This Democratic challenger is trying to flip a reliably Republican Charlotte district

Wesley Harris, left, is the Democratic challenger seeking to unseat Republican incumbent Scott Stone, right, in the N.C. House District 105 race.
Wesley Harris, left, is the Democratic challenger seeking to unseat Republican incumbent Scott Stone, right, in the N.C. House District 105 race.

South Charlotte has long been a Republican stronghold, and N.C. House District 105 has reliably produced conservative legislators who win by comfortable margins, or even run unopposed.

But Democrats are seeking to change that this year, as a new challenger hopes to flip the district and cut into the Republicans’ legislative majority in Raleigh.

Wesley Harris, a 32-year-old Democrat making his first run for public office, is challenging Republican incumbent Scott Stone.

Stone, 50, is running for his second full term after being appointed to replace former Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer. In 2016, he beat a Democratic challenger with 55 percent of the vote. The district has since been redrawn, and Harris hopes that will help give him an opening to beat Stone.

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“We need a fresh look at things,” said Harris, an economic consultant who said he was motivated to run in part because of the 2016 campaign that culminated in President Donald Trump’s victory. “That was something that kind of triggered me to say I can’t sit back anymore...We have a really big chance this election.”

Stone, an engineer and president of a local engineering firm, said voters should send him back to the General Assembly because of his experience and to ensure they have representation with the Republican majority.

“We need to continue to have folks like me in the legislature, to bring some certain niche expertise as well as business acumen,” said Stone. “We need people from Charlotte who are in the majority and are well with the rest of the state.”

Stone and Harris present voters with a sharply different choice on many key issues. Harris favors expanding Medicaid in North Carolina to cover uninsured individuals, while Stone questions how much that would cost and how the state could pay for it.

When discussing traffic in south Charlotte, Stone says additional interchanges and lanes on I-485, including a toll lane, will help people get around. Harris favors the state funding more transit to give people an alternative to driving, and says it’s not possible to “pave our way out” of congestion.

On teacher pay, both candidates say the state should raise educators’ wages. But they disagree about who is to blame for the state’s low ranking — 37th in the nation for average teacher pay, according to the latest National Education Association figures.

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“Yes, we’re still too low, but we’ve made good progress,” said Stone, pointing to figures showing five straight years of raises that have pushed average teacher pay above $50,000. Despite the increase, teachers staged a mass protest in Raleigh this spring, calling for higher pay and more respect.

“It was very frustrating when the teachers came to protest in Raleigh,” said Stone. “Not a single teacher from my district called or wanted to meet. We had heard a couple that were in town for the protest, and they didn’t come to see me, they just wanted to march.”

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Scott Stone Aesthetic Images Photography

Harris said regardless of pay increases, North Carolina can’t attract or retain the best teachers if it lags so many other states.

“It’s all relative,” said Harris. “It puts our teachers and our students at a disadvantage.”

Stone points to tax cuts enacted by Republicans that have helped push North Carolina to be Forbes’ No. 1-ranked state for business climate. That’s helped the state lure new companies and fostered growth, he said.

“Lower taxes have made us more competitive,” he said. “We’d like to give citizens their money back, if we can.”

Harris says those tax cuts have weakened the state’s ability to invest more in education, healthcare and infrastructure, and that rates shouldn’t be cut further.

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Wesley Harris Courtesy Harris campaign

“We don’t need to raise taxes, we just need to stop cutting them,” said Harris. “I wish tax cuts could solve the problem...Investing in your people is always going to pay greater dividends.”

Regardless of the candidates’ stances on issues, voters’ choices could reflect whether or not they support continued Republican control in the legislature. Democrats need to pick up four seats in the House to break Republicans’ veto-proof supermajority in the legislature, which would be a major boost to Gov. Roy Cooper’s power.

They’re hopeful that Republicans in traditionally safe districts like the 105th are vulnerable this year, both because of redrawn district boundaries and a surge of Democratic enthusiasm stirred up by President Trump and GOP legislative leaders such as N.C. Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

Harris is linking his campaign to defeating the Republican leadership in Raleigh, not just Stone.

“When you run against him, you’re running against one and the same,” said Harris.

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Stone said he expects Democrats to be energized in November.

“Some are angry, whereas Republicans might be feeling pretty good about things and less likely to turn out to vote,” he said. “People show up to oppose things, not to support things a lot of times. It’s going to be a turnout game.”

A changing district?

The 105th district has been held by Republicans since the district was created more than a decade and a half ago. Schaffer, the Republican representative before Stone, ran unopposed in the 2012 and 2014 general elections. She was known for championing conservative bills on religious freedom, restricting abortion access and loosening gun control.

The district runs from the southern corner of Mecklenburg County up through Ballantyne to cover much of southeast Charlotte, roughly north to Rea Road. While Republicans hold an advantage over Democrats in the proportion of registered voters — 36 percent to 26 percent — unaffiliated voters make up the largest group, 37 percent.

That breakdown looks similar to the district before its reconfiguration, with the percentage of Democrats down slightly and unaffiliated voters up. But Democrats are hopeful that the 105th District is now more purple than red and they can carry the district despite the Republicans’ numerical advantage.

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In the 2016 election, the district went for Hillary Clinton over Trump by a miniscule margin, 47.5 percent vs. 47.3 percent. Former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, carried the district by a tiny margin, 49 percent vs. 48.6 percent.

“It’s a changing district, because there’s a lot of growth,” said Stone, who is one of the few local candidates who have started running TV ads. “A lot of people are not native Charlotteans.”

Harris said that the district’s shifting demographics and growing population present an opening.

“This is one of the fastest-growing areas of Charlotte,” said Harris. “Younger people are moving in. More diverse families are moving in. That’s the opportunity...It’s kind of the perfect storm for us to take this district.”

Stone also questioned Harris’ experience, as well as his move into the district shortly before the election.

“What prepares him for this? He’s not done anything for the community. He’s not lived in the district before,” said Stone.

Harris said Charlotte is his home, and that being a recent arrival in the district shouldn’t count against him.

“I’m a lifelong North Carolinian,” said Harris, who grew up in Iredell County, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and works uptown. “Saying I don’t understand what’s going in our district because I’m new? Heck, half of our district is probably new.”

Wesley Harris

Age: 32

Education: BA in Economics, UNC-Chapel Hill; PhD in Economics, Clemson University.

Professional experience: Economic consultant, EY; Adjunct economics professor, UNCC; Small business owner, with twin sister.

Political resume: First-time candidate.

Family: Parents, three sisters, and six nieces and nephews.

Website: www.harrisfornc.com

Scott Stone

Age: 50

Education: BS in Civil Engineering, Clarkson University; MBA, Marymount University.

Professional experience: President, American Engineering.

Political resume: N.C. House, 2016 – present, candidate for Charlotte mayor, 2011 and 2015.

Family: Two college-age daughters.

Website: www.electscottstone.com

Portillo: 704-358-5041