Three Democrats vie to replace veteran in NC Senate District 32

by Jordan Green

The redrawing of NC Senate District 32, which covers much of Winston-Salem, by the Republican-controlled General Assembly last year foretells a dramatic change in leadership, no matter who wins the Democratic primary in May.

Sen. Bob Rucho, the Republican chairman of the Senate redistricting committee, said in an open letter last June that he recommended “that the current white incumbent” not be included in the new district so that African Americans would have a better opportunity to elect a candidate of choice. Political observers have imputed more cynical motivations: Sen. Linda Garrou, the district’s current representative, had been a powerful budget writer before the Democrats lost control of both houses of the General Assembly in 2010.

The newly drawn district has a higher proportion of black voters than before, although whites comprise 50 percent of the electorate, with blacks and Hispanics making up the balance. But the Democratic primary is likely to determine who ultimately represents the district based on voter registration, and black voters make up almost two thirds of registered Democrats in the district.

Rucho’s premise has been proven correct in at least one sense: The next state senator for District 32 will be black rather than white considering the races of the three Democratic candidates and one Republican candidate in the race.

The primary presents Democrats voters with the opportunity to choose among an experienced lawmaker who is part of Forsyth’s tight political culture, a first-term Winston-Salem city councilman and a little-known employee of Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind.

NC Rep. Larry Womble, who currently represents House District 71, had initially planned to run for the Senate District 32 seat but a serious auto accident in December put him out of commission. Rep. Earline Parmon, who has represented House District 72 since 2003, announced her candidacy for Senate District 32 with great fanfare during a press conference at the Forsyth County Board of Elections in February. Womble told reporters and supporters via speakerphone that he would be campaigning for Parmon.

Winston-Salem Southeast Ward Councilman James Taylor Jr., who emphasizes his political independence, made his candidacy official on the first day of filing while many candidates were waiting for Womble to announce his intentions.

“I don’t run around in any packs with people,” Taylor said. “You may have noticed that there’s a few people that Larry Womble told to run. The people told me to run.”

Wilbert Banks filed six days after Parmon, rounding out the slate of Democratic candidates.

Parmon said she “would have to stand on Sen. Garrou’s record because of her leadership in developing the budget” and Taylor said he is not sure the district’s current representative can be replaced in terms of her clout and experience as a member of the appropriations committee.

Parmon said she would continue Garrou’s track record of ensuring that education is adequately funded, but that she would place more emphasis on social justice.

“How we differ is that I will probably be more of a policymaker that also looks at human and civil-rights legislation,” Parmon said. “In terms of education and healthcare and jobs — those things that we have worked together over the years and pretty much we’ve worked together to ensure that that happened. My difference is that I am global in the sense of those basic needs, those necessary needs. I also want to ensure that North Carolina, we don’t violate human and civil rights.”

Parmon acknowledged that Garrou worked closely with her and Womble on pushing for compensation for eugenics victims and on the Racial Justice Act, which provides that death sentences may be vacated if defendants can establish that race was a significant factor in sentencing. Parmon also credited Womble with being “the leading person” for advancing the cause of justice for eugenics victims.

Taylor said he supports the Racial Justice Act, of which Womble and Parmon were primary sponsors, and compensation for eugenics victims, but jobs, education and infrastructure must be the primary focus of the next state senator representing District 32.

“You see certain legislators that all they talk about is racial justice and social justice,” Taylor said. “Meanwhile, our roads are crumbling, people are out of work and the cost of education is increasing.”

Both Parmon and Taylor support the use of incentives to promote economic development Taylor said he has recently met with the NC Homebuilders Association and plans to meet soon with the NC Realtors Association to get their perspective on job creation.

“What we want to do is make growth and development easier in the city,” he said. “One of the strongest ways to create jobs is to work with the housing industry.”

While Taylor’s economic vision rests on business growth and infrastructure, Parmon’s emphasis tends more towards labor.

“One of the things that I’ve noticed is that even companies that used to have great pay and great benefits, they are now going to casual labor,” she said. “What does that mean? They are laying off long-term employees. Then they’ll bring in temporary employees that they don’t have to pay benefits to. And that’s a phenomenon that’s happening in North Carolina. I think first of all, as policymakers, we’re going to have to address that.”

Banks said he favors companies using temporary agencies to fill their labor needs, and said that one of North Carolina’s major economic problems is that the high cost of labor discourages business investment.

“If you got rid of your workforce and said, ‘We’re just eliminating the jobs, but you can come back and work through a temporary agency,’ I think most people would go for that,” he said.

Banks seemed uncertain in an interview as to how he would implement his views as policy. Under prodding to further articulate his position, he initially said, “Yes, I would compel [companies] to do it. There would be bankruptcies otherwise. That’s the reason a lot of our companies have left: They can’t make any money.”

Later, he retracted the statement, saying, “I wouldn’t make a law…. I would just advise them to.”

Taylor said temporary agencies need to be regulated, but not necessarily curbed.

“I think temporary labor can be predatory,” he said. “And I can understand investigating limiting the powers of temporary agencies. What they could do is bring a person on for a certain amount of time and before they have to offer them full benefits they fire that person and the cycle keeps repeating itself. But I do think that temporary agencies have been a catalyst to helping put people who are unemployed back to work, even if it’s for a day, or a week or a month. When I was unemployed — I ran a juvenile drug treatment court and I studied criminal justice and I thought I would be in this field forever, but you know what, the state cut my job. There were times when I had to worry about how I was going to feed my family. And if I had to go to a temporary agency to get some temporary help just for one day to feed my family for one day, I’d like to have that opportunity.”

Both Taylor and Parmon said the city of Winston-Salem will have their ear in Raleigh.

“The cities don’t have adequate representation in the Senate and the House,” Taylor said.

“So I will go to Raleigh, and we’ll meet with the city staff, we’ll meet with county staff and we’ll figure out how we can make job creation easier here. We’ll find out how we can make economic development opportunities easier here at home and how we can reduce crime.”

Parmon said that she and Womble have consistently pushed the agendas of the city, county and school district in Raleigh.

The 68-year-old [ck] Parmon and 31-yearold Taylor present voters with a striking choice as representatives of different generations of Democratic leadership.

“It’s extremely important that people consider whether they just want representatives in Raleigh or whether they want representation and experience — someone that have a record of standing up and being a voice in Raleigh for people on issues from education to civil rights, women’s rights and particularly about jobs,” Parmon said.

Taylor said he believes the voters are ready for change.

“People want a new, fresh vision — a new voice in the legislature,” he said. “Because the Republicans have only had power for two years. And everything that’s gone wrong, you have Democrats that blame Republicans for everything, but they’ve only been in power for two years. At some point, if you’ve been in the legislature for 10, 15, 20 years you have to be held accountable.”

Banks, 59, though nominally a Democrat, comes across as almost indifferent to party identification.

“It seems like to me that the Republican Party and the Democratic Party want to work against each other,” he said. “They want to say, ‘I did this and you didn’t.’ And that’s not the right way to handle the entire situation.”