Democrat Michael Garrett is challenging incumbent Republican state Sen. Trudy Wade for Guilford County’s District 27 seat, and he believes he can win.
When Michael Garrett talks about his campaign for state Senate, he doesn’t land the easy blows on incumbent Trudy Wade, knocking her for an attempt to dramatically restructure Greensboro City Council elections, her support of the discriminatory House Bill 2 or her controversial and failed attempt as a council member to reopen the White Street Landfill to municipal solid waste. He wants people to vote for him, he said, and not just against Wade.
That’s probably wise because the issues that make the state senator most unpopular with some people would play best in Greensboro. And while that’s where Wade and Garrett both live, District 27 mostly snakes around the city.
State Senate District 27 includes 11 precincts in west-central Greensboro, reaching all the way to Garrett’s home near the heart of the Lindley Park neighborhood. But most of the district covers rural Guilford County, blanketing McLeansville, Pleasant Garden, Jamestown and incorporating some of High Point. The Senate districts are gerrymandered in a way that the heavily Democratic leaning areas of Greensboro and High Point are grouped into a slot currently represented by Sen. Gladys Robinson, places where voters are most likely to oppose the arch-conservative agenda pursued by Wade since she left the Greensboro City Council in 2012 to represent District 27.
But Garrett believes that the right kind of campaign with a strong volunteer base and ground outreach game can defeat Wade, arguing that he’ll draw broad-based support that includes Republicans unsatisfied with his opponent’s hardline tack. The district is split with 40 percent registered as Republicans and Democrats respectively and the remaining 20 percent unaffiliated, Garrett said. In 2012, Wade’s Democratic challenger Myra Slone only garnered 41,870 votes to Wade’s 56,865 — or 42.4 percent to 57.6 — suggesting difficult but not insurmountable odds. In 2014, Wade ran unopposed.
Garrett isn’t new to elections; he ran before against state Rep. John Blust as a Republican in 2010, but Blust walloped him in the primary, 3,757 to 1,461. He’s also managed his mother Darlene Garrett’s successful campaigns for Guilford County School Board. A small-business owner who runs a niche business-to-business marketing company, Michael Garrett has lived in Guilford County since age 2, attending Northwest Guilford High School and graduating from UNCG with a degree in business administration.
He’s been civically engaged since high school, he said, and in recent years has served on the Guilford County Gang Commission, Guilford County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, the United Way’s Education Impact Council, the UNCG Excellence Foundation Board of Directors and as the president of his alma mater’s alumni association and chair of its alumni board.
It’s fair to say that he’s concerned about education; it’s the first campaign issue he brought up in an interview, sitting in his well appointed living room with a copy of Garden & Gun magazine’s The Southerner’s Handbook on a coffee table and an untouched bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon decorating a mini bar in the corner. Outside, he didn’t have a yard sign up promoting himself despite living at a busy intersection — only because he was about to mow his lawn, Garrett said, and indeed by Tuesday, he’d put one back up.
When Garrett talks about the issues that matter to him, he’s quick to say he’ll focus on building bridges and providing effective representation. To him, that means constituent services, be it responding directly to residents, returning calls from the press, speaking at public forums and inviting feedback so as to remain accountable and transparent.
Wade has infamously dodged media requests in office, leading a television station to camp out at her office to try and talk to her about efforts to restructure the Greensboro City Council. Wade did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article.
Garrett also brings up matters that Wade hasn’t taken up in office, particularly wages and income, and sky-high food hardship rates in the Greensboro-High Point metro area. He argues that current tax policies penalize small businesses and working people.
Sen. Wade’s website trumpets lower personal and corporate taxes under the Republican-controlled General Assembly, resulting in a state ranking from a think tank called the Tax Foundation that moved from 44th to 16th from 2014 to 2015. Garrett and other Democrats hammer the General Assembly for abysmal teacher pay and declining enrollment in education programs that Garrett said will lead to a teacher shortage, but Wade’s website celebrates increased educational funding that “sets the average teacher pay above $50,000 for the first time in state history,” hiring almost 450 additional first-grade teachers and support of a controversial move to lower tuition at specific public universities that some argue is an attack on schools serving predominantly students of color.
Garrett said that in his role as chair of UNCG’s alumni board, he had a front-row seat to the negative impact of the General Assembly’s policies on students, staff and faculty. But he’s also concerned with primary education, raising the school-to-prison pipeline and a desire to keep kids out of the legal system when possible as priorities as well, and adding that he would work to raise teacher pay “to at least the national average.”
Garrett didn’t raise HB 2 as an issue on his own during an interview, but said he believes it needs to be fully repealed, calling it a “trainwreck” that illustrates what happens when legislation is rushed through “without deliberate conversations.”
“I think any discrimination is wrong, but it’s also bad for business,” he said, pointing out that several major employers in North Carolina agree with him.
Garrett has never held elected office; Wade served at large on the Guilford County Commission from 2000 to 2005, followed by five years on Greensboro City Council before being elected to the state Senate in 2012. She currently co-chairs the agriculture/environment/natural resources and appropriations on natural and economic resources committees and is the vice chair of the state and local government committee, while acting as a member of six standing committees including education, finance, healthcare and appropriations, according to her website.
Garrett doesn’t see his relative inexperience compared to Wade as a problem.
“I would just ask, ‘What have you gotten for that experience?’” he said, adding that Wade “doesn’t appear to respect her voters” and that this election would be the only way for residents of Guilford County to hold Wade accountable.
Though Garrett said that running a small business as he does is “all consuming,” he is confident he could find the time to serve effectively in the seat in part because he’s found time to run a serious campaign and because he has the flexibility to work remotely and set his own hours. Wade also runs her own business, Jamestown Veterinary Hospital. Garrett, like Wade, isn’t married, and said his limited home-life commitments will also free him up to be an effective state senator.
Wade emphatically endorsed Donald Trump at the candidate’s Greensboro campaign rally last month, has worked to reduce environmental regulations and pushed a budget provision that could kill downtown tax districts such as the Business Improvement District in downtown Greensboro. She’s received considerable support in her state Senate races from political action committees, and she’s also a science-fiction author.
The results of the Senate District 27 race may depend on how much support Wade enjoys and what inroads Garrett can make between now and November. But it could just as easily come down to what happens up the ticket with the presidential race in a state that is expected to be among the toughest contests of 2016.