For the better part of the last decade, NC Senate District 27 was held by Republican Trudy Wade, but Democrat Michael Garrett flipped it two years ago in a nail-biter election that turned on less than 1 point.

Although a recent round of redistricting made 27 more Democratic-friendly, it’s still rated the third most vulnerable district for a Democratic incumbent, and holding it is essential for any hopes the party has for taking control of the chamber.

The pitch that Garrett, a 36-year-old Greensboro resident who owns a marketing firm, makes to voters is clearly angled to what he can achieve as a member of a new Democratic majority. Lamenting on his campaign website that Republicans “failed to make critically needed investments in healthcare and education” to match economic growth over the past decade, Garrett asks for voters’ support “so that I can join a new legislative majority that will no longer ignore our state’s needs.”

Considering the Democratic lean of the district, perhaps it’s not surprising that Sebastian King, Garrett’s Republican opponent, downplays his party affiliation. King, a 27-year-old Greensboro resident who is vice president of a regional golfing magazine, previously served as a policy advisor for House Majority Whip Jon Hardister, who earned a reputation for bills with strong bipartisan support, according to King.

“I feel like Guilford County is purple,” King told Triad City Beat. “We don’t represent a party. We represent Guilford County and the state of North Carolina. When I served as Rep. Hardister’s policy advisor, that led to the most bipartisan bills filed, and I’ll do that in the Senate.”

Both candidates tout their support for public education. Garrett says he supports Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed 2019-21 budget, with a 9.1 percent average teacher raise spread over two years. In 2019, teacher raises proposed by the Republican majority in the General Assembly got snagged on a partisan battle over whether to expand Medicaid, and Garrett voted against the budget. King lamented in an interview with TCB that “unfortunately, politics got in the way” of teacher raises.

Garrett has sponsored legislation to restore supplemental pay for teachers with master’s and other advanced degrees, and King said he also supports the measure.

Likewise, both candidates support a statewide school-infrastructure bond, which in the past has been a point of agreement between the Democratic governor and Republican-controlled House, but has run into opposition from the Republican Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

“We have to do something in Guilford County to make sure our students have a safe learning environment,” said King, who added that his sister suffered from mold exposure as a student at Oak Ridge Elementary 10 years ago.

The issue of expanding Medicaid to cover those who don’t earn enough to qualify under the Affordable Care Act is where the two candidates part ways.

Garrett has sponsored legislation to expand Medicaid.

“Pre-COVID, Medicaid expansion would have covered over 600,000 North Carolinians,” Garrett said. “Today, it’s closer to 800,000 or 900,000. Healthcare and education are still critical issues in this campaign. Republicans in the North Carolina Senate have blocked attempts to have conversations about Medicaid expansion. In the House, they at least talked about. In the Senate, we can’t even have the conversation.”

King’s campaign emphasizes his personal story of growing up in poverty, and he talks about being enrolled in Medicaid as a child whose mother got pregnant at 15 years old and about how he was raised by his grandparents. But his campaign website clearly signals his opposition to Medicaid expansion, stating, “Sebastian has been working hard to not have more people on Medicaid.”

Instead, like other Republican candidates, King favors a proposal to create health savings accounts in which state or federal government provides assistance through vouchers to match personal contributions.

Differences on tax policy

Rebooting former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s 2012 campaign slogan, King says on his website that he “will work to bring a Carolina Comeback that will help promote economic mobility and opportunity for every North Carolinian,” and he says “North Carolina must have a tax environment that is competitive with our neighboring states that will attract jobs.”

With Republicans in control of the governorship and both chambers of the legislature, North Carolina slashed the tax rate on wealthy earners from 7.75 percent to 5.8 percent in 2013. There is little evidence that low tax rates promote social mobility. A 2016 study for the Charlotte-based John Belk Endowment found that North Carolina ranks near the bottom of the nation for social mobility. In the Greensboro region specifically, the study found that 39.5 percent of children born into the lowest income quintile remain there. And social mobility in the United States as a whole has fallen compared to Western Europe and Canada as the government has successively cut taxes on the wealthy over the past four decades.

Garrett wants to provide a boost to small business by making exempt the first $50,000 earned. To make that happen, he acknowledged the state would need to overhaul the tax code implemented in 2013

“Prior to the 2013, tax reform, the first $50,000 wasn’t taxed,” Garrett said. “We know small business is the backbone of the economy. Economists would tell you the first $50,000 is the most difficult. If we have the majority in 2021, we’re going to have to look at the tax code. The tax code has been turned upside down since 2013, where large corporations and wealthy individuals are paying less and less, and families are paying more and more. That’s unsustainable. We need to perhaps ask some of our large corporations to pay their fair share since they benefit from our strong university system.”

COVID-19 and protests against police brutality

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened another wedge between the two candidates.

While King acknowledged that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has a difficult job in determining what emergency orders are necessary to protect public health, he said he thinks the state needs to be more accommodating to small businesses.

