Three Democrats from rural counties in the 5th Congressional District, which now covers all of Winston-Salem, hope that a new map more favorable to their party will allow one of them to unseat Republican incumbent Virginia Foxx in November.
The new 5th Congressional District looks a lot like the old map before the Republican-controlled state General Assembly gerrymandered districts to its partisan advantage: It sweeps west from Winston-Salem through Wilkes and other rural counties all the way to the Tennessee state line, incorporating a compact chunk of the northwestern corner of North Carolina.
There’s one notable difference, however, since the federal courts threw out the old map and forced the General Assembly to go back to the drawing board in February: The old 12th District, which previously snaked into Winston-Salem from High Point to capture heavily Democratic areas of the city, has now been confined to Mecklenburg County. The 5th District now covers all of Forsyth County, and Democratic candidates believe that markedly improves their prospects for unseating Republican incumbent Virginia Foxx in November.
Early voting for the June 7 special election, which also includes a do-over for the Democratic primary for the South Ward seat on Winston-Salem City Council, begins on May 26 at the Forsyth County Government Center. Visit forsyth.cc/elections for specific hours.
The new map gives Forsyth County voters increasing clout in the district. Urban Forsyth makes up 47.8 percent of the population of the district, with the remainder distributed among the eight remaining rural counties. The three candidates all live outside of Forsyth County: Wallin, who works as assistant director of food services at Appalachian State University, lives in the community of Sugar Grove outside of Boone. Josh Brannon, a software developer, lives in neighboring Vilas. Jim Roberts, a retired pest control company owner, lives in Pilot Mountain, northwest of Winston-Salem.
The new map increases Democratic registration from 35.2 percent to 38.2 percent, while improving the performance of Democratic candidates by about two points in past match-ups. Under the previous map, Republican Elizabeth Dole would have carried the district by almost 5 points in the 2008 election, while the new map has Democrat Kay Hagan narrowly edging Dole out for the same election. Still, whoever wins the Democratic nomination will have a lot of ground to make up: Brannon, who was the Democratic nominee two years ago, lost to Foxx by a margin of 22 percent.
“Numerous people around the district say this is a really good time, and you’ve got a shot,” Wallin said. “With the polarization at the top of the ticket with Donald Trump being the Republican nominee, you’ve got a lot of Republicans saying they may stay home.”
Brannon agrees. He said when he was asking people if he should run again, one of the main reasons they told him to give it another shot was because Trump’s presence on the ticket increased the odds of a Democratic upset. Brannon added that his supporters told him last year that his message sounded a lot like Bernie Sanders.
“I believe we need to have a political revolution,” Brannon said. “Ever since Reagan, no matter which party is in control of Congress, all the economic gains have gone to people who needed them the least. Anyone who’s under 35 has only known growing income inequality. We were supposed to be a country where anyone could get ahead, and it seems like in the past three decades we’ve fallen further and further behind.”
Wallin said the concerns of constituents across the district are more alike than different, with poverty being a major challenge both in Winston-Salem and in the rural west. He added that environmental concerns are also a unifying factor, with voters in Stokes and Surry counties worried about fracking while further to the west parents are concerned about asphalt plants located near schools.
Brannon said job loss is one area where the rural parts of the district have taken a bigger hit than urban Forsyth County. Roberts concurred, saying that manufacturing jobs in the region that have shifted to China in the past two decades have not been replaced.
All three candidates are at least open to an increase in the federal minimum wage.
“What jobs there are [in the district] are predominantly low-wage jobs, so raising the minimum wage would make a big difference,” Brannon said. “I absolutely believe that’s something we should do. I believe that except for very well off areas the model that’s worked best is to raise it incrementally. One big objection I’ve heard is that small business owners won’t be able to afford it. But if you raise it incrementally, businesses will be able to raise prices to make up the difference. I would favor a $15 minimum wage phased in over five years.”
Roberts said he agrees with incremental minimum wage increase up to $15.
“We don’t want to see the small businesses hurt by it,” he said. “No one wants to see a hamburger go from $4 to $12 all at once. We will get used to $10 hamburgers. There are already $10 hamburgers at Red Robin.”
Wallin said that Watauga County’s No. 78 ranking out of the state’s 100 counties for hourly pay and poverty rate upwards of 25 percent demand that Congress “take a serious look” at a minimum wage increase. But the candidate said the rate needs to be set by region based on relative cost of living.
“In the state of North Carolina you need at least $10 an hour to barely make it,” he said. “I think we start there as the goal to get to. I’ve talked to many small business owners who would be crippled by a jump to $15 an hour. Many are already paying at least $9 an hour.
“The number we get to has to have some teeth so that the larger businesses don’t pass the cost on to the consumer,” Wallin added. “All that is going to do is devalue the wage we set. Then we are right back where we started.”
In the face of demands by Republican politicians that President Obama suspend refugee settlement from Syria due to concerns about terrorists coming into the country, many Democratic voters have loudly proclaimed their support for the program.
“I believe that country borders are largely artificial constraints,” Brannon said. “If we believe human suffering is immoral, it’s our duty to alleviate that wherever we can. I’ve seen a lot of people who have an issue with letting people into our country who are Muslim, but I believe helping people who find themselves in an unfortunate situation is a Christian thing to do.”
Wallin said the United States needs to do better by its new arrivals.
“This country was founded on people being able to come here and better themselves and have an opportunity,” he said. “We need to help them instead of pulling them up and sending them away, by making sure they want to be here legally, whatever it is — visas, green cards. What if some of our ancestors came over here and were treated this way? We wouldn’t have the America we have now.”
Roberts said he supports the president’s policy.
“I think we are proceeding very carefully, and that’s what I encourage them to do,” he said. “Every war we have brought in a lot of refugees, from Vietnam to the smaller conflicts like the Dominican Republic. We have helped these refugees, and they have added to our country.”