Blue wave hands Dems two NCGA pickups in Guilford

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Ashton Clemmons, a former school administrator, celebrates her election to the NC House. (photo by Quentin L. Richardson)

Despite few changes in state Senate and House representatives in Forsyth and Guilford Counties, Democrats broke Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the North Carolina legislature Tuesday night, shielding Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes from conservative overrides.

In the most high-profile statewide race this year, North Carolinians elected Democrat Anita Earls to the NC Supreme Court, shifting the court to a 5-2 Democratic majority. Earls founded the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and is best known for leading a successful challenge to unconstitutional state legislative redistricting plans and for her work filing voting-rights lawsuits. Her election to the state’s highest court is particularly notable as North Carolinians simultaneously voted in favor of a voter ID amendment to the state constitution, one of six vaguely-written proposals on the 2018 ballot. Earls’ election to the court and voter’s defeat of two amendments represent a significant check on Republican power in Raleigh.

Sen. Trudy Wade is among several Republicans to lose seats in the state’s capitol this cycle. The incumbent from Guilford County lost a tight race to Democrat Michael Garrett who nearly unseated her in 2016. Garrett won the seat by 763 votes — an 0.8 percent margin. Losing candidates can request a recount in statewide races when the margin of victory is 1 percent or less of all votes cast; it remains to be seen whether Wade will opt to do so. Forsyth and Guilford county voters chose to send five state senators back to Raleigh for the new session: Democrats Paul Lowe, Jr. and Senate Deputy Minority Leader Gladys Robinson, alongside Republicans Joyce Krawiec, Rick Gunn and Jerry Tillman.

In the House, Democrats picked up one seat in Guilford County thanks to a court-ordered redistricting plan that made the map more favorable for the party. Ashton Clemmons, a former assistant superintendent, picked up the newly drawn House District 57 seat. Clemmons’ win on Tuesday helped secure one of four conversions needed to break the Republican supermajority in the House.

“We are here with Democratic candidates from across the state who dared to run because we thought our city, county, state and country can do better than we were,” Clemmons said at a banquet hall at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex, while celebrating with other Democrats. “Many of us had never thought of running but knew now is the time to stand up for justice, compassion, tolerance and to be the state that we are meant to be.”

Terri LeGrand, a Democratic candidate who had been favored as a good bet to oust a Republican incumbent in Forsyth County, fell 9.3 points short in her contest with Debra Conrad.

“These are unconstitutional districts,” LeGrand said at her at her election night watch party at Fearless in downtown Winston-Salem. “There is no question that I ran the absolute best House race in Forsyth County and I may be the only [Democrat] that loses. I raised more money, every single precinct was staffed, we ran a stellar campaign and I’m a better candidate. When the vast majority of people in your county vote for one party and you still can’t win, then there’s a problem and that’s not democracy and that’s pretty scary.”

Democrat Terri LeGrand watched a thin lead slip away in her race with Republican Debra Conrad on Tuesday. (photo by Todd Turner)

LeGrand was not alone in losing a challenge to an incumbent. Democrat Dan Besse, a longtime Winston-Salem city council member, lost his contest with Republican incumbent Donny Lambeth in District 75. Besse’s 46.9 percent vote share marked a sea change from the last Democrat challenger, who garnered only 27.2 percent of the vote in 2014.

“Our district was considered a reach [for a Democrat] from the start and we came very close to flipping the seat,” Besse said in an interview following final precinct results. “I believe we would have if not for the late surge of politics of fear coming down from Washington, DC. They built their closing argument of the campaign around the falsehood of a caravan of dark-complexioned people coming up from Central America full of hardened criminals and terrorists threatening the security of the United States; that was pure, dark fantasy generated by the prevaricator-in-chief.”

Besse, a member of Winston-Salem City Council since 2005, drafted a symbolic “welcoming city” resolution that the Democratic majority on city council later withdrew support for after conservative lawmakers led by Rep. Debra Conrad and Sen. Joyce Krawiec threatened to withhold state funding.

Voters returned Democrat incumbents, including Evelyn Terry in District 71 and Derwin Montgomery — who ran as an appointee incumbent to replace Ed Hanes — in District 72.

With the exception of Clemmons’ race, Guilford County voters returned all incumbents, including House Majority Whip Jon Hardister and fellow Republican John Faircloth, along with Democrats Amos Quick, Pricey Harrison and Cecil Brockman.

That Democrats broke GOP supermajorities in both legislative chambers, that Anita Earls earned a seat on the state supreme court and that voters defeated the two state constitutional amendments that would have dramatically shifted power from the state executive to the legislature indicates that North Carolinians were ready to check Republican power in Raleigh.

“The amendments seem rather sneaky to me,” Kathleen Kron, 62, of Winston-Salem said after casting her ballot at Miller Park Recreation Center. “The one regarding judicial appointments… and then the ethics board is a blatant attempt to keep the governor from having any kinds of rights and really shift the balance of power to the legislature. It’s ridiculous…. I definitely circled in [my choices] with a lot of energy.”

One would have stripped sitting governor’s authority to appoint replacement judges in the event of a judicial vacancy, allowing the legislature to offer two candidates who would then serve up to four years before voters could elect or replace them. The other would have overturned a 2017 law the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional for stripping the governor’s executive authority to appoint the ninth member of the Board of Ethics and Elections meant to represent unaffiliated voters. In addition to the voter ID law, North Carolinians vote in favor of capping personal and corporate income tax rate at 7 percent (down from 10 percent currently), changes to the current victims’ rights amendment and enshrining the right to hunt and fish.

During her victory speech in Raleigh, Earls set the tone for days ahead.

“Tonight, we celebrate, but in the coming days we must continue to work for equal justice under law,” she said. “In the words of Nelson Mandela, ‘after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.’”

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