LUMBERTON — Robeson County voters on Tuesday will choose which lawmakers they want representing their interests in Raleigh.
In the race to represent the North Carolina Senate’s 13th District, which includes all of Robeson and Columbus counties, Sen. Jane Smith says she has had those interests at heart throughout her career as a teacher, realtor and now Democratic legislator. Republican Challenger Danny Britt, a Lumberton attorney, says Smith hasn’t done enough with her first term in the General Assembly and that he would be more effective advocating for District 13 in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Smith taught for eight years, has owned a real estate business for 30 years and served on the NC Southeast Regional Economic Development Organization board for 20 years, including 13 as chair.
Britt is the owner of the Britt Law Firm in Lumberton and a major with the North Carolina National Guard. The former Robeson County prosecutor has deployed twice in his 19 years of service. Born in Robeson County and raised in Bladen County, Britt has taught at Bladen Community College in the Basic Law Enforcement Training and college transfer programs.
For Smith, the main issues facing District 13 are jobs and education.
“To me the best way to get people out of poverty is education and jobs,” she said. “I’m sort of uniquely qualified in those areas.”
Although North Carolina is spending more money on education, Smith says it isn’t enough to balance out previous funding cuts or to account for North Carolina’s population growth. She says she has been “disappointed” in what the legislature has done to extend economic incentives to industries considering whether to locate in North Carolina.
Expanding Medicaid would also go a long way in improving Southeastern North Carolina’s economy, she said, by helping those who currently earn just too much to qualify get affordable health care and by lowering costs for rural hospitals.
“We have a lot of basically working poor in our area that Medicaid expansion would cover,” she said.
The economy and education are also of top concern for Britt. Higher graduation rates mean more students are qualified for today’s workforce and more industries will want to locate in Southeastern North Carolina, he said. Improving education includes raising teacher pay and strengthening after school and vocational programs.
In a Q&A with The Robesonian earlier this year, Britt said there is a lot to tout about Southeastern North Carolina and that being a member of the majority party will help him get that message across in the General Assembly. He counted natural resources, low operating costs and a large workforce among the region’s advantages.
“Focusing on our strengths keeps us relevant in Raleigh,” he said. “There continues to be a growing gap between the rural and urban areas and I would seek to close that gap.”
Britt said his opponent hasn’t done enough to reach across the aisle, pointing to a 2015 North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research list that ranked her as the 46th most effective state senator out of 50.
“… If you are a Democrat and in a Republican-controlled Senate you have to reach across the aisle,” he said.
Smith rejected criticism that she has been ineffective as a legislator, arguing that she has made an outsized impact for a freshman senator. She lamented what she called “lies and distortion” aimed at her during the campaign.
“When you start as a freshman you come in at the bottom,” she said. “I have been very effective and I think the leadership in our county is aware of it.”
Smith pointed to her involvement adding $23 million to the Connect NC bond package for a new business school at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke as an example of her effectiveness. Additionally, she helped extend a tuition waiver to students whose custodial guardians were officers killed in the line of duty. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, she says she worked closely with Gov. Pat McCrory and FEMA to ensure Robeson and Columbus counties receive disaster relief.
“I work hard every day to help our citizens in District 13 and I want to continue to do that,” she said. ” … This is not some stepping stone to something else for me. I’ve spent my life trying to give back to my community and a lot of people in the community know that.”
Both Britt and Smith support using money from the state’s so-called “rainy day fund” to help counties struggling after the Oct. 8 hurricane.
As for the perennially controversial House Bill 2, which says North Carolinians must use the restroom corresponding to their birth certificates, among other provisions, Smith says she will follow the lead of her constituents. She believes most voters in District 13 support the bathroom provision of the bill, although she would like to see sections limiting local governments’ abilities to pass discrimination ordinances, set minimum wages and require non-discrimination from contractors modified because of the impact they’ve had on North Carolina’s economy.
“I think ultimately it will end up being decided in the court,” she said. “I don’t think anything will be done in the legislature about it. I think at this point it’s probably hurting our state. It’s an involved issue. People have very strong opinions about it.”
Britt agrees, saying “there needs to be a reset on HB2.”
“The problem with HB2, in my opinion, first off, what is in it is a lot more than just the bathroom. There was some stuff that was discriminatory,” he said. “Do I think you should pick and choose your bathroom based on how you feel that day? Absolutely not.”
Britt said if there had been “real” debate on the General Assembly floor before HB2’s passage, “we would have had a good law.” The law was rushed through the legislature and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory within 24 hours.
Some Robeson voters will also cast ballots for the North Carolina House District 46 seat vacated by Ken Waddell. District 46 includes parts of eastern Robeson County, a sliver of Bladen County and all of Columbus County.
The candidates are Republican Brenden Jones, Democrat Tim Benton and Libertarian Thomas Howell.
In a Q&A with The Robesonian earlier this year, Jones said industrial and job recruitment were the biggest issues facing District 46. Howell, in his responses, said the state needs to reign in its spending and cut down on legislating social issues. Benton did not respond to the Q&A.
Rep. Charles Graham and Rep. Garland Pierce are unopposed in their bids for re-election to the District 47 and 48 seats, respectively.
Sarah Willets can be reached at 910-816-1974 or on Twitter @Sarah_Willets.