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Guilford Dems fend off attacks by GOP challengers

by Jordan Green

Within the six-member Guilford County delegation to the NC House of Representatives, two Republicans are running unopposed for reelection this year while four Democrats face mostly familiar challengers. While some of the Republicans have undertaken aggressive fundraising and tried to make Speaker Jim Black’s ethics troubles a liability for their opponents, past returns suggest the four seats are likely to remain safely in the Democratic column.

“I have a whole list of issues that I don’t think are being addressed in the right way,” said Bill Wright, a former mayor of Pleasant Garden who is running against Democratic incumbent Earl Jones to represent District 60. “The Speaker Jim Black corruption scandal. Payday lenders. Video poker has influenced him and other House members to sit back and bottle up legislation as long as he could.

“It’s pay-to-play in Raleigh, and it’s disgusting,” Wright added.

Black’s critics have charged that the Matthews Democrat has been inordinately influenced by campaign contributions from his fellow optometrists and that he has used underhanded tactics to maintain the Democratic majority in the House.

Most of the Guilford County Democrats are making no concessions to calls by Republican candidates to distance themselves from Black. (First-term Democrat Pricey Harrison has called for Black to step down.) Reached at her office on Aug. 24, Alma Adams was meeting with fellow Democrats Jones and Maggie Jeffus.

Adams handed the telephone to Jones to speak for the three of them when asked whether Black’s difficulties would present any challenges his fellow Democrats in Guilford County.

“My answer to that is none,” Jones said. “That’s a diversionary tactic in 2006. And that is the failed policies of the Bush administration. The Democrats in North Carolina have done an excellent job.”

The most formidable challenger in the pack of Republican insurgents is perhaps Jim Rumley, a Browns Summit business owner who manages residential properties in southeast Greensboro, who is running against Jeffus in District 59. This will be Rumley’s second attempt to unseat Jeffus; in 2004, he lost to the Democratic incumbent by 16.9 percent.

According to his most recent campaign disclosure report filed with the NC Board of Elections on July 11, Rumley has raised a total of at least $5,317 this year, with a fifth of his total budget coming out of his own pocket and lesser amounts coming from Greensboro and High Point realtors, a Trinity pawnshop owner and two Greensboro insurance agents.

Rumley is running on a platform of low taxes.

“I would have voted to cut the gas tax because it is the highest in the Southeast,” Rumley said. “I think we ought to go ahead and reduce the sales tax.”

He added: “I would have pushed more for a stronger ethics bill. The one that they passed in the last session didn’t do enough to limit the amount of money that we get contributed from special interests and lobbyists. We as candidates need to have the bulk of our money come from the citizens we want to represent.”

Jeffus’ reported receipts for the year so far total six times those of her opponent, at $30,461, with two thirds coming from outside Guilford County, including $7,161 from the NC Democratic Party in Raleigh and $300 from the political action committee for Dominion Energy in Richmond, Va. Jeffus received $1,000 from Greensboro investor Joseph M. Bryan Jr., along with dozens of contributions of $250 and $500 from local donors. Thanks to two checks from teachers unions totaling $3,000, organized labor constitutes the largest sector backing Jeffus, with lawyers, investors, ideological groups (the pro-choice Lillian’s List of North Carolina) and real estate comprising the next largest sectors in order of rank.

Jeffus suggested she is taking no chances in her effort to defend her seat against Rumley.

“I expect to win this time,” she said. “I’m going to outwork him.”

Jeffus, a retired teacher who has served in the House since 1991, takes credit for funding education, and mental healthcare, and increasing pay for state employees in the last session. She made no apologies for $4,000 she received from Black in 2004, and said she and the Democratic House leader share the same philosophy on education and economic development.

“We had an exceptionally good session,” she said. “Education was helped a great deal. We were able to provide more money to the [local education agencies]’…. We provided more money to mental health’…. We gave some nice raises to state employees and teachers. We want to bring our teachers to a national average.”

As for support she has received from Black and other Democrats, Jeffus suggested her opponent is making much ado about nothing.

“The campaign contribution is a legal contribution, and beyond that I don’t know why you could not accept the contribution,” she said. “I don’t quite follow this theory.”

In District 60, which covers Pleasant Garden, a section of High Point, and parts of south Greensboro, Republican candidate Bill Wright has suggested that he would be a better steward of the state budget than Democratic incumbent Earl Jones, but took pains to say he supported several programs important to Democratic constituents.

“A lot of the teacher raises were good,” he said. “Additional funds were put into mental health. That system was put on track to be privatized and there were some folks falling through the cracks.”

Wright added that he favors the state taking responsibility for the portion of Medicaid now covered by the counties so they can focus more on funding schools and law enforcement.

Wright has raised more than $6,000 this year with donations averaging less than $100, when his largest contribution of $1,444 from Greensboro designer Larry Nylin is removed from the equation. Many of the contributors on Wright’s campaign disclosure form do not include an occupation, but steel, solid waste, real estate, nursing and contributions from Republican House members stand out.

The Democratic incumbent Earl Jones, a former Greensboro city councilman and publisher of the Greensboro Times, ran unopposed in 2004. Two years earlier he won handily against a Libertarian opponent, nailing 83.7 percent of the vote.