“When you see people at the outset of the pandemic were lined up outside of Sam’s Club and they’re rioting outside Louis DeJoy’s house, but bars can’t serve people outside, the level of hypocrisy is concerning.” (Asked about his characterization of peaceful protesters outside DeJoy’s house on Aug. 15, King quickly amended it to say “protesting.”)

“The one thing I would stress to the governor is to have a little bit of responsiveness,” King continued. “For the most part, aside from the small businesses, we’ve done what we can with the mask mandate to keep people safe. I would be a little more responsive to small business.”

Garrett said he’s had plenty of conversations with small-business owners who disagree with Cooper’s executive orders.

“I applaud the governor and I’m very proud of his leadership,” Garrett said. “He has stayed above the political fray. In contrast to his opposition, he’s made decisions that are soundly backed by science…. I think most of the business community is also in support of the decisions the governor has made. Most people recognize you can’t have a healthy economy if you’re failing at a public health crisis because if people don’t feel comfortable going out of their homes, businesses will suffer.”

The protests that erupted across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death in late May have also reshaped the political conversation in North Carolina.

King said the issue hits home for him: His stepfather was a police officer, and another family member on his mother’s side was fatally shot by a police officer.

“They didn’t have a warrant, and he came into the house,” King said. “I can relate to how it felt to have a family member gone. I think the majority of police want to do a good job.”

King makes a point to say in conversation and on his campaign website that he does not support defunding the police. Notably, Democrats at the top of national or state ballot also oppose defunding the police, much to the frustration of many people protesting for Black lives.

King said he’s looking forward to hearing the recommendations of a new Select Committee on Community Relations, Law Enforcement and Justice appointed by House Speaker Tim Moore, and he said legislators need to “have tough conversations” on issues like citizen oversight boards, creating a database on troubled officers and access to police-body camera video.

Garrett said he’s been “incredibly disappointed” by the lack of bipartisan dialogue on policing issues in the Senate. He’s already taken positions on the issues King raised.

“I think we need to look at a minimum standard for how community review boards are comprised,” he said. “The conversation we need to have is about giving those boards subpoena power. If you’re a body that’s responsible for oversight, it’s made it hard for them to do their job without that.”

Garrett noted that the current law on police body-camera footage, which was filed by Rep. John Faircloth (R-Guilford) prohibits the release of footage and even prevents city council members from discussing it without a court order.

“It’s been very detrimental to community relations,” Garrett said. “Any time you try to hide something from people, there’s going to be a level of distrust.”

As for whether North Carolina should develop a registry to track officers who resign under clouded circumstances, Garrett said: “Absolutely. 110 percent. That’s something the state can do on its own. I think for it to be impactful, we need federal action because the way people move pretty easily, as close as we are to Virginia, you would need some kind of reciprocity.”

Garrett said he also wants to see legislators pass a law imposing a statewide ban on the use of chokeholds by police.

Who holds power

As important as the District 27 race is to which party claims the majority in 2021, control of the legislature is key to determining how district lines will be drawn over the next decade. While both Democrats and Republicans have used their majorities to draw district maps favorable to their respective parties in the past, both Garrett and King both say they are committed to reforming the process so that redistricting is independent and nonpartisan.

Garrett points out on his website that he has voted against every “politician-drawn map,” and says, “You can rest assured that I will always support nonpartisan redistricting.”

King said in an email to TCB: “I fully support independent redistricting, and I worked on it as a policy advisor. I will work to get it done in the Senate.”

The two candidates and their respective parties would pursue starkly different paths on gun legislation. After Democrats took control of the legislature in Virginia last year, they pursued an ambitious legislative agenda to curb gun violence. Both states have recently experienced significant mass shootings. In May 2019, a disgruntled city employee fatally shot 12 people and wounded four others at a government building in Virginia Beach. A former student fatally shot two students and wounded four others at UNC Charlotte in April 2019.

“I would expect that if Democrats take control of both chambers, there will be an effort on gun control,” Garrett said. “Any commonsense individuals can look at mass shootings that happened and gun deaths, and say we have to do something. We can’t do nothing. You will see an effort to pass control measures.

Senate District 27 map (courtesy Guilford County Board of Elections

“Some things we would probably look at are universal background checks; red-flag laws are something we desperately need to look into,” Garrett added. “I would be on board with banning high-capacity magazines and bump stocks. I’m also in support of an assault weapons ban.”

King said when it comes to gun violence, the focus should be on addressing mental illness.

He would be wary of efforts to close loopholes on background checks to include private sales.

“I think that’s too far,” he said. “Then the government gets involved if a grandfather sells a gun to a grandson. I don’t think the government should play a role in that.” Hardister, King’s former boss in the state House, has used the same talking point.

A ban on high-capacity magazines?

“I’m open to listening to the debate. I haven’t made my mind up.”

Banning bump stocks?

“Likewise, I’m still trying to feel it out to see what the benefits versus downsides are.”

King said he would be reluctant to support an effort to pass a red-flag law in North Carolina.

“I don’t know what the due process [issues] where they could take your guns away based on someone saying you pose a danger,” he said. “I think there are constitutional questions there.”

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