Democratic tide laps at Republican stronghold in District 62

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Democrat Martha Shafer is challenging Republican John Faircloth in House District 62.

In suburban House District 62, a Democratic “rock star” who has outraised her opponent almost 10 to 1 is seeking to unseat a Republican incumbent lawman who has lost the support of law enforcement.

In a normal election year, we probably wouldn’t be talking about Rep. John Faircloth’s re-election prospects because his eventual triumph would be a foregone conclusion.

When he wasn’t running unopposed, the four-term Republican House member has rarely faced a serious challenge. And while the newly drawn House District 62 hasn’t been tested, the western flank of Guilford County from Summerfield down to through a more affluent stretch of High Point would seem like friendly territory for a conservative Republican.

Even in a midterm election billed as a “blue wave,” District 62 wasn’t on too many people’s lists of likely Democratic pickups. Then came the second round of campaign finance reports in early July that showed Democratic challenger Martha Shafer outpacing Faircloth in fundraising by almost 10 to 1. A healthcare executive who retired from Cone Health, Shafer and her fellow Democratic challenger Terri LeGrand in neighboring District 74 have been dubbed “the rock star candidates” by the Durham-based Indivisible group Flip NC.

Faircloth, a former High Point City Council member and retired police chief, acknowledged that he needs to make up ground. He cited an extended legislative session that produced a raft of constitutional amendments, which Republicans hope will motivate their voters to turn out in November while giving Democrats yet another rallying point.

“We’ve got two months to go [before the election],” Faircloth said. “Those of us who are in office got a very slow start. We were in Raleigh much longer than we expected. I would say we’re behind in momentum. But I’ve got wonderful support over the years, and I’ve supported my constituents well in Raleigh. And I have the committee assignments to be able to do great things for North Carolina.”

While taking positions on many issues that are diametrically opposed to where Faircloth stands, Shafer downplays party affiliation in her pitch to voters.

“I’m an eight-generation North Carolinian born and raised in Charlotte with parents from small towns in eastern North Carolina,” Shafer said. “I know people of many different affiliations. I know people in both parties are concerned about the behavior of the General Assembly. I want to see less partisanship and more concern with the common good for the people of North Carolina.”

Shafer’s lopsided fundraising totals aren’t the only sign of slippage in the race. Faircloth is one of only two retired law enforcement officers in the state House, but the NC Police Benevolent Association — representing retired and active federal, state, county and local law enforcement officers — gave its endorsement to Shafer instead. The endorsement for Shafer is all the more striking because Faircloth is the architect of a 2016 law that restricted access to police-body camera video, and the Police Benevolent Association has rebuked Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in the past for advocating that the public have more access to the recordings.

Faircloth indicates he holds no hard feelings towards the members of the association, saying that he has “the greatest respect for them.”

“They are interested in some issues that I haven’t been able to come around to,” Faircloth said. “Generally, on the policing issues we agreed. When we’re talking about the benefits to the officers when they retire or when they get into trouble, that’s where we haven’t been able to agree. I suspect they put that ahead of the body camera issue.”

In addition to the Police Benevolent Association, Shafer has received the endorsement of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

“We had a very thorough conversation about things that were of interest to them, like protections for whistleblowers and due process rights for police officers,” Shafer said of her interview with the Police Benevolent Association. “I don’t know how my opponent answered those questions. I was proud to get their endorsement.”

On the issue of police body-camera video, Shafer said she favors a less restrictive policy than the law crafted by Faircloth, which requires an order from a superior court judge to access the video.

“I think when law enforcement agencies have body cameras, I don’t think the intent was to keep the footage as personnel records,” Shafer said. “We need to have a process that allows people who are in videos in use-of-force incidents to have access to those videos.”

While the police body-camera law frustrated many community members at a time when calls for police accountability were mounting, the new law was yoked with a separate measure that tacked to the left on drug policy. HB 972 dropped a prohibition on needle exchanges designed to reduce the spread of HIV, AIDS, hepatitis and other bloodborne diseases among addicts. The needle exchanges, which have sprung up in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, among other North Carolina cities, also provide Naloxone kits to reverse drug overdoses and encouragement to addicts to seek treatment when they’re ready.