“Now the district is ostensibly 64 percent Democrat,” Wright conceded, “and the numbers are certainly stacked against me. I believe that folks in this district are ready for a change. They haven’t had a credible candidate before.”

Jones has proven himself to be a formidable fundraiser. Wright suggested that his opponent is beholden to payday lenders and other financial service companies that target poor people.

“My opponent has taken considerable contributions from payday lenders,” Wright said. “He called it ‘family-friendly financing’ in the Carolina Peacemaker. I don’t think 400 percent interest is family friendly unless it’s the Sopranos family.”

Jones was actually quoted by the Peacemaker in 2005 as saying payday lenders provide “friendly family financing.” The NC Banking Commission ruled in December 2005 that a prominent payday lending company, Advance America, could no longer do business in North Carolina.

As of July 18, Jones’ most recent campaign disclosure report indicates that the candidate has received at least $17,900 in 2006. The largest source of support for Jones is a $4,000 from Black. Jones is one of four candidates who received the maximum allowable contribution from the House speaker this year.

After that, financial services companies comprise the largest source of support for Jones’ campaign. One donation comes from Richard H. Moore, the Democratic state treasurer and chair of the NC Banking Commission. Another comes from CitiGroup, “one of the world’s largest financial services firms,” according to the Hoovers business report. Still others include Charlotte-based Bank of America, consumer finance company HSBC North America, Resident Lenders of North Carolina and individual contributors from Georgia and North Carolina.

Jones called himself “a supporter of big business” in an interview with YES! Weekly, and said he takes the position that poor people need access to short-term loans – a financial service product of which he has personally availed himself on occasion.

“Low-income working people need access to short-term loans for emergency purposes,” he said. “If it’s not payday lending there should be some alternative.”

He added: “I get money from financial institutions; that’s because I want reform. It probably won’t be to everybody’s satisfaction. I’ve talked with the banks. I’ve talked with the bank commission. I’ve met with the consumer groups. I’m the only one who has been sitting down with all these groups to get something in place.”

Jones further said he sees it as the banking commission’s responsibility to develop regulations that would provide guidelines for lenders to offer financial services to poor people; any legislation the lawmaker proposed would be unlikely to satisfy consumer advocacy groups, he believes.

The Democratic incumbent said he is especially proud of a bill he sponsored that would require companies doing business with the state to determine whether they participated in and profited from slavery.

“It did pass the state government subcommittee,” Jones said. “I don’t think the House leadership expected it to get out of the state government subcommittee. It was voted out of the state government subcommittee with bipartisan support. And get this: unanimous. In my opinion it frightened the House leadership, where they buried it in the rules committee.”

Alma Adams, Jones’ Democratic colleague in the House, has staked her reputation on the successful passage in the House and Senate of legislation she sponsored to raise the state minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour.

“My opponent opposes an increase in a minimum wage,” Adams said. “That seems to be in terms of not wanting to help working poor people. You see that with the Republicans in Raleigh and in Washington. I just think we’ve got to give more support for working people’…. With the polls that have been done we would be derelict not to do that, with inflation and the cost of living increasing in general.”

Olga Morgan Wright, a lawyer and single mother who notes that “every mother that needs help is not living in poverty,” took an ambiguous position on Adams’ efforts to raise the wage floor for the working poor in a recent interview with YES! Weekly.

“Who could be against a living wage?” asked the Republican challenger for Adams’ District 58 seat, who is no relation to Bill Wright. “My point is to always have training so people can make more than minimum wage’…. The surrounding states have a lower minimum wage. Illegal immigrants will come in and take advantage of it. Somebody’s going to lose out.”

Adams trounced Wright roughly two to one in 2004 and faced no challenger in 2002. This time around Wright still faces deep challenges, acknowledging that “the money is not flowing for me; the time is not there.”

She’s resolved to be more forthright about her identity as a Republican this time around.

“I believe in school choice,” she said. “Most Democrats do not. That’s my values system. I believe in small government, lower taxes.”

Hers is not a popular stand in east Greensboro and the adjacent parts of Guilford County by most people’s estimation.

“Being Republican in this district is probably not the smartest thing to do,” Wright said. “Eighty percent of my community is Democrats.”

The other Democratic House member, first-term representative Pricey Harrison, is defending her seat against a former television reporter, Ron Styers. Harrison beat her Republican opponent by a margin of 13.1 percent in 2004.

Republican incumbent John Blust of Greensboro is running unopposed in District 62 as he did in 2004. First elected to the House in 2000, Blust prevailed over a Democratic challenger in 2002 by a margin of 24.2 percent.

Laura Wiley, a first-term Republican whose District 61 includes most of High Point, Jamestown, Sedgefield and unincorporated areas of Guilford County, is also running unopposed. She said she is proud of her part in legislation that brings North Carolina schools in line with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and legislation she co-sponsored with Harrison requiring background checks for psychologists.

Wiley said that 2006 being an “off year” with no high-profile presidential or gubernatorial contests, Jim Black’s difficulties may not significantly influence the fate of the county’s Democratic delegation to the NC House.

“I think it will have some impact,” she said, “but I think, as always, what is going to have the most impact is the candidate’s views on issues that are important to Guilford County.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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