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Forsyth Senate races locked up by partisan skew

by Jordan Green

by Jordan Green jordan@yesweekly.com

The Republican incumbent in NC Senate District 31 is a 56-year-old corporate lawyer at the prestigious firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. The challenger is a 74-year-old retired public school teacher with a long history of activism in the Democratic Party.

The Democratic candidate in Senate District 32 is a veteran lawmaker who has served five terms in the House.

The Republican candidate is a 33-year-old tax preparer who argues for a flat consumption tax and social conservative values.

When the Republican majority redrew state Senate districts last year, they carved Linda Garrou, a senior Democrat with budget-writing experience, out of District 32. Otherwise, little has changed in the political equation for Forsyth County’s two state senate districts.

District 31 remains the doughnut, taking in the suburban and rural parts of Forsyth, along with the entirety of Yadkin County. District 31 voters in Forsyth County tend to be more affluent, white and conservative in their voting preferences than the county as a whole. District 32 remains the carve-out of urban Winston-Salem although it has been redrawn to pick up much of Kernersville at the end of a tentacle creeping east on Business 40. The voters in District 32 are almost evenly split between white and black. The conservative-leaning Civitas Institute gives the Democratic candidate a 17-point advantage in District 32, while favoring the Republican candidate in District 31 with a 13-point advantage.

In other words, the race is all but decided. Republican Pete Brunstetter was appointed by his party to replace the late Sen. Ham Horton in District 31 in 2006. When Republicans took control of the Senate last year, Brunstetter was appointed co-chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Last week at a campaign event hosted by the Winston- Salem Chamber of Commerce that used a speed-dating format, Brunstetter reported to one of the small groups that the General Assembly is likely to modernize the sales tax code so that services are covered along with goods.

“You have to do it revenue neutral,” the lawmaker told the group.

Brunstetter, who could not be reached for comment for this story, was the primary sponsor of 2011 legislation that put a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to a man and woman on the primary ballot earlier this year. The referendum passed statewide with more than 50 percent of voters in Forsyth County supporting it.

As a legislator, Brunstetter has also grappled with healthcare. He serves on the Adult Care Homes Subcommittee of the Blue Ribbon Commission Transitions to Community Living, and ran a bill to plug a $200 million Medicaid funding gap.

Brunstetter’s weekly e-mail newsletter, typically sent out to constituents when the Senate is in session, reveals a legislator with a generally placid personality given to flashes of colorful anecdote, although the dispatches don’t always clearly point to where he stands on the various policy issues in contention.

“If there is a problem, I am in the middle of it,” Brunstetter wrote in a May 24 newsletter. “If there is a fight, it’s on my doorstep. The issues are varied and complicated, and don’t necessarily have a rhyme or reason.”

In July, the Republican majority overrode vetoes by Gov. Bev Perdue on a controversial method of natural gas extraction called fracking, legislation to amend a law that provides for a review of death penalty cases in which race may have played a role in convictions, and a budget that did not provide compensation for victims of forced sterilization.

“Our caucus was unusually disciplined, putting the goals of the whole ahead of the aims of any single legislator,” Brunstetter said in his July 5 newsletter. He added that he took it as “a red badge of courage” that a Democratic member referred to Brunstetter and his fellow Republicans on the budget negotiating team as “bullies.”

Delmas Parker, a retired schoolteacher and member and longtime Democratic Party activists, said he wants to bring “progressive leadership” to District 31.

“I’m not going to make an issue out of my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” the 74-year-old Parker said in an interview, “but as an old guy I’ll tell you we have to go into the future with a clean environment, strong communities, good public transportation and a good education system.”

Jerry Cook, an executive at Hanesbrands, pressed Parker and another candidate on whether they would agree to reduce taxes during the chamber event.

“We’re very concerned that we’re on the precipice of making this a non-business-friendly state,” he said.

Parker said later that he wished he had the time to respond more fully to Cook.