The idea of providing clean needles to people who use illegal drugs would have been unthinkable to Faircloth when he started his career in law enforcement as a Greensboro police officer, after serving in a civil affairs unit with the US Army.

“If you go back to the time I was still a police officer and working the drug problem in Greensboro, I moved a long way to get to this point; it was not overnight,” Faircloth said. “I realized over time we’re not dealing with a bunch of criminals. We’re dealing with people with a weakness and a problem, and we need to find some way to address it.”

Harm reduction as a means of addressing the opioid crisis is one rare area of bipartisan accord in Raleigh. Prison reform is another. If elected to another term, Faircloth said he would like to develop a way for inmates to qualify for early release, citing the $36,000-per-year cost of housing incarcerated individuals. The state of North Carolina eliminated parole in 1994.

“I think there needs to be a way for people, if they are convicted of something and they’re given time and they go to prison and they follow the rules and they do the things they should in terms of taking classes, there ought to be a way to be rewarded for that,” Faircloth said.

But on many other issues, the two candidates align with their parties.

Republican lawmakers, who have held control of the General Assembly since 2011, have resisted calls to expand Medicaid. A 2016 University of North Carolina study found that expanding Medicaid would provide coverage for an additional 463,000 people and create 43,314 jobs over a 5-year period. Faircloth joined his fellow Republicans in 2013 in a nearly party-line vote to block Medicaid expansion.

“Closing the Medicaid coverage gap would be good in a lot of ways,” Shafer said. “It provides care for people who have none. It brings good-paying jobs to our state.”

Faircloth touts what he views as economic progress made by the state since Republicans took control in 2011.

“The progress we have made in North Carolina with regard to our business and our employers and employees, almost across the board universally we are better off than we were eight or 10 years ago, and we still have work to do,” he said.

Shafer said she also would also have voted differently than Faircloth on three other issues.

“He voted for the unconstitutional racial and partisan gerrymandering redistricting plans, which the courts struck down over time,” Shafer said.

Faircloth makes no apologies for his votes on two successive redistricting plans, which have each been ruled unconstitutional. A member of the House Redistricting Committee, Faircloth’s campaign website features a photograph of the lawmaker reviewing a map of the 2011 plan. (The website hasn’t been updated since Faircloth’s last election in 2016, and still lists his old district.)

“I think you can’t go anywhere in our history to find the party in the majority has backed away and not made it favorable to their party; that’s what politics is,” Faircloth said. “I do support and have always supported finding a way to take partisanship out of redistricting. I would support an independent redistricting commission attempting to find a neutral way of drawing districts.”

Similarly, Faircloth defends his votes to shift power from the governor to the legislature, including legislation passed during a special session shortly before Gov. Cooper was sworn in and a pair of Constitutional amendments that will go before voters in November. Shafer charged that Faircloth’s voting record “doesn’t show respect for the separation of powers that’s called for in the constitution.”

The new House District 62 covers the western end of Guilford County.

“Obviously, the legislature, we read the constitution to say we’re the body that’s supposed to pass the laws and have oversight, and our interpretation differs from the governor,” Faircloth said.

“One thing I am pleased about the constitutional amendments is the citizens will vote,” he added. “If they feel the legislature went too far, they can cast their vote in that direction.”

On one matter, Faircloth has bent towards Shafer’s view.

Shafer said she would have voted against House Bill 2.

“I think that was a black eye for our state,” she said. Passed during a special session in 2016, House Bill 2 law dictated which bathrooms transgender individuals can use and barred municipalities from passing non-discrimination ordinances. The following year, Gov. Cooper signed legislation scaling the law back.

“I have regrets about how it affected our state,” Faircloth said. “I’m never comfortable when something divides people greatly. I think we went too far. I’m glad we were able to back up.”

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