each candidate was allotted 15 minutes onstage, beginning with time to speak freely and followed by questions from the audience. In the interest of time, Rouzer said he would edit his remarks to get the audience out on time.
Dr. Kyle Horton
Horton, an internal medicine physician with a background in business, framed her opening remarks around her work with veterans, saying she wants to focus on the people of southeastern North Carolina, rather than lobbyists or interest groups.
Horton said much of her political platform rests on keeping veterans and other at-risk groups from being “penny pinched” by politicians. That includes those whose jobs she said will be negatively affected by off-shore drilling.
She also said she has watched as other politicians have chosen to “scapegoat science” rather than accepting that climate change is upon us, and says she wants to invest in infrastructure to keep people safe and healthy for years to come. To do that, she said she wants to work with public health professionals to find solutions to prevent industrial pollution, and support policies that would ensure clean water and air.
Horton said she wants to bring back civility to the discourse in Washington, but also change that benefits all Americans.
“We need to understand and recognize that patriotism is about more than flag pins, promises and parades,” she said.
Rouzer, who holds the seat up for grabs, said this election, like every election, is a “referendum” on the founding principles of the nation. He said the last two years have been the “most productive” since Ronald Reagan, citing gains in GDP, lower unemployment, regulatory reform and the tax cuts passed in late 2017.
“We are recreating, rebuilding, bringing back the American Dream,” Rouzer said, adding that progress is what is “on the line” in this election.
If the House of Representatives “flips,” Rouzer said, that progress would be blocked or reversed.
“What you saw with the (Brett) Kavanaugh hearing, the confirmation process, is a precursor to what you would see with Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters, and others, running the House of Representatives,” he said. “It would be investigation after investigation after investigation after investigation for the next two years, and quite frankly, I’m not quite sure that the country can take that.”
He closed by saying he focuses on the needs of the district, and that he wants to continue that effort, but that “a government that is all things to all people has no choice but to be dictatorial and tyrannical.”
Both candidates were asked about their position on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, and if they would vote to continue those tax cuts after they are set to expire.
Horton said she thinks the issue is complicated, because individual tax cuts might be nice, but the corporate tax cuts are inflating the national deficit.
“[Tax cuts] have contributed to what now really is a debt crisis,” Horton said.
She said in order to keep programs such as Medicare and Social Security solvent, reducing debt will be critical, and she thinks cutting off the revenue stream is not the answer.
Rouzer, on the other hand, said tax cuts will help revenue, because they will stimulate the economy.
“Additionally, because you have more people employed, you have more revenue coming in from the payroll tax, which helps to shore up Social Security and Medicare” he said.
Rouzer said entitlement reform is also a way to reduce the debt. He invoked his positions on the House infrastructure and agriculture committees specifically, and measures like the proposed farm bill, which adds a work requirement to be eligible for SNAP benefits, effectively reducing the cost.
“We think that’s a pretty common sense provision,” Rouzer said.
Early and one-stop voting in New Hanover County and beyond is now open.
Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 6.