Outsider seeks seat at table in Raleigh

by Jordan Green

With “change” being the watchword of the election and voters looking with disdain on the party in power, North Carolina Democrats are angling for wins by their presidential nominee and US Senate candidate, along with pickups in a handful of congressional districts. If the mood translates to the state level, where Democrats currently control the executive branch and both houses of the General Assembly, Republican Joe Wilson reasons, they just might send a maverick like him to Raleigh to represent the open Senate District 27 seat in Guilford County.

The district leans Democratic by a margin of 21.9 percent, and Wilson’s opponent, Don Vaughan is widely considered the heir apparent to replace Democrat Kay Hagan, who is challenging Elizabeth Dole for her seat in the US Senate. A former Greensboro City Council member and state lobbyist who has served on the NC Banking Commission, Vaughan held a 53-1 advantage over Wilson in cash on hand at last count.

“We’re not getting much support from Kay Hagan,” Wilson told a lunchtime gathering of the Greater Guilford Republican Forum at the Painted Plate catering hall in Greensboro on a recent Wednesday. “I hope she doesn’t do very well.”

A real-estate developer with no experience in elective office, Wilson cited his commoner’s touch, integrity and independence to a largely African-American audience at New Light Baptist Church — many of them registered Democrats — as reasons they should send him to Raleigh. He adjusted his message to the Republican lunch crowd, which included a state House member and a former county commissioner, to rally for a Republican majority in the state Senate, where Democratic President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight has effectively blocked Republican legislation. To do that, Wilson said the Republicans would need to elect their candidate for lieutenant governor and half a dozen GOP senators.

“We need a Republican sweep in a year that we expect the Democrats to kill us,” the candidate told his fellow Republicans. “If Robert Pittenger gets elected lieutenant governor, and me and five more Republicans get elected to the Senate, we could force a tie, with Robert Pittenger breaking that tie.”

Wilson told the Republican regulars that he signed on with an agenda released by Republican Minority Leader Phil Berger on Oct. 15. Among its provisions are increasing active sentences for gang-related crimes (popular with candidates in both parties), making the murder of an unborn child a separate statutory offense (“Who doesn’t want this?” Wilson asked), creating merit-based pay to reward highly qualified and effective teachers and lifting the cap on public charter schools, and making all state expenditures and state contracts available on the state government website (an idea embraced by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bev Perdue).

In interviews, blog posts and public appearances, Wilson has portrayed the Democratic-controlled General Assembly — whose former House speaker, Jim Black, is currently serving a federal prison sentence — as crooked, and argued that Vaughan’s representation would continue that legacy.

“Our state government is corrupt,” Wilson told the Republican gathering at the Painted Plate.

That comment prompted an elderly woman to snort, “You’re kidding.”

“I’ll go to Raleigh and tell you what everybody’s doing,” Wilson said. “I’ve got nothing to lose. I didn’t get a nickel from Progress Energy.”

Like most statements by Wilson that don’t directly attack Vaughan, the campaign promise included a sideways knock against his opponent. (Vaughan has accepted a $1,000 contribution from the political action committee of Raleigh-based Progress Energy.)

Then Wilson unleashed a fusillade of attacks on his Democratic opponent. He started by waving one of Vaughan’s glossy campaign brochures, and quoting from an endorsement by NC Board of Transportation Chairman Doug Galyon.

For Vaughan, the association is a matter of pride.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have a chairman of the board of transportation from Greensboro,” Vaughan said. “He’s been on city council. The depot is named after him. He is retiring and is not going to be called into public service. We’ve had a wonderful ally on the board of transportation with Doug Galyon. He has told me he is not going to serve under the new administration, if asked.”

At the Republican luncheon Wilson continued along his theme by recounting Vaughan’s city council record.

“He was a strong proponent of Project Homestead,” he said. “Remember that?”

Vaughan responded: “I was a strong proponent and always have been of housing in Greensboro.” The former councilman said he recalled being part of majorities or unanimous votes to fund the nonprofit housing organization whose founder, the Rev. Michael King, committed suicide after financial improprieties came to light. “I made the motion for an additional auditor to be hired by the city of Greensboro and it passed,” he added. “And then Reverend King passed away.”

Wilson continued: “When he was on the city council, his credentials were stripped from him. He couldn’t get into the county courthouse without an escort because he lost seven magnetic-strip card keys. He was deemed a security risk at the Guilford County Courthouse. These are the facts, black and white. Do you think anyone’s ever lost seven of anything…. I don’t believe he lost them. And I don’t think anyone else does either.”

