While races for the White House and North Carolina Executive Mansion headline the many political contests of 2020, there is perhaps no greater prize up for grabs than power of state legislatures. In addition to weighing-in on Donald Trump or Joe Biden, Roy Cooper or Dan Forest, North Carolina voters will also determine who gets authority over the next round of redistricting.
Republicans want to maintain majorities, draw the next set of legislative and Congressional districts, and in turn try to assert authority for at least another decade. Democrats contend they have a path to taking back at the NC General Assembly.
The race for redistricting has brought about unprecedented campaign fundraising efforts and never-before-seen endorsements in our state. Yet the battle for command on West Jones Street still runs through old mill towns and medium sized cities.
“If the Democrats have any hope to regain control they’re going to have to pull House District 63 … It is to the North Carolina General Assembly what North Carolina is to the presidential election,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
That’s because Democrats need to net five seats to seize the state Senate and six to take back control of the House. District 63 is virtually a must-win for Democrats.
House District 63 comprises roughly the eastern half of Alamance County. It includes Burlington, Graham, and Mebane. The county population is growing and diversifying, and it doesn’t hurt that rents and mortgages here are, on average, cheaper than several nearby more urban areas.
“Alamance County, geographically, I think is well suited to capture a lot of the growth from the Triangle metro,” said Jessica Stanford, an analyst at Carolina Demography.
Alamance County’s population is growing faster than neighboring Orange County, which includes Chapel Hill, and the state, as a whole.
The district has recently been politically competitive. During the 2018 midterms, Republican Stephen Ross was re-elected to his fourth term in the state House, winning by less than 300 votes. But then last summer, a state court struck down the district – along with dozens of others – for being illegally gerrymandered.
“This district was redrawn, it leans ever so lightly toward the Democratic Party, by most metrics. But you have an incumbent Republican legislator,” said Cooper.
Ross, the incumbent, has some level of name recognition, having first run for local office three decades ago. The lifelong Alamance resident was once mayor of Burlington, served as a city council member, and has served in the state House since 2012.
"I mean, I still feel good about it 'cause if I go back, when I talk to people, they remind people about the things that I've done in this community over the years," said Ross, 69, in an interview with WUNC.
Ross chairs the House Finance Committee that oversees taxes and fees. He’s quick to talk about good governance, remains passionate about local concerns, and describes himself as a conservationist – having long ago earned his Eagle Scout.
“Nobody talks about issues, I mean you watch between now and November, you will hear very little about issues, about what somebody has done, their record,” said Ross, adding that COVID responses, supporting small businesses, and funding education are the three most-pressing issues facing his district right now.
His Democratic opponent, Ricky Hurtado, lists education, Medicaid expansion, and unemployment benefits as his top three concerns. The 31-year-old political newcomer is a first-generation American.
“We can talk about public education, we can talk about healthcare, we can talk about economic security for families, criminal justice reform – the list goes on on a number of issues,” Hurtado said. “But if we don’t restore a fully functioning Democracy in North Carolina, none of this works.”
His positions, which also include independent redistricting, have helped him haul in a staggering $240,000 through the last round of campaign financial disclosures that came out in July.
“I did come from humble beginnings where that sort of figure to see in your bank account is sort of astounding,” Hurtado said. “We’ve never seen that, right. My parents have never seen that. And so the fact that it takes this much money to win a campaign in North Carolina, I think it speaks to why people like me don’t usually run for office.”
That tally was about six times as much as Ross has raised. However, Ross said fundraising has picked up in recent weeks and that the fundraising gap is not as wide.
In early August, Hurtado was one of 15 North Carolina legislative candidates to receive the endorsement of former President Barack Obama. Still, despite all the money, and attention, Ross and Hurtado have both been relegated to remote events and calls. It doesn’t seem there is much of a buzz locally, yet. On a recent weekday evening in downtown Burlington, eight people declined to comment for this story, citing unfamiliarity. And one business owner even offered skepticism as to why a reporter from Raleigh would show up to cover this race.