Republican Amy Galey, a lawyer in Burlington, won a seat on the Alamance County Commission in 2016, and chairs the local legislative board. When she learned that Rick Gunn, who represents Senate District 24, wasn’t running for re-election, she decided to run for the seat.
JD Wooten, an Air Force veteran and lawyer in Greensboro, ran for the seat in 2018, but lost to Gunn by more than 7 points. Last year, he decided to give the race another try.
Senate District 24 covers the entirety of Alamance County, along with the rural, eastern swath of Guilford County. The Civitas Partisan Index rates it as a Republican-leaning district, but Galey has been going on the offensive against her Democratic opponent by leveling charges of fraud against him related to the house he bought in Greensboro with backing from the Veterans Administration.
A mailer with Wooten’s likeness that was paid for by the Republican-backed NC Senate Majority Fund in August declares: “State Senate candidate JD Wooten committed fraud on his VA mortgage loan,” and then concludes, “JD Wooten is corrupt. He doesn’t belong in the state Senate.”
Wooten noted in an interview with Triad City Beat that the lender is First Bank, and the Veterans Administration is only the guarantor — roughly the equivalent of a parent cosigning a child’s student loan to obtain a more favorable interest rate. He said he met the terms of the agreement by living in the house on Lindell Road in Greensboro for seven months from March through October 2019, and then waiting until July 2020 to start renting it out. Chris Justice, the closing attorney, wrote in a July 24 email that Wooten provided to TCB: “Based on the facts of this situation, JD has complied with the terms of the loan and has not in any way breached the terms of his agreement with his lender. Any suggestion otherwise is not based in fact and is patently false.”
A fact-check of the Republican claims against Wooten by the News & Observer Fact-Checking Project found, “There is no evidence that the lender has objected, or claimed to have been defrauded by Wooten.”
Galey told TCB she views the campaign attacks against Wooten as “absolutely fair.”
“I have serious questions about his truthfulness when he took out that loan,” she said. “The evidence points to him not intending for that to be his primary residence.”
While the fraud claims have proven to be unsubstantiated, the controversy has helped the Galey campaign paint Wooten as an outsider shopping for a district. The Lindell Road house, on which he closed March 19, 2019, is in District 28, a Democratic stronghold currently represented by Gladys Robinson.
Wooten has previously lived in Whitsett and McLeansville, which are in District 24. In October 2019, after announcing plans to run for the Senate seat, Wooten moved to another rental house in McLeansville, in District 24.
In comments to TCB, Galey argued that Wooten fully intended to run for the Senate District 24 seat during the period when he bought the house in Greensboro, noting a post on a Facebook page for the Wooten campaign dated March 29 — just 10 days after he closed on the house — that shows Wooten in a campaign shirt standing in front of what appears to be a moving van, with the accompanying text: “Team Wooten is always moving NC forward — sometimes literally! And we have to stay in shape in the ‘off season.’ — never know what 2020 will bring.” Galey also pointed to campaign finance records, which show Wooten made bimonthly payments to his campaign manager from February through May 2019, and made in-kind contributions to his campaign through monthly payments on a phone subscription.
Wooten told TCB that after enduring a similar smear campaign from the Gunn campaign in 2018, he was at first reluctant to run again.
“Friends and family convinced me that perhaps I would regret not trying again,” he said. “A little over a month after I purchased a house, Joe Biden announced his candidacy for the presidency. It was a very moving speech about the fight for the soul of the nation. I feel like we’re in the same thing in North Carolina: We’re in a fight for the soul of North Carolina.”
Galey said her run for state Senate is an extension of the desire to retain the existing character of Alamance County that also motivated her run for county commission four years ago.
“I was concerned about the issues with growth in Alamance County, with all the people we have moving here from other places,” she said. “We had issues of land use, school capacity and transportation. It seemed like people weren’t talking about it. As I’ve served on the county commission, I’ve seen that those issues are regional.”
Relocating the Confederate monument
Issues of growth and cultural change have placed Galey at the center of a growing controversy over the fate of the Confederate monument that towers in front of the Alamance County Historic Courthouse, where the county commission holds meetings. A multiracial coalition of Black, Latinx and white residents has become increasingly vocal in demands to remove the monument, and when UPS announced plans to invest in Alamance County, activists sought to link the two issues.
Speaking on behalf of a coalition of groups opposed to the monument, Meg Williams of Alamance County attempted to address two UPS representatives about the issue during a public hearing of the county commission’s Aug. 17 meeting. Galey told Williams her comments needed to be directed toward the board and then accused her of “disorderly conduct” when Williams continued to speak to the UPS representatives. Galey ordered Williams to return to her seat, and then asked Sheriff Terry Johnson to remove Williams from the chamber, prompting a deputy to tear her away from the podium. A week later, UPS announced support for the call to remove the monument.
In an interview with TCB, Galey defended her handling of the incident, reiterating that speakers are supposed to address their remarks to the commissioners. She noted that “she didn’t say anything to her about her content,” but later declined to say whether she would have stopped Williams from speaking about the Confederate monument had she addressed her comments to the board, brushing it aside as a “hypothetical.”