Vaughan, a practicing lawyer, called the aspersion “minutiae.”

“If you didn’t have a card, you go get a card from the Guilford County people,” he said. “I access the courthouse at least three or four times a day, and have for the past fifteen years.”

Then Wilson took another jab, linking Vaughan to Greensboro City Manager Mitchell Johnson, whose discipline of former police Chief David Wray has prompted a vocal segment of the community to call for the manager’s removal.

“He’s in black and white saying Mitch Johnson’s a gift full of knowledge and understanding of the history of Greensboro, and we’re very fortunate to have him,” Wilson said. “And I don’t believe that.”

Vaughan took part in a unanimous vote to hire Johnson as city manager in 2005.

“Mitchell was far and away the best choice we had,” he said in response to Wilson’s statement, “and it’s up to the current council to determine who the city manager is.”

While Vaughan has touted his extensive experience and Wilson has sought to make his opponent’s character the focus of the campaign, it can be difficult to find issues on which the two candidates disagree.

One item of legitimate disagreement is annexation. Vaughan favors the current state law allowing municipalities to annex county land without consent from new residents provided the cities can provide equitable services. Wilson favors allowing residents to approve annexation by referendum.

“I think before someone comes in here and says, ‘Hey Jordan, hey Joe, we took your car, we’re leaving with it. By the way, you need to send us fifty bucks a month for storing it,’ we’re going to get kind of hot about that,” Wilson said during an interview after the Republican luncheon.

Greensboro’s urban loop is also an item of contention. Vaughan has said he plans to work hard to get the urban loop completed, which he says will help spur continued economic development around Piedmont Triad International Airport.

“Don Vaughan is claiming that he’s going to bring funding to Guilford County for the completion of the northern loop,” Wilson said. “The only way he can do that is [through] backroom deals and influence. The system is set up so that the money goes where it’s needed. Any time one member of the General Assembly can drive money towards his or her district, then they’re using undue influence.”

Vaughan, in turn, scoffed at the notion that state legislators don’t have a legitimate role to play in influencing road building.

“Those that advocate long and loud for roads get more attention than those that don’t,” he said. “The whole thing is showing need, and showing where roads should go. Transportation is incredibly complicated, and you need to send someone down there that can hit the ground running.”

Despite being a real-estate developer in a county where developers hold an outsized influence over politics, Wilson retains something of an outsider status in his profession.

“I always try to do it as responsibly and with as much respect to the people around me as I can,” the candidate said. “Not once have I ever had a contested zoning hearing. I hold town-hall meetings, and we go way out beyond what the city requires. Everybody has the right to come in there and talk. If there’s too much opposition or if there’s valid opposition, then I don’t enter the fray because I don’t want to make my bread at the expense of someone else’s suffering.”

Wilson declined an invitation to attend the Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition’s annual candidates reception at Castle McCulloch in Jamestown on Oct. 9. He noted that dozens of the coalition’s members, along with the political action committee for the NC Association of Realtors, had already made contributions to Vaughan’s campaign.

“I don’t have any of that stuff in my corner,” he said. “Yet that’s my money. You realized that, don’t you? They’ve been taking my money and giving it to my opponent because I don’t play ball like they do. I do everything up front, above-board, with respect to the environment and the people around it.”

Then, Wilson hit on what he saw as an irony in his contest with Vaughan for the Senate District 27 seat.

“It’s funny as hell,” he said. “Check it out: The real-estate PAC is backing Don Vaughan with a thousand dollars. The Democratic Party will vote for the transfer tax…. They just gave a thousand dollars to someone who is going to vote against them.”

Wrong, said Vaughan, who described himself as “one-hundred percent against” a tax on real-estate transactions.

Rick Zechini, director of government affairs for the NC Association of Realtors, said many members of the real estate and development sector know and trust Vaughan because of his role in setting up the NC Forum for Research and Economic Education.

“It’s essentially a business group or set of business entities that evaluate political races for the demographics of the district,” he said. “Is it a Democratic district? Is it a swing district? Is it Republican-leaning? They evaluate races based on the demographics of the district and the business positions of the candidates.”

Zechini indicated he was surprised that anyone would question Vaughan’s position on the issue.

“He said publicly to a big audience that he’s against the transfer tax,” Zechini said, adding that the board of trustees for the association’s political action committee “saw that Don with his background as a real-estate attorney understands the value of homeownership, and has throughout his career both professional and civic, certainly has been someone who has promoted homeownership and affordability.”

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