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Incumbent NC House Democrats face primary challengers for voting with Republicans

From left to right, Rep. Michael Wray faces a challenge from Rodney Pierce, and Rep. Cecil Brockman faces a challenge from Cecil Adams in 2024 Democratic primary races for the N.C. House.
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Composite Image by WUNC
From left to right, Rep. Michael Wray faces a challenge from Rodney Pierce, and Rep. Cecil Brockman faces a challenge from James Adams in 2024 Democratic primary races for the N.C. House.

Several veteran Democrats in the state legislature are facing challengers from inside their party in next month’s primary. Their opponents are criticizing them for crossing party lines to vote with Republicans.

The vast majority of Democrats in the state House and Senate voted in lockstep with Gov. Roy Cooper when Republicans voted to override his vetoes. But a few Democrats broke with their party on issues like charter schools, healthcare access for transgender teens and environmental regulations. Some of them also voted yes on the GOP budget bill.

Rep. Michael Wray, D-Northampton, voted with Republicans more than any other Democrat in the House. Legislative records show he voted with the majority on 84% of votes last year. Plenty of votes in the legislature are unanimous, but by comparison, House Democratic Leader Robert Reives voted with the majority 66% of the time.

That’s why social studies teacher Rodney Pierce decided to run against him in the Democratic primary.

"It's like, if you're gonna vote that way, sir, why not just run as a Republican?" Pierce said. "But you know, it's gonna be very hard to win District 27 if you run as a Republican. We don't have a Republican challenger in the general election. And I'm thinking we don't have a challenge because the Republican Party feels so confident that our current legislator will vote with them on the stuff they need him to vote with him on, that they're not going to put up a challenger to him."

Wray didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview. Pierce said he’s particularly upset about Wray’s vote in favor of the budget bill, which included a big expansion of the private school voucher program known as Opportunity Scholarships.

"The voucher program is going to harm our public school systems in your district, and you still vote in favor of that," Pierce said. "You're talking about my children — my biological children who attend Halifax County schools, and another set of children that I teach in Northampton County schools. I'm diametrically opposed to our current state representative’s brand of politics, particularly when it comes to an issue as crucial as public education."

Pierce’s campaign has been endorsed by former state Sen. Erica Smith, who represented the same area around Roanoke Rapids, as well as the Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus and the Young Democrats organization. A billboard on Interstate 95 touts his candidacy.

The Young Democrats have also endorsed James Adams, a former High Point NAACP leader who’s running against Rep. Cecil Brockman in Guilford County.

"These are not moderate districts," said Dorian Palmer, the group’s president. "These are districts that Democrats will win. We need to have someone who's focused on having our agenda at the top of their mind and priority, versus not."

Brockman defends his record. He said he’s worked with Republicans to secure nearly $30 million in grants for his district. The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater High Point received $750,000 in the state budget last year — triple the grant amount for a similar organization in Senate leader Phil Berger's hometown. Brockman said the support for nonprofits like that has helped reduce the crime rate in High Point.

"I’m very effective," he said. "Before, in High Point we only got the furniture market money in the budget. Now over 30 nonprofits in our community actually got money in the state budget — that's unheard of."

Palmer argued Brockman’s approach isn’t a fair trade-off.

"Plenty of legislators were able to secure funding in their districts, without selling out the people of their districts," Palmer said. "Rep. Brockman in his response to our call on him originally, he mentioned the funds appropriated to his community in the budget, but he failed to mention what those would that cost the state of North Carolina."

But Brockman said Democrats need to be pragmatic about the limited role they can play when Republicans hold a veto-proof majority.

"If you're in a super minority, those things are going to pass anyway, whether you're there or whether you're not there, so why not have somebody who is a progressive who is at the table, who is at least trying to amend bills to make things better?" Brockman said.

Brockman points out that he and two other Democrats facing primary challengers over similar issues — Wray and Rep. Shelly Willingham of Rocky Mount — represent districts with a majority Black, low-income population. He says they shouldn’t have to wait until Democrats take over the legislature to get help.

"That's completely unfair to my district, that is a very poor Black district, and to Michael Wray’s district that’s poor and Black," Brockman said. "That's not fair to those people that we represent — they don't send us there for us to wait 20 years for Democrats to get back in power before we start doing our job. They want us to start doing our job right now."

But Pierce thinks the private school voucher funding in this year’s budget will have a bigger impact on public school funding than any individual local grants.

"You're giving us the short-term gains, but the long-term loss, you know … you bring around $100,000, or a few million, but you're robbing our kids of millions of dollars in our district," Pierce said.

On the Senate side, incumbent Democrat Mike Woodard faces a similar challenge from Obama administration alum Sophia Chitlik. Chitlik has been endorsed by two influential political groups, the Durham People's Alliance and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, as well as former Mayor Steve Schewel. Woodard recently lost his campaign for Durham mayor.

While Woodard voted with the Senate majority 69% of the time last year, that figure is less than two other Senate Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue voted with the majority 66% of the time. Chitlik has criticized Woodard for being one of nine Democrats who voted for the annual "farm bill," which she told Indy Week "strips 2.5 million acres of wetlands from protection."

Woodard, meanwhile, is backed by the State Employees Association of North Carolina and Planned Parenthood. He notes in campaign materials that he secured $43 million for Durham in the state budget and led environmental legislation to close Duke Energy's coal ash ponds.

So far, Gov. Roy Cooper hasn't made any endorsements in the contested primaries. His decision to back challenger Val Applewhite in the 2022 Democratic Senate primary in Cumberland County helped unseat Democratic Sen. Kirk deViere, who was criticized for working with Republicans.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.