“I am a free-speech zealot,” Galey said. “I believe so strongly in our freedom of speech. We have protesters outside the county commission meetings, and I say, “Good for them.’ I love that people are passionate and go out and voice their opinions.”
Wooten supports relocating the monument in front of the Alamance County Historic Courthouse.
“I don’t want us to forget our past; these symbols are of such a dark and repressive time that today we understand is abominable,” the candidate said. “This is a human rights violation at a gross scale. We don’t need celebrations of that in front of the courthouse. That’s supposed to be a hall of justice.
“As a veteran, these statues trigger me for a different reason,” Wooten continued. “The vast majority of Confederate officers were US military officers first. They turned their back on the oath they took. They literally committed treason. In addition to how horrible slavery was, these are also monuments that are in support of or otherwise condoning treason against our country.”
The General Assembly passed a law in 2015 restricting local municipalities and counties from removing monuments, but local governments in Winston-Salem, Chatham County, Salisbury, Wilmington, Vance County, Anson County, Pitt County and Warren County have bypassed the law to relocate Confederate monuments based on safety concerns. The Alamance County manager recommended that the monument in front of the historic courthouse in Graham be relocated, but the county commission has not heeded his call.
Galey said she supports local control over the issue — a position that is less remarkable than it would have been two years ago, considering that the state law has essentially been rendered moot.
“Having worked in local government, I believe strongly that local government should have more say in what goes on in their community,” Galey told TCB. “Local city council and county commissioners should have a say in what their communities look like, and not have it dictated by a central authority.”
Education, healthcare and other issues
Both candidates say they support investments in public education. Galey said she supported increased funding for a teacher pay supplement in Alamance County as a commissioner, and that she wants to see the General Assembly approve a 5 percent average raise in teacher pay across the state.
Wooten said the next General Assembly will be challenged to meet the funding needs of public schools, considering that the economic downturn is expected to hurt state revenues. He said he would consider voting to increase the corporate tax rate.
“The corporate tax rate needs to be commensurate or on par with the personal tax rate, at a minimum,” he said. “We want to be careful that we don’t tax corporations and businesses so much that we drive them away. I’m not familiar with the tax rates of surrounding states. I don’t want to be anti-competitive.”
North Carolina has the lowest corporate tax rate in the nation, according to a recent ranking by the Tax Foundation.
Wooten said the Republican majority’s refusal to “fully fund” education and expand Medicaid were major reasons he decided to make a second run for the seat.
Galey said she opposes expanding Medicaid by accepting federal funds to close the coverage gap through the Affordable Care Act.
“I believe North Carolina should look at expanding Medicaid to meet targeted and identifiable policy goals, not just throw open the spigot of money without direction,” she said. “I think we should have programs and initiatives that are reasonably tailored to achieve a result.”
On the national protests
The candidates have responded in different ways to the protests that have erupted across the county, including in Graham and Greensboro, in response to the death of George Floyd.
“We need to have better access to police body-camera video,” Wooten said. “I’m in support of banning chokeholds. I’m in favor of limiting participation in the 1033 program, which allows police to buy military-grade surplus equipment. As a veteran, I understand and am familiar with some of that equipment. It’s designed for war. Having a domestic police force that is militarized sends the wrong message to our communities about the kind of police we want to have. It’s a harmful message.”
Galey said the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests prompted her to “think about systemic racism in a more urgent way and become educated in the experiences of people of color and how it’s ingrained in American culture and business. I’ve been learning a lot about that.”
The candidate said she would be reluctant to impose additional state restrictions on law enforcement, instead arguing that local agencies need additional funding so they’re able to retain “police officers and sheriff’s deputies who are mature and have self-control.” She also spoke in favor of local governments investing in mental health as a way of preventing negative encounters with law enforcement.
If there’s a state policy where she would apply her concern about systemic racism, Galey said it would be expanding Medicaid to address African-American infant mortality.
“It’s twice for African-American babies what it is for Caucasian babies, and that’s a problem,” Galey said. “I understand that access to healthcare prenatally and postnatally is part of that puzzle. I would be in support of expanding Medicaid in such a way that it is intended to reach that policy goal of reducing African-American mortality.”
The two candidates also take markedly different positions on gun safety.
Wooten said he supports banning bump-stocks, such as was used by the Las Vegas shooter to maximize casualties at a 2017 country-music concert. He also supports “more robust background checks.”
“I would call it common-sense reforms,” he said. “I would support red-flag laws, anything that can help responsible ownership of these dangerous tools.”
Galey said the gun laws that are in place need to be enforced.
“With the mass shootings and other acts of violence we’ve seen, there was a law that was broken in each of those,” she said. “It’s against the law to murder people…. When it comes to red-flag laws, with a 50B domestic violence protective order, the petitioner, who is usually a woman, has the opportunity to have the defendant’s firearms taken away. When he’s taken into custody, his firearms are dealt with appropriately. There are important structures already in place to address those things. They need to be enforced and used to the fullest extent possible.”
Find more election reporting at triad-city-beat.com/category/election-2020.