The political map in Guilford County has become progressively more inhospitable for Republicans over the past two election cycles.

First, a court-ordered redrawing in 2018 guaranteed that one of three state House seats held by Republican lawmakers in the county would flip Democratic. Then, last year, another round of map-drawing made the District 59 seat at the eastern end of the county — held by Majority Whip Jon Hardister — more competitive. The partisan index published by the conservative Civitas Institute gives the Republican candidate a 3-point advantage, making it one of the five most competitive districts across the state that lean Republican. The Democratic-aligned group Flip NC has identified District 59 as one of three “pivotal districts” in which a clean sweep would flip control of the House to the Democrats.

Based on fundraising totals at the end of June, Hardister’s Democratic opponent Nicole Ward Quick has raised almost twice as much money as he has. Planned Parenthood is running ads against him based on his record of opposition to Medicaid reform. During an interview at Panera Bread in northwest Greensboro, Hardister acknowledged that his race is tighter this year, but didn’t act overly concerned about his political survival, saying his “fundraising is coming along.” Hardister entered the store wearing a mask, but removed it for the interview.

During the interview, which took place on Aug. 11, Hardister said it was taking him a while to adjust to a campaign season with little person-to-person contact. Three days later, he tweeted out a photograph of his Mustang in a new car wrap with a race-themed motif to advertise his campaign, writing, “Let’s get this race started.”

House District 59 (purple) covers eastern Guilford. (courtesy NCGA)

“It’s hard to gauge the political environment,” he said. “There are so many variables: the pandemic, civil rights. Political polarization is probably worse than it ever has been. It’s going to be close.” Two other factors are likely to drive turnout among base voters for both parties, Hardister noted: Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is fighting to defend his seat from Democrat Cal Cunningham, and North Carolina is considered a “must-win state” for President Trump.

Quick said in a phone interview that she would not have run for the seat if it wasn’t redrawn to make it more competitive. She said her candidacy represents a natural evolution from educational activism when her son started school in 2013 to getting active with her party, where she served as Guilford County Democratic Party chair, in response to Trump’s 2016 election.

“I would say my primary motivation was my son,” Quick said. “He is highly gifted. He’s also on the autism spectrum. Back in 2013, we were planning to send him to our neighborhood school. That was the year the Republican majority decided to gut education. Guilford County laid off 37 teachers. His occupational therapist called me and said, ‘He’s not going to have an [exceptional children] teacher.’ I was fortunate that I could stay home. I home-schooled him through fifth grade. He got into Lincoln Academy. They didn’t have a working air-conditioner on the second floor.”

That year, she said her son’s school also didn’t have a full-time math teacher because the previous teacher had been lured to Virginia to work for higher pay. Through her involvement in the school PTA, Quick said she realized her son’s situation was not unique.

Quick said she wants to see North Carolina reclaim its position as a national leader in education, hearkening back to the early 1990s, when Gov. Jim Hunt established Smart Start, an early childhood education program.

“Right now, we are below the national average in teacher pay and per-pupil spending,” said Quick, who is endorsed by the NC Association of Educators. “We should at least be paying our teachers at the national average.”

Hardister, who was elected to the NC House in 2012, said North Carolina’s national teacher-pay ranking has moved from the low 40s to around 30. He said he regrets that pay raises for teachers haven’t been more equitable, noting that “those who’ve been in the profession for 25 years or more” haven’t benefited as their younger colleagues have.

“Sadly, the teacher pay issue has been politicized,” Hardister said. “We can do better. I was frustrated by the budget impasse in 2019, where we included funding for teacher raises. The governor vetoed the budget because it didn’t include Medicaid expansion. We’ve got to continue on the trajectory to raise teacher pay and accelerate it.”

The two candidates are predictably split over Medicaid expansion, with Quick calling for expansion and Hardister remaining noncommittal.

“I do support Medicaid expansion,” Quick said. “We’ve been sending those tax dollars in. They’ve been used by other states. That’s money we’re throwing away. Before COVID, it was 500,000 North Carolinians that fell through the cracks. Now, it’s much higher.”

Hardister said he doesn’t deny that lack of access to healthcare is an issue.

“How can we best get from point A to point B?” he asked. “This is a philosophical issue. I’m in favor of a quasi-public-private partnership. Under the Republican proposal, people in the coverage gap would pay a premium. Other states have put that in place and gotten sued.” Hardister added that he wants to explore the possibility of allowing people to set up health savings accounts that allows employees to contribute pre-tax income.

A Republican incumbent shifting leftward

While the candidates’ respective positions on education and healthcare fall along predictable party lines, the protests that erupted in the wake of the death of George Floyd have reshuffled the political deck on the issue of policing. For Hardister, who took heat from progressive constituents over his support of the controversial HB 2 law in 2016, it represents a leftward pivot.

