Republican Jeff Zenger and Democrat Dan Besse (right) are vying to represent House District 74 in western Forsyth County.

District 74 in western Forsyth County is considered one of three most “pivotal” races in Democrats’ quest to retake control of the NC House.

Under ordinary circumstances, Jeff Zenger, owner of a commercial and residential construction company and self-described “principled conservative” who served eight years on the Lewisville Town Council, might have reason to feel confident about his prospects in House District 74.

Republican Debra Conrad carried the district by 9 points in her last election in 2018 (she resigned on July 31). But a remedial redistricting map imposed by the courts in October 2019 suddenly made District 74 more favorable for a Democratic candidate. Party activists set their sights on 74 as one of three “pivotal districts” that “will likely be key in determining control of the NC House in 2020,” according to an analysis by the grassroots Democratic group Flip NC. (The other two are District 59 in Guilford County and District 82 in Cabarrus County.)

Beyond the redistricting boost, Democrats are feeling emboldened as widespread discontent about President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the protests for racial justice threaten to drag down the entire GOP ticket. Democrat Dan Besse, an environmental lawyer who is serving his fifth term on Winston-Salem City Council, has raised more than 12 times as much money as Zenger, as of the most recent reporting period ending June 30. The $211,363 total in receipts reported by the Besse campaign comes from 1,977 donations, which translates to an average contribution of $107. But the $27,163 tally so far from the NC Democratic Party House Caucus also shows that the party is heavily banking on a Besse win to help cement a governing majority.

On Monday, Besse received another boost: a coveted endorsement from President Obama.

“It was certainly a wonderful surprise,” Besse said. “President Obama was without a doubt in my mind the best president in my lifetime.” The slate of 118 Democratic candidates in 17 states endorsed by Obama also includes Terri LeGrand, a candidate for Senate District 31 in Forsyth County, Roy Cooper for governor, Yvonne Holley for lieutenant governor, Ronnie Chatterji for treasurer, Jessica Holmes for labor commissioner and Cal Cunningham for US Senate.

House District 74 (courtesy NC General Assembly)

“We’ve been pointing out for months now that House District 74 is one of probably a half-dozen state House races that will decide control of our North Carolina House of Representatives for not just the next term, which means in effect for the next decade,” Besse said. “The legislators elected this year will draw the district lines for the coming decade.”

Over the past 10 years, North Carolina has earned a national reputation as one of the most extremely gerrymandered states in the country, with a succession of maps drawn to favor the Republican majority that took control of both chambers in 2010. But asked whether his party’s zeal for reform might wane should they find themselves in the driver’s seat, Besse said unequivocally: “If Democrats win this fall in North Carolina, we will have redistricting reform. I and a lot of other Democrats will come with a commitment to redistricting reform. It’s not going to be just musical chairs on who’s abusing the rules.”

Besse said he personally favors establishing a nonpartisan redistricting commission to take map-drawing out of the hands of state lawmakers. But he said he would also support what he describes as “a legislative process under strict guidelines and judicial review” in which the decision would default to a judge if lawmakers fail to abide by the rules.

Zenger’s campaign website does not include a position on redistricting. Reached by phone on Tuesday morning, he said media requests were being handled by a campaign associate; the campaign did not respond before the deadline on Tuesday evening.

Healthcare, guns, education

The two candidates’ positions are far apart on virtually every issue.

Besse said he and other Democrats are committed to expanding Medicaid in North Carolina and to protecting coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.

“If today’s Republican Party gets another decade of control of this legislature,” Besse charged, “they have signaled they will do everything they can to undercut genuine healthcare for people who need it the most.”

Zenger favors getting government out of healthcare, and he pledges on his campaign website to “advocate for innovative solutions such as Association Health Plans that put the individual consumer in control and remove costly, inefficient government-led plans.”

Besse, in turn, warns that Association Health Plans “have no requirements for insurance companies to continue to cover people with preexisting conditions” and “might work out as a way of dividing the market and cherry-picking the healthiest people.”

Zenger and Besse are also sending different signals to voters on the polarizing issue of guns.

Zenger’s website features a photo of him aiming a rifle, while he warns: “If we lose our ability to bear arms, all our other rights as Americans are vulnerable.”

Besse’s website includes a photo of him wearing a solemn expression and holding a sign declaring, “We can end gun violence.”