“I think we’re counted as one of the top businessfriendly states in the union,” he said. “I wish I had the chance to tell him that North Carolina is one of the few states that takes on the roads and public education. The tax breaks would be a little higher than Georgia or Tennessee, where the counties have to pay for that.”

The candidate also lamented a recent reduction in the sales tax.

“I thought it was wrong to take off the half-cent sales tax,” he said. “It’s too important to keep students in school, to support early-childhood education and keep teachers employed in rural counties. I didn’t even know I was paying it. You didn’t know you were paying it.”

Parker indicated that he sees a role for active government.

“I believe government needs to invest in infrastructure,” he said. “I can remember when they put electrical lines through rural America so you could have a single light bulb hanging in the kitchen of a farmhouse. They brought the radio into our homes. That was a project of the federal government. The public sector did that. Later, they farmed it out to the private utilities like Duke Power.

“We need a rail spur from Winston-Salem and Yadkin County that connects with Greensboro,” Parker added. “It may cost a little bit, but that project will cut down on fossil fuels. It will relieve road congestion. People will come to like it.”

Earline Parmon, the Democratic candidate for District 32, fielded questions from business leaders at the chamber event with confidence. Addressing a question from a woman who wanted to know the lawmaker’s vision for improving education, Parmon said, “Unfortunately, education took a bigger hit in the budget than I felt it should have.”

She described herself as “pro-education” and “very propublic education,” adding, “I’m not against any approach as long as it’s accessible to all.” But Parmon expressed some reservations about public charter schools, noting that they are not required to hold teachers to the same standards as their traditional counterparts. She indicated some requirements for transportation and nutrition might need to be considered to ensure that charters are accessible to all students.

Parmon could not be reached for comment for this story. An issues page on her campaign website indicates that the candidate hopes to address education, healthcare, “jobs with a living wage” and “women’s rights” as the next senator representing District 32. The entries offer few specifics except to note that North Carolina ranks 49th in per-pupil spending, characterize healthcare as a “right,” express support for “creating good jobs for the middle class and bringing new industries to our state,” and ensuring “that women have equal access to healthcare, jobs and education opportunities.”

Reginald Reid, a tax preparer at Liberty Tax Service, said he decided to run for the seat after seeing an analysis of the district by the Institute of Political Leadership.

“I realized there was no Republican who was going to challenge her,” he said. “I’m 33. I’ve always liked politics. Why not?” Reid said one of his primary issues is getting Sunday bus service in Winston- Salem.

“I ride the bus myself,” he said. “I have conversations all the time with people who tell me they can’t get a job because the bus doesn’t run on Sundays. They are actually in the interview, and they say they have difficulty getting to work on Sunday. And that’s the end of the interview.”

Reid acknowledge that municipal public transit is the responsibility of the Winston-Salem City Council rather than state government, but said, “The mayor’s going to return your call if you’re a state legislator.”

On social issues Reid describes himself as a “right-wing Christian.”

“I don’t support abortion — only in cases of rape and incest,” he said. “Marriage is between a man and a woman.

What people do in the privacy of their own homes is their business. If two consenting  adults of the same sex want to have sex, that’s their business, but they shouldn’t be able to get married.”

Like many in his party, Reid supports fracking and offshore oil drilling because of the revenue they would bring into the state.

But while many Republicans are talking about eliminating or reducing the state’s corporate income tax, Reid said he would rather take on the personal income tax.

“I would advocate abolishing the personal income tax before the corporate income tax,” he said. “If you don’t control the fruits of your labor, you’re a slave.”

He said he favors eliminating all taxes except for a flat tax at a relatively low rate on personal consumption. Reid said he believes that as a result economic growth and job creation would occur, and that any losses of revenue would be offset by more people paying into the system.

As to the bipartisan interest in modernizing sales tax to reflect the shift towards a service economy, Reid said he opposes any sales tax on services. He noted that industries such as real estate are already trying to carve out exemptions.

“There’s going to be so many loopholes it’s going to be like Swiss cheese,” he said.

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