Hardister said he met with protesters in Raleigh, adding that they raised a legitimate concern about police firing rubber bullets at largely peaceful protesters.

And he said he’s reconsidered his support for the state’s 2015 police body-camera law, which prohibits the release of video without a court order.

“Police body-camera video needs to be more transparent,” Hardister said. “I know there were some legitimate concerns initially, but at this point transparency is paramount.”

He also said he supports the creation of a national database to prevent officers who are fired from going to work for another agency. House Speaker Tim Moore has taken notice of Hardister’s budding interest in police reform by appointing him to the new Select Committee on Community Relations, Law Enforcement and Justice, which is tasked with examining “North Carolina’s criminal justice systems to propose methods of improving police training and relations between law enforcement and its communities.”

Quick supports both increasing access to police-body camera video and tracking officers who leave agencies under dubious circumstances.

“There’s definitely a need to address racial reform justice, and reform the criminal-justice system,” Quick said. “For over three years, I’ve reached out to legislators to ask them to make police body-camera footage public.” Noting that Rep. John Faircloth (R-Guilford) introduced the bill that restricted access to the video, Quick said, “My mom said, ‘If you’re doing something that you don’t want people to know about, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.’”

Similar to Hardister, Quick said, “We should have a database or registry of officers that have used undue force or have killed someone in the line of duty.”

She also said officers who see their colleagues using excessive force or otherwise violating civilians’ rights should be required to report it.

Hardister has also staked out a position on the pandemic that is moderate for a Republican. In contrast to the president and other members of his party who have demanded that churches, schools and businesses reopen while scorning mask-wearing, Hardister provides a running update on the pandemic on his Facebook page that includes data and analysis.

“We don’t have the right to get people sick,” Hardister said. “I believe in science. I’m close to my mom and dad. They’re in their mid-seventies, so I don’t want to get them sick. The [Democratic] governor, he’s got a tough job. You won’t see me slamming him.”

Hardister joined fellow Republicans in voting to reopen fitness clubs in defiance of Gov. Roy Cooper’s emergency orders, but they were unable to muster enough votes to override his veto. Hardister said he also favors allowing bowling alleys to open at half capacity. He said that while he differs with the governor on some particulars, he doesn’t question his authority to impose restrictions to protect the public health.

“I think over all that most of the [Democratic] caucus supports Cooper because we believe in science and public health and safety,” Quick said. “Our primary issue — there is concern about the economic effects — I think public safety has to be our primary issue. We can’t address the other issues until we get the spread of this under control. The longer we take to get a handle on this as a country, it’s going to prolong the period of economic pain and more sickness and death.” 

On the issue of gun control, Hardister said he is open to some changes, but Quick laid out a slate of reforms that would go much further.

“I was raised in southeastern North Carolina,” Quick said. “Everybody hunted. I grew up around guns. I am not out to take away anyone’s guns. I do worry about our kids. I think there are common-sense things we can do: Prohibiting high-capacity magazines, prohibiting bump stocks, red-flag laws, closing gun-show loopholes. If you know people who have been violent — domestic abusers — they should be flagged to not have access.”

Hardister, who has identified himself as a Second Amendment proponent since his first campaign, said he wouldn’t be “opposed to limits on magazine capacity.”

But he balked at the idea of requiring background checks for private gun transactions, citing the example of a grandfather passing along a firearm to a grandson as the kind of transaction the state doesn’t need to get involved in.

And he said red-flag laws are “tricky,” expressing discomfort with the idea that someone might have their guns taken away on the say-so of a neighbor with an axe to grind or on the basis of a domestic dispute.

Outside of education and healthcare, the issue where the candidates differ the most might be the environment, where Hardister’s support for business translates to different priorities.

“Our regulations need to be strengthened,” Quick said. “Take Duke Energy. My opponent takes donations from [Duke Energy’s political action committee]. He has voted to give them the ability to raise rates to cover the coal-ash cleanup. I think that should come out of their own money. Maybe their CEO should not get that bonus.

“This legislature has worked to prevent people who live close to hog farms from filing civil suits,” Quick continued. “They’re affecting people’s lives and health. We need to protect people’s lives and health and hold polluters accountable.”

Hardister took the two issues in turn.

“Executive salaries may be exorbitant,” he said, “but [Duke] has the right to set their compensation packages how they see fit. I think it’s important to note that they create a lot of jobs, and they do a lot of charitable work. It can get tricky.”

Hardister said the purpose of the law to limit lawsuits against hog farms, which he supported, was to prevent frivolous litigation.

“The legislation is to support farmers,” he said. “I talked to farmers and the agriculture commissioner, who is from Guilford County. I felt it was best to support the farmers. Bear in mind that willful negligence still applies. I understand the sensitivity to it; I’m a property owner.”

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