In mid-September former Mayor Harper Peterson announced his candidacy for the NC Senate. Peterson has been a loud voice against the GenX water contamination crisis we are facing in New Hanover County and helped upstart the community watchdog group Clean Cape Fear in its aftermath. He will challenge current NC Senator Michael Lee in 2018.
Peterson took time to answer questions for encore about issues we are concerned with in our state and why he chose to run.
encore (e): Why is it important for you to seek this office now? What made you decide to run?
Harper Peterson (HP): I have been a resident in New Hanover County for over 45 years. My wife, Plunkett, and I have raised five children here, and we have been business partners for the last 35 years. We are invested in the community, and think it is one of the greatest places to live and work in our country. I also believe every citizen should have the same opportunities we have had.
Unfortunately, in recent years, the basic needs and guaranteed rights of North Carolinians have taken a backseat to the interests of politicians and their big donors. Specifically, they have spread distrust among North Carolinians while trading to their donors our excellent public schools, quality healthcare and natural resources for tax giveaways. The games at our expense have to stop. I now have the time and energy and the full support of my family and friends to serve and be a voice for common sense in our state legislature.
e: Explain to us your plan for addressing the GenX crisis.
HP: There should be no room for politics when it comes to maintaining clean, safe water for North Carolinians. Unfortunately, many in our state legislature see it differently. Too many of our representatives ignored the governor’s request for $2.6 million in emergency funds for the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services to vigorously address GenX and other cancer-causing compounds that have been dumped into our river. Additionally, tax giveaways to corporate interests have been paid for through slashed budgets and staffing for the state agencies who could have been proactive in defending us from this poison in our water. Before I embarked on this campaign, I worked with the community advocacy group Clean Cape Fear to be a responsible source of information regarding our water crisis and specifically to circulate a petition that would hold our region’s corporate polluters responsible (www.cleancapefear.org/petition). If elected, I would work to fulfill the terms of that petition and reverse the disturbing trend of valuing the interests of donors over the safety of our families. It’s time for representatives who realize we can and should have an economy that coexists with and protects safe air and water.
e: You have a long history of work with Cape Fear River Watch. Discuss how it would impact your work in the NC Senate.
HP: Since the mid 1990s, the Cape Fear River Watch has been the public’s advocate for protecting and restoring the quality of our shared resource, the Cape Fear River. For over 400 years, the river has been the lifeblood of our region’s economy, serving timber, rice, and cotton industries, and causing many to visit and settle here. Today, it hosts the North Carolina State Port, supports our booming tourism industry, and—most importantly—it provides drinking water for over 250,000 people.
If elected, it would be my job to ensure the sacred resource is protected through enforcing laws on the books and ensuring we continue to strengthen our rules to meet the challenges of our times. This means we need to reverse malicious cuts to our enforcement agencies that have occurred on behalf of special interests over the years. Industry is welcome to utilize our river, but must be put on notice they are expected to be good neighbors and follow the law.
e: How do you plan to improve public education in NC? How do you plan to ensure a quality education for all students?
HP: Teachers need to be paid for the full value they provide our community, both in compensation and respect. They are overworked, underpaid and unappreciated while serving in the most important profession for the future of our communities. Public education is the most important endeavor we can engage in as a society. Our NC General Assembly broke an education system that made us proud of our state, and they continue to drive many of the best and brightest in our teaching profession out of our communities, in search of more reasonable compensation. It’s a sad commentary our educators have to move across the border to South Carolina for a pay raise.
I support Governor Cooper’s proposals that would allow NC to be competitive by ensuring compensation of teachers and administrators reaches the national average, and instituting a class-supply stipend that will prevent our teachers from using their hard-earned paychecks to buy our kids’ school supplies.
e: What are your thoughts on the Skyway Bridge? NCDOT says it is still part of future planning.
HP: We’ve been talking about a third bridge for 30 years, and the time for talk must yield to the time for action. Regional interests, state legislators, business leaders, the NC Department of Transportation, impacted neighborhoods, and other stakeholders have to come to grips with the enormous challenge. Our future as an economic, cultural and educational hub rests on addressing our traffic issues. However, we have yet to reach an agreement on where to build the bridge and how to fund it. While the I-140 bypass will relieve some congestion, regional growth projections make it clear another bridge has to be a part of the solution. The construction costs are increasing, and land is disappearing. We cannot delay any longer. I will work to build the consensus required to ask for a new commitment in the spirit of regional partnership and the promise of future prosperity and security. The stakes are too high to not address and move forward with this now.
e: What do you think about a proposed passenger rail service?
HP: Passenger rail service to Raleigh is exciting and a good long-term goal, but expanding local transportation options, particularly bus services, is a more immediate priority. Residents and visitors who wish to walk, bike, and bus around safely should have the means to do so, both for their own benefit and to relieve our regional traffic congestion.
