The controversy over House Bill 2 has helped draw a larger-than-usual crop of candidates challenging state legislators using a process that requires thousands of petition signatures to get on the ballot.
The filing period to run for state House or Senate ended in December – long before transgender bathroom use became a topic for debate. Back then, Democrats didn’t field candidates in 28 House races and 12 Senate races.
Candidates who are unaffiliated with a political party, however, can still qualify for the ballot by turning in petitions signed by 4 percent of the voters in their district. Four people are making serious attempts to get enough signatures to run against unopposed Republicans, including Senate leader Phil Berger and House Majority Leader Mike Hager. Two of them have already qualified.
Friday is the deadline for submitting signatures, and six other legislative hopefuls aren’t anywhere close to the required number.
“HB2 was really the tipping point for me,” said Jane Campbell, who’s close to gathering enough signatures to challenge Rep. John Bradford of Mecklenburg County. Campbell is a retired Navy captain who is gay.
“I was very frustrated with the legislation. Once I realized that my local incumbent was not only someone who voted for it, but was (a) sponsor of the legislation, that tipped me over the edge.”
The N.C. Democratic Party is backing Campbell’s campaign, and party chairwoman Patsy Keever said it could back other unaffiliated candidates in races without a Democrat. The party’s goal this year is to win four additional House seats or five more Senate seats, win the governor’s race and break the GOP supermajority.
If that happens, Republicans in the legislature would have difficulty overriding any vetoes from a Democratic governor. “That’s the way we put a stop to the craziness,” Keever said. “The anger that people feel and the motivation to do something about the legislature will enter into these races.”
According to State Board of Elections records, Campbell has collected 2,330 verified signatures, so she’s just 60 signatures short of meeting the state’s requirement.
Campbell said she gathered most of the signatures outside polling places during the June 7 primary. She said she “just told folks that in my opinion, they had just exercised their ability to hold their elected officials accountable. And if we didn’t get an ample number of signatures in the next two weeks, they weren’t going to have that in November.
“Most folks are like, ‘Give me the clipboard, I want to sign.’”
Two candidates have already hit the required number of signatures. Ben Edwards, a Spindale town councilman, is running against Hager in Rutherford County. Billy Mills, a retired teacher who describes himself as conservative, is running against incumbent Rep. Justin Burr in Stanly and Montgomery counties.
Edwards also cites HB2 in his decision to run. “HB2 is the greatest gift the legislature could give to challengers in this election,” he said. “Having spoken often and at length with voters about the bill, I am convinced it will gain me many more votes than I will lose. It is egregious and clumsy overreach, pre-empting local control.”
The legislature passed HB2 in March in response to a Charlotte law that would have allowed transgender people to use public bathrooms matching their gender identity. Supporters said it was necessary to protect privacy and safety. The state law blocks local LGBT anti-discrimination laws and requires people in government facilities to use the bathroom matching their birth certificates, rather than the gender with which they identify.
Hager has stayed firm in his support for the law, saying recently that he’d oppose any major changes and is “hesitant to open up the issue.” Polling has found that North Carolina voters are divided on the issue.
Unlike Campbell, Edwards isn’t eager to align himself with a political party.
“I don’t like partisanship,” he said. “People from both parties have good ideas. The perpetuation of the ‘us versus them’ divide by some – not all – partisans is allowing government to be exploited for personal, financial gain.”
Mills also says he wants to go beyond partisanship. He said he’s running because he’s concerned about cuts to education funding and thinks Burr is “not listening to the people.”
“They’re trying to dismantle public education as we know it,” Mills said. “Dadgummit, it’s time to stand up.”
Using a team of nearly 40 volunteers knocking on doors, Mills collected 2,393 verified signatures, well above the required 2,062. “We’re getting a hundred a day,” he said. “It’s been really encouraging.”
The fourth candidate poised to meet the petition requirement is Eric Fink, an Elon University law professor who wants to take on Berger, who’s running unopposed. Fink has so far turned in 4,116 verified signatures and needs a total of 5,255.
Fink could not be reached for comment, but the platform on his website includes support for a living wage, opposition to fracking and “freedom from discrimination.”
North Carolina hasn’t seen so many unaffiliated legislative candidates since at least 2010. Only one made it on the ballot in 2014 and 2012.
And the last unaffiliated candidate who won an election was Bert Jones in 2010. Jones defeated incumbent Democratic Rep. Nelson Cole. He joined the Republican caucus a few months later and is still in office.
Some legislators want to make it easier for unaffiliated candidates to run for office. Rep. Ken Goodman, a Rockingham Democrat, said he plans to file legislation next year to eliminate the petition requirement for unaffiliated candidates. Instead, they’d file for office like Democrats and Republicans and face a primary if more than one of them ran in a district.
“The way it is now, the threshold is just really hard,” Goodman said. “When you’ve got 30 percent of the electorate unaffiliated, they’re sort of disenfranchised when you make the bar that high.”
Unaffiliated voters must change their party registration to Democrat, Republican or Libertarian in order to run for office without using the petition process. Or they can run as write-in candidates, which also requires a petition but one with fewer signatures. Write-in candidates rarely win.
He said the change could make state government less partisan. “Some of these gerrymandered districts would become more balanced,” he said, referring to legislative districts drawn to heavily favor one party. “There’s a big space in the center that’s not being served.”
Campbell said she’d also like to see lawmakers shorten the election cycle. This year’s filing period was pushed up by several months when the primary moved from May to March. That meant most candidates started their campaigns nearly a year ahead of the election.
Campbell says that discouraged many potential candidates from running. In all, 40 House members and 13 senators ended the December filing period without any competition.
“At a certain point, most people were saying, what else could happen?” she said. “And then we found out (with HB2).”