Voters in north Mecklenburg and the county’s western edge will choose between a veteran legislator and a newcomer seeking to break the Republican Party’s supermajority in the N.C. Legislature, as Natasha Marcus challenges incumbent Jeff Tarte for a seat in the state Senate.
Gun control, teacher pay, taxes and the pugnacious governing style of top Republicans in the Legislature are all issues in the race. Tarte, a Republican, is appealing to voters for a fourth term based on his experience and the state’s economic growth over the past few years. Marcus says the district needs a fresh voice and Raleigh needs more Democrats.
Regardless of their stances on individual issues, the Tarte-Marcus race could come down to a referendum on veto-proof Republican control in Raleigh, the supermajority Democrats have been campaigning against.
And, of course, there’s another politically potent issue at play in the northern suburbs: the I-77 toll lanes. Both candidates oppose the toll lanes and say the state should cancel its deal with the private company that will collect tolls for 50 years. But they have different ideas about how the state should eliminate the tolls.
“Cancel the damn contract,” said Tarte. He wants Gov. Roy Cooper to terminate the contract with toll lane-builder Cintra and then let the Legislature appropriate the hundreds of millions of dollars that would be required to pay off the company. “He’s got to cancel it first.”
Marcus said the Legislature should act first to appropriate the money. She faulted the General Assembly for adding a provision to the budget this year requiring Cooper’s administration to give 60 days notice to the Legislature before canceling or modifying the contract.
“We need a legislative solution to fix the toll lanes,” said Marcus. “They want to make Governor Cooper look like the bad guy.”
Talking about the I-77 toll lanes, Tarte and Marcus sometimes sound like they’re trying to outdo each other to show who hates the project more.
“I was against them from the start,” said Marcus, pointing to a 2015 interview with WBT where Tarte said toll lane opposition amounted to about 200 people. “It took him a long time to clue in.”
Tarte said he’s long been against the tolls as well, and said his “200 people” comment was sarcasm.
“At no point have I been in favor of this specific project,” said Tarte. “We’re in silly season.”
N.C. Senate District 41 covers the towns in north Mecklenburg, such as Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville, then snakes around the county’s western border, covering much of Steele Creek and south Ballantyne.
Tarte’s seat is seen by Democrats as one of the most likely to flip from red to blue, in large part because his district was redrawn for this year under court order and now includes more Democrats than in its previous iteration. Instead of being 35 percent Republican and 30 percent Democratic voters (with most of the rest unaffiliated), Democrats and Republicans both make up just over 31 percent of the district’s registered voters.
Hillary Clinton would have won the district 50-45 percent in 2016, based on its current lines.
Tarte and Marcus differ sharply on other hot-button issues such as gun control. Marcus favors new rules to lower violence and halt mass shootings, such as a “red flag” law that would allow judges to temporarily take guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others and expanded background checks.
“Our state can and should be doing more,” said Marcus.
Tarte, on the other hand, said the state should fund more school psychologists to identify kids who are at risk of committing mass shootings. But he said more gun control rules should be avoided because they risk infringing on the Second Amendment.
“The key is to have the resources to plug these kids in early,” he said. “We should never impinge or infringe on the legal rights of a citizen.”
On teacher pay and education funding, Tarte points to increases in funding that have been adopted since 2011. But Marcus said those don’t fully account for inflation, and that teacher protests in Raleigh like those that took place this spring show the state needs to do more for teachers.
“It’s not just about money, it’s about respect. And they’re not getting it,” she said.
Democrats, led by figures like Cooper and Mecklenburg Sen. Jeff Jackson, are trying to rally voters to “break the supermajority” held by Republicans. To break Republicans’ veto-proof margins in the Legislature, Democrats need to pick up at least four House seats or six Senate seats.
“The Democrats just want the seat because of the power,” said Tarte. He pointed to economic growth and state tax cuts as evidence that Republican control of the Legislature since 2010 has been a success.
“You have to look at results,” Tarte said. “All the indicators are positive.”
He’s counting on his experience and connections in the Legislature to try to sway voters.
“Relationships are essential if we’re going to get stuff done,” he said. “You can’t learn it overnight. Experience is huge.”
Marcus said she doesn’t think that Tarte’s experience has translated into effective results for the district. And while she said she’s running against Tarte, not the Republican supermajority, Marcus said more balance is needed in Raleigh.
“We do need more Democrats in Raleigh,” she said. “We’re seeing an extreme lack of balance.”
“It’s critical we flip some seats,” she said. “Voters are tired of this, all these special sessions, unreasonable laws. This is no way to govern.”
Tarte said that, philosophically, he agrees supermajorities sometimes don’t make for good government. But, he added, “I don’t want to be the reason we’re not in the supermajority.”
Meet the candidates
Education: Hamilton College, BA in public policy; Duke University School of Law, JD
Professional experience: Assistant director of development at the Ada Jenkins Center, former attorney, law clerk.
Political resume: Team leader on several presidential and state level campaigns; NC House Candidate in 2014; Davidson Town Advisory Board member for bikeways, trailways, and greenways
Family: Two daughters
Education: University of Illinois, BA in economics; Duke University, executive education in finance; Harvard University, executive education in state and local government
Professional experience: Management consultant; former Ernst & Young partner
Political resume: State senator, three terms; former Cornelius mayor, Mecklenburg County Parks & Recreation commissioner, Cornelius Parks & Recreation board chair, Metropolitan Transit Commission member.
Family: Wife Nancy Tarte, three children.