A slim Democratic majority, coupled with the fact that federal and state district lines will be redrawn in the next legislative session, has rendered party affiliation a crucial factor in the local N.C. House of Representatives race.
Candidates for District 24, which includes Orange County, say they realize the importance of party affiliation in the race and are touting the House's slim Democratic majority as an incentive to vote for their particular party.
Currently, Democrats claim only 10 more seats in the House than Republicans. The slim House majority is common and subject to change with nearly every election, said Thad Beyle, UNC political science professor.
District 24 has two seats in the N.C. House, which are both currently held by Democrats. The seats - for which five candidates are vying this year - go to the two candidates who receive the most votes in the election.
Incumbent candidate Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, said the House's Democratic majority during her most recent session made it easier to obtain influential positions. "For individual voters, party affiliation doesn't make as much difference as it used to, but when serving, it makes it much easier to work and discuss issues within your party."
Insko said working beside Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, made it easy to collaborate. "We work well together and represent the county well," she said, adding that their mutual Democratic affiliation was an advantage.
But Republican candidate William Towne said Orange County's long-standing tradition of having two Democrats represent the district is a disadvantage. "There hasn't been a Republican representing Chapel Hill in the House since the Reconstruction - that's over 120 years," Towne said.
Beyle said each party also has more stake in gaining control of the House this year because the majority party will control redistricting. "This year (legislators) are redistricting congressional seats and redrawing all of the (district) lines for the state House and Senate," Beyle said. "These lines will remain in place for the next decade, so the House and Congress want districts that are going to be compatible for them."
Despite walking different party lines, Insko, Hackney and Towne share similar views on several issues, including education. All three included education and support for the $3.1 billion higher education bond referendum in their campaign issues. If the bond passes, it will fund capital improvements for UNC-system and N.C. community college facilities.
Hackney, who has served in the House for the past 20 years, said education is the top issue in his campaign, in addition to combating domestic violence and promoting environmental protection. "I have a strong support for the University, faculty salaries and public schools in North Carolina," said Hackney, who is also speaker pro tem.
Insko, a former junior high school science teacher looking to win her third term in office, also said education is her biggest focus because it provides solutions to many other state problems. "Education makes people more self-sufficient, which in turn improves the economy," Insko said. "It is the most effective service the government can provide."
Towne also listed education and the bond as top priorities. "The bond is the most important thing for our system right now because it will allow us to get up to speed and give students a 21st-century education," he said.
Republican Rod Chaney is also seeking a House seat but could not be reached for comment.
But Libertarian candidate John Bauman said education is important but funneling money into the system does not solve problems. "We've been pouring money into education for years and haven't seen any better results," Bauman said, citing that the state's SAT scores are still among nation's lowest. He said boosting competition among schools would better improve education.
Bauman said that before he could support the bond, he would need assurance that N.C. colleges and universities would responsibly maintain facilities in the future. "I feel the university system has shown very bad management by getting to the point that they have."
But Bauman said his main campaign focus is to lessen the government's role in people's lives. "Every time a problem comes up, we look to the government for help," Bauman said. "But giving the government more power is taking away freedom from the citizens and their choices."
Other components of Hackney's campaign are environmental protection by means of clean water and clean air acts. He is also focusing on health care. Insko said health care is also one of her top priorities, particularly the area of mental disabilities. But Towne said he is different from his opponents because he is focusing on preventing tax increases by cutting spending.
But Beyle said the main issue in this election is not the environment, health care or taxes - it is which party will dominate the House and help draw new district lines. "The fact that the majority party will redraw these lines has become very important - it's what's driving most of the politics in this election."
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