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Lee looking to stave off challenge from Peterson
NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Until early October, as the region prepared for and then dealt with the impact of Hurricane Florence, the race between N.C. Sen. Michael Lee and challenger Harper Peterson had been mostly civil, focused on issues and free of direct negative attack ads between the candidates.
The gloves have since come off.
Some outside groups had attacked Lee, a Republican appointed in 2014, beginning in the summer, and outside groups have attacked Peterson as well.
Then Peterson, a Democrat and former Wilmington mayor, released a televised ad attacking Lee, saying he’d been derelict in his duty in addressing emerging contaminants like GenX.
“Negative ads have been running against me since June from third-party groups which were not true,” Lee said. “So I assumed he would put out a negative ad about me that is equally untrue.”
At the same time, Lee ran a full-page ad in the StarNews using cereal boxes to compare himself — on a Wheaties-style cover — to Peterson, who was portrayed with a creepy visage calling him “Harper Puffs” that accused Peterson of raising taxes, causing sewer spills and of living at Bald Head Island instead of Wilmington.
“He needs to check the records,” Peterson said as he picked up a pair of socks off the floor during an interview at his home on Orange Street in Wilmington. “It’s inevitable. We tried to keep our ads factual based on legislation or lack of legislation.”
They are joined in the race by Libertarian candidate Ethan Bickley, who said he hasn’t conducted much of a campaign.
“My career is kind of taking things over,” Bickley said. “I’ve taken a step back from the campaign.”
The candidates agreed that Hurricane Florence and its aftermath may be a major issue on voters’ minds.
“All of us are concerned about what transpired during the storm,” Lee said, adding the storm impacted schools, businesses and the regional economy now struggling to tell the world that Wilmington has reopened for business. “Those are important issues.”
“We were devastated,” Peterson said. People are “anxious to see how the governor and Legislature move forward in emergency relief and long-term planning.”
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So far, the General Assembly has approved more than $850 million for hurricane relief on bills sponsored by Lee.
Bickley agreed that the storm would be top-of-mind for voters.
“It will be a big factor in the election,” he said. “But we all live here and know hurricanes come here. I don’t necessarily see it as a political issue.”
Peterson flat-out accused Lee of dereliction of duty, saying legislation to deal with emerging compounds like GenX came late and fell short.
“I think people need to know because Michael has been invisible,” Peterson said.
After initial bills that provided money for testing and filtering trials to the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority (CFPUA), Lee sponsored legislation that, originally at least, would have called for identifying everything in the state’s waters.
Ultimately, legislators included in the budget funds to have the N.C. Policy Collaboratory create a drinking water contaminants baseline using state university system resources and provided $1.3 million for equipment and time-limited positions at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.
It was less comprehensive than previous competing Democratic and Republican bills — both of which differed in how to approach the issue.
Lee said at the time he was satisfied with the result and that it may only be the beginning. He said it focuses on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) “because that was of most concern right now,” Lee said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to expand it to all emerging compounds once we have the infrastructure in place.”
Lee said the bill creates a searchable database so DEQ officials can more readily identify companies responsible for specific discharges after the collaborative finds substances in tests of water.
“The concept is one of testing and enforcement,” he said.
Echoing other critics, Peterson said legislators allowed the chemical industry “to review and edit it to serve their interests and not the public interest. We want to know what’s in the water. We have every right to know.”
Peterson said that, if elected, he would work to restore cuts made to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) over the past several years “so that we can begin working with industry to identify all of these emerging contaminants.”
Agreement on an issue
Lee and Peterson agree that the state should partner with federal and local governments to provide state funds for beach nourishment.
The Legislature has already created a mechanism for funding nourishment projects, but hasn’t allocated money to it yet — something Lee predicted would change next year.
“I think we’re finally at a point where we have enough support around the state for a source of funding,” Lee said. With Hurricane Florence, “we’ve gotten real-life proof that storm damage mitigation and beach nourishment are the same thing. It prevented a significant amount of property damage and allowed those businesses to reopen quickly.”
“I think they need to,” Peterson said of state funding for beach nourishment. “It needs to be a shared responsibility between the federal, state and local governments.”
Say something nice
Despite the negative turn in the campaign, Lee and Peterson were each asked to say something they liked or admired about their opponent.
Lee said he admired Peterson’s athletic prowess — Peterson was a three-time All American lacrosse player with the University of North Carolina — and commended Peterson for raising five children.
“He’s lived a really interesting life,” Lee said. “It takes a lot to raise five children.”
Peterson said Lee “seems like a nice fellow. He’s a family man and I respect that. Personally, he seems like a nice guy.”
Reporter Tim Buckland can be reached at 910-343-2217 or Tim.Buckland@StarNewsOnline.com.