We need our state and local governments to develop a comprehensive vision to accommodate the growth and changing transportation needs of our communities, and recognize our current road systems cannot handle the projected additional 120,000 residents who will move to the area over the next 25 years.
Another interesting initiative is being promoted by former city council member Laura Padgett and other community leaders. It proposes to move all commercial rail out of Wilmington and across the river. This would relieve traffic delays and open up current rail paths with the possibility for green space and even trolley services. These are intriguing visions, requiring consensus and most importantly funding. As your state senator, I would work as a strong partner with local efforts to advance and fulfill creative transportation ideas that enhance public safety, drive economic opportunities and create new jobs.
e: As an entrepreneur, what is the NC Senate’s role in economic development? How would your business experience impact your work?
HP: I think the first thing we need to do is raise the state minimum wage from $7.25 an hour. It’s been stuck at that rate for over eight years, but life has only gotten more expensive. More money in the pockets of workers will lead to more money being spent in the community.
We also need to identify industries and jobs that represent the 21st century global market and continue to provide necessary skills and training through our high schools, community college system, and universities. We need to combine research with private sector industries. In the field of marine and life sciences MarBioNC, InnovateSENC, and CREST are three great examples of successful public-private partnerships that should be replicated throughout our region.
Another area of great potential is in renewable energies, such as wind, tidal and solar energy. Let’s expand both our research and utilization of the options. We should ensure oil and gas exploration do not enter our offshore waters. We need to protect precious, limited resources we have while joining the rest of the modern world in exploring alternative energy options.
Lastly, we need to remember and encourage the idea that not every job needs to be high-tech and specialized. Mid-level jobs in health care, social work, trade, education, and public service will be the foundation of our economy, but we need to pay the employees a living wage. The even greater question is, with expectations of a population increase of 120,000 over the next 25 years, who will these new residents be, and what jobs will they fill or require?
My business experience would be an asset in helping to provide an even-handed perspective to an issue that will help cut through the polarized rhetoric that has prevented coalition-building required to adequately address the issue of economic development.
e: Is there a future for reclaiming our film industry? How can the NC Senate help rebuild that sector of our economy?
HP: There is still an opportunity to reclaim our film industry, but we must act quickly. The NC Senate needs to restore incentives and bring the film industry back to our state now. The state’s film-grant program is a nonsensical embarrassment that has shown its inadequacy for the task of competing for this valuable industry.
We have run most of film’s 4,000 skilled workers out of our state. A decade ago, these men and women exemplified what a strong workforce in NC should be: living, raising families, owning homes, paying taxes, supporting an $8 billion industry. We have watched the industry relocate to Atlanta and Savannah while the film studios, which private industry built, lie dormant.
Film dollars turn over in the community four or five times, in retail, supply houses and restaurants. It was an important part of our tourism industry that has been lost and our economy has suffered. It must change. I would fight to bring back the film industry.
e: What is your position on gerrymandering and voter ID laws? What do you plan to do to preserve the right for all NC citizens to ably vote?
HP: Simply put, it’s time for voters to elect their representatives, rather than politicians choose their voters. Political games outweighed democratic values in 2011 when the NC General Assembly gerrymandered districts to ensure they would stay in power. It took the courts to strike down the lines and require them to be redrawn. The legal battle is still playing out, but it doesn’t seem legislators empowered by these illegal districts have any interest in giving up control.
Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the NC General Assembly’s monster voter-suppression law, finding it to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” As your representative, I would defend every eligible citizen’s right to exercise one of our most cherished rights: having a voice in electing those who make the laws that we, as good citizens, must live by.
States run by both Democrats and Republicans have moved past these issues through independent redistricting and automatic voter registration. NC should take a look at following their good example.
e: In the wake of the devastation of Harvey and Irma, what steps can our NC General Assembly take to prepare for natural disasters? What do you plan to do to address the issues related to climate change and its impact?
HP: The impact of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 has left thousands without homes in rural and impoverished areas in the southeastern corner of our state. Adequately addressing the economic and personal devastation left in the wake of this storm seems like a nearly impossible task after several towns have yet to even begin rebuilding. Still the NC General Assembly has been too slow to respond, even after repeated requests for a special session to allocate money from the state’s “rainy day” fund. It’s appalling. I would fight to provide relief and rebuilding immediately.
Looking ahead, Harvey and Irma add to the mounting evidence that climate change and rising sea levels are real. In New Hanover County, with such dramatic growth and the “paving over” that accompanies it, we have to be aware the impact to the public’s safety and our continued economic stability when we plan our local development. Government, both local and state, and developers have to agree on guidelines that will address this reality.