A new legislative map ordered by the federal courts gives Democrats the opportunity to pick up a state House seat in Guilford County.
When the federal courts ruled that the legislative map for the Guilford County was an impermissible racial gerrymander, the new map added a district stretching across north Greensboro that is favorable to the Democrats, effectively flipping it out of the Republican column.
Democrat Ashton Clemmons resigned from her last job as an assistant superintendent of Thomasville City Schools to run for state House in the new House District 57 in Guilford County. The doctoral candidate at UNCG approaches elected office as extension of the public service that motivated her to go into education in the first place. In May, she marched with thousands of teachers in Raleigh, and she stays involved in education by volunteering at Brooks Global Elementary, where her daughter is a second-grader.
Clemmons’ opponent, Republican Troy Lawson, has chaired the Guilford County Republican Party for two years. Lawson argues that regardless of what gains Democrats might make in this election, the Republicans are likely to retain control of the General Assembly, and he’s in a better position to advocate for the district, particularly the economically challenged portion in east Greensboro.
Although the most recent campaign finance totals available date back to late June, Clemmons enjoyed a 10-fold fundraising advantage over Lawson at the time. Over the course of the campaign, Clemmons has racked up endorsements from a slew of unions, LGBT rights groups and Lillian’s List and Emily’s List, operations that raise funds for women candidates. Lawson received an assist from a local Republican fundraiser headlined by US Rep. Mark Walker.
Clemmons draws on her experience as an educator to argue for investing in traditional public schools. She said she served as principal of the lowest-performing school in the state and got to see it designated as the “Title I school of the year.”
“I know what it takes,” she said. “And what it takes is a belief that all children can achieve, the resources to get them what they need. When we were at our school, we were able to have extended school days, we were able to have an extended school year. But we most importantly created a community center at our school. We had GED classes, language learning classes for parents and children together. We canvassed our communities and knocked on every family’s door to welcome them to the school year.”
Clemmons opposes charter schools, arguing that they do not provide equal access to students from families with limited financial resources.
“Charter schools do not have to provide transportation for children,” she said. “They do not have to provide meals for children. Our district is 67 percent kids that qualify for free and reduced lunch. So you cannot tell me that in a district that is two-thirds where kids need help to have their food provided, it’s equal access when charter schools don’t provide that and they don’t provide transportation. So we are using state taxpayer money to support schools where every child doesn’t have the opportunity to attend them. I have a fundamental problem with that.”
Lawson, who serves on the board of directors for Gate City Charter Academy located on the eastern outskirts of Greensboro, said parents are willing to overcome the barriers to give their children the opportunity for a quality education through charter schools.
“My opponent will tell you there’s no access,” Lawson said. “Well, guess what? I challenge her and anyone else to come to the drive line at 7:20 in the morning and see all those parents – hundreds of them – waiting to let their children go to a school that the other side says there’s no access to.” He added that some of the parents don’t own cars, and their children get to school by carpooling.
Among a host of issues the two candidates take different positions is voter ID, part of a slate of Constitutional amendments that voters will consider in November in the form of ballot referenda.
“I read that my opponent says that this does not have to do with race,” Clemmons said. “Obviously, it does, if you are disempowering twice as many African Americans with this law as white voters. So that’s factor No. 1. No. 2: I had my wallet stolen on a vacation this summer. And I went to the DMV to get a new license. I got there at 8:20 in the morning, and I did not leave until 1:45. So the idea that your Constitutional right to vote would be tied to your ability to be off work for five hours, get yourself there, be able to sit and wait for however long it may take is fundamentally against who we should be as a democracy.”
The federal courts struck down North Carolina’s 2013 election law, which included a voter ID provision, finding that it targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Among other provisions, the court noted that African Americans “disproportionately lacked” photo ID. And a recent study of Michigan voters who lacked photo ID and voted by filling out affidavits found that non-white voters are 2.5 to 6 times more likely to lack ID.