When Democrats retook control of the legislature in neighboring Virginia in early 2020, they pledged to enact an ambitious raft of gun-control legislation. Dozens of cities and counties in Virginia enacted so-called “Second Amendment Sanctuary,” and the movement spread to several rural North Carolina counties in early 2020.

Besse said if Democrats retake control of the General Assembly, voters can expect gun legislation to be on the table.

“I think what you’ll see is an effort to adopt more commonsense gun safety rules,” he said. “I emphasize gun safety. We’re not talking about eliminating the Second Amendment. We’re talking about closing the legal loopholes that help us keep guns from flooding onto the streets and falling uncontrollably into criminal use — closing the private-sale background check loophole. We need to do a much better job of promoting safe storage for guns that are legally owned. We need to stop pretending that weapons of war have any legitimate role in public streets. Huge ammunition clips and silencers — what legitimate use do they have? None.”

Like other Democratic candidates, Besse advocates for more robust funding of public education and faults the current Republican majority for underfunding education and allowing North Carolina’s national rankings for teacher pay and per-pupil spending to slip over the past decade.

“As things stand today, if you don’t have a laptop and you don’t have broadband access, you’re not going to be able to keep pace with the education you need without that,” Besse said. “It’s important that systematically we recognize that we need more teaching assistants in classrooms. We need more school nurses and counselors. We need to keep pace with neighboring states in how much we pay teachers. We haven’t done any of that because of the starvation diet this legislature has imposed on schools.”

Besse charged that Republicans’ priority is cutting taxes for corporations, not public education.

“That’s why they arbitrarily decide to cut the tax rates to corporations,” he said, “then figure out how many crumbs can we toss on the plate of public schools.” He added that Republican lawmakers “are pushing to take more money away from the vast majority of our students and instead redirect it to the private schools.”

Zenger clearly takes a different tack. The positions on his website on “government efficiency” and “education and school choice” spell out his philosophy on financing education. On the former he says, “In my time following politics, I’ve found a government of any size rarely that had a revenue problem. It is far more common to see a government filled with overspending, inefficiency and corruption.” On the latter, he says, “We must allow students and parents more flexibility in pursuing education.”

COVID pandemic, human rights

Besse said he would support Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s cautious approach to reopening the state’s economy and public schools as the coronavirus pandemic continues to chart an uncertain course.

“I vocally back Gov. Cooper’s science-based decision-making,” the candidate said. “I think we’re seeing positive results…. In states that have ignored that guidance, cases are spiraling out of control.”

Zenger’s website includes a page with links to resources to help weather the pandemic, but he does not articulate a policy position on the issue.

Besse said if Democrats retake the House, they need to address human rights, civil rights and voting rights that have, in his view, severely eroded over the past decade.

The provision of HB 142 — the 2017 law that replaced the notorious HB 2 — prohibiting local governments from enacting protections against discrimination expires on Dec. 1. But Besse said he won’t be satisfied with just letting it die.

“We’ve got to yank that old rule out by the roots and go further to establish state-level protections,” he said. “There’s no excuse in our society for allowing people to be hired and not hired on the basis of who they love or denied housing and parental rights on the basis of who they love. It’s way past time to fix that.”

He also said the General Assembly needs to be responsive to the protests for racial justice that have swept the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

“Too often our society has acted as though Black lives don’t matter,” Besse said. “We have to prove they do. We have to do that with police reform. We have to do that with putting resources into communities of color.”

Specifically, Besse said he would work for the repeal of a 2016 law sponsored by Rep. John Faircloth (R-Guilford) that prohibits the release of police body-camera video without a court order.

Zenger’s website doesn’t reveal his positions on discrimination against LGBTQ people or police accountability, but his emphasis as a conservative is different. On one issue — abortion — his views are loud and clear.

“We must care for and protect innocent lives in the womb,” he says.

While 2020 in many ways looks like a replay of 2008 — a blue-wave election year that followed a mid-term election in which Democrats made significant inroads — Besse is not taking anything for granted.

“It’s looking good for positive change now, but we have to push as hard as we can now because our future depends on it,” he said. “If we slack off and they sneak up on us, that’s a catastrophe for at least the next generation. For a crisis like climate change, it will be longer than that. I’m taking this contest like my grandchildren’s lives depend on the outcome.”

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