Lawson said he stands by his statement, noting that more than 30 other states have voter ID laws on the books. Asked about the evidence that voter ID laws disproportionately affect non-white voters and poor people, the candidate said he would advocate for DMV to bring its services to remote locations in east Greensboro and other disadvantaged communities where people lack voter ID and access to transportation.
“If that’s the case – whatever you’re saying – then let’s make it simple and let’s bring it right to their doorstep, and let’s see what happens,” Lawson said. “Then after that, if there are problems, then we do have an issue. Because if we bring it to their doorstep and we still have an issue, then I agree: There’s probably a systemic thing going on.”
A formidable incumbent in Guilford’s most rural district
District 59 has long been the most rural, and last year’s redistricting made it even more so by subtracting some Republican-leaning areas of Greensboro, while incorporating Democratic-leaning Sedalia. Republican Jon Hardister, who won his first election in 2012 thanks to redistricting by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, has gained increasing clout over his three terms in office, securing the position of majority whip.
Hardister said the Republican majority’s record of corporate and personal income tax cuts and gradual increases in education spending has put North Carolina on the right track.
“The tax cuts have resulted in us having more revenue,” he said. “We had a budget surplus this year of over $300 million. The economy is stronger. The unemployment rates are lower. Jobs are coming to North Carolina. Wages are rising.”
North Carolina’s national ranking for teacher pay has risen from an abysmal 49th to a merely poor 39th.
“We’re working to do better,” Hardister said. “We want our teachers to be the highest paid in the nation. You can’t do it overnight. People say, ‘Why don’t you just raise taxes?’ I fear that higher taxes could result in less growth, and then we would have less revenue to pay teachers.”
Democrat Steven Buccini, who works as a software-engineering consultant, pointedly clarifies that he’s not running on an anti-Trump platform – a concession to the conservative makeup of the rural area in eastern Guilford County that comprises much of the district. He says his candidacy represents a reaction to a series of bad policy decisions by Republican lawmakers in North Carolina, culminating in 2016.
“But really, the election 2016 was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Buccini said. “After years of continuous bad policy, you had HB 2. That came on top of lack of respect for education, and the refusal to expand Medicaid. I regard that as a moral imperative, as the son of a doctor. To see Republican candidates not only getting re-elected, but coasting to re-election – Mr. Hardister didn’t even have an opponent.”
As a Greensboro native who attended college at UC-Berkeley and worked in Silicon Valley before returning home, Buccini argues that the North Carolina legislature’s far-right policies have discouraged investment.
“When I’m in boardrooms in Silicon Valley, what they know about North Carolina and what they see on the news is HB 2, Confederate monuments and 30,000 teachers marching in Raleigh because they don’t get paid enough,” Buccini said. “This is really a branding problem, too. We want to attract the best and brightest to our state, and make them feel welcome here.”
Hardister, who voted for HB 2 – a wide-ranging bill rapidly passed during a special session in March 2016 that prohibited transgender people from using the bathroom that accords with their gender identity – agreed, to an extent.
“I believe we should have handled that differently,” he said. “The legislature made a mistake. We went too far. That’s why we corrected it. We passed a bipartisan bill that I believe corrected the problem.”
But on a host of other issues championed by GOP lawmakers or passed into law by the Republican majority – voter ID, protecting Confederate monuments, restricting access to police body-camera video through the courts and opposing Medicaid expansion – Hardister articulated positions in line with his party.
Buccini argued that the spoils of North Carolina’s robust economy have disproportionately benefited the wealthy, and that when a downturn inevitably hits, poor people will suffer the most.
“They cut taxes but they added a sales tax that hits consumers really when they need it most: If you have to get an emergency car repair, now you’re paying taxes on that when you previously weren’t before,” he said. “We’re hurting our most vulnerable citizens. When this market turns I’m worried that because of this tax reform, because of this constitutional amendment putting a cap on income tax we’re not giving ourselves the flexibility we need.”