Phelps, Steinburg to vie in Senate 1

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State Rep. Bob Steinburg


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Does northeastern North Carolina need to stay the course or give new leadership a chance?

That's the debate in the 11-county Senate District 1, where state Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, is running against Washington County Commissioner Cole Phelps, a Democrat.

Though Steinburg is not the incumbent — state Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, is retiring — he is running to continue GOP initiatives he argues are delivering growth. He brings experience as a salesman and three terms in the state House to the table.

Phelps says a different path and a different leader are needed. Northeastern North Carolina has been under-served and under-represented, he argues, and Democratic approaches to the economy, education and other issues are needed. As an attorney, county commissioner, and lifelong district resident, he argues he knows constituents’ needs and how to meet them.

Both men discussed their records and priorities in interviews this week with The Daily Advance.

Steinburg argues that his support of GOP policies such as tax cuts, regulatory reforms, and reining in spending have helped turn around North Carolina from years of recession. About 13,000 jobs have been created in Senate District 1 since 2012, he said.

“I have been fortunate to be part of basically a redo of the economy of North Carolina,” Steinburg said.

He said highlights of his record include: pushing to bring northeastern North Carolina into a Foreign-Trade Zone; fighting for funds for Interstate 87 and the Mid-Currituck Bridge; and supporting investment in College of The Albemarle and Elizabeth City State University, the latter of which he defended during talks of closure in 2014.

If elected senator in District 1, Steinburg said he sees himself continuing efforts to strengthen the region’s economy.

Disagreeing with Steinburg, Phelps claims northeastern North Carolina has not been heard or served well in recent years. If elected as senator, he said he'll make sure other lawmakers “know the state doesn't stop at I-95.”

Phelps argued he has the drive and knowledge to serve the geographically large district. He was the state's youngest county commissioner when elected in 2012, and serving as county commissioner has attuned him to the district's needs, he said.

“I believe I have the best experience because I serve in local government closest to the people,” Phelps said.

Asked about his legislative priorities, Steinburg turned first to unfinished business. Last year, he introduced a bill to allow COA to use state bond funding for new facilities in Currituck and Dare counties; COA sought the legislation because it wanted to invest in facilities it doesn’t own. State Rep. Beverly Boswell, R-Dare, and Cook opposed the bill, however. Citing Boswell’s opposition, Cook only agreed to support the bill after Dare County’s project was removed from it.

“In the first week, I'm going to file that bill” for Dare County, Steinburg said. “There's no reason it shouldn't have passed before.”

In other priorities, Steinburg said he’ll push for developing the northeastern corridor of I-87 before other sections of the Raleigh-Norfolk route. Northeastern North Carolina is where the road would offer the most immediate benefits, he said, noting the region’s Foreign-Trade Zone status. He’d push state Commerce and Transportation officials to study the corridor’s benefits and provide funding for it, he said.

Steinburg also said he would support more investment in rural broadband, as well as promote public-private partnerships for internet access. Steinburg and numerous local officials have said the area needs more, better broadband to draw businesses.

Turning to education, Steinburg said his top priority would be changing schools' funding formula. It's based now on enrollment; that's great for growing, urban school systems, but it’s disadvantaging small, sometimes shrinking rural districts, he said. When schools lose a few students, they lose revenue but don’t see operating costs go down, he said. 

In prior interviews, Phelps has cited two of his key accomplishments as fighting to give local pay supplements to teachers and helping persuade Roanoke-Chowan Community Health Center to reopen a clinic in Creswell in Washington County.

Phelps said more high-speed internet access is a top priority, given its importance to both the economy and education, as well as further supporting community colleges.

Phelps has also strongly disagreed with Republicans' approach to taxes, arguing they've passed billions of dollars in tax cuts that have mostly benefited wealthy North Carolinians while shortchanging public investment.

In education, Phelps said that if he could only do one thing for public schools in the next two years, it would be to restore NC Education Lottery dollars to counties. When the lottery was first created, lawmakers pledged 40 percent of proceeds to school construction and maintenance. But Phelps said the state only shares about 22 or 23 percent of those proceeds now. About half the counties in Senate District 1 are looking at building new schools, he said, and they need help affording the millions of dollars those will cost.

Helping counties pay for school construction will also free those counties up to spend money on other school needs, including supplemental pay for teachers, he said.

Phelps said he wants to see teacher pay raised to the national average. Steinburg and other Republican lawmakers have voted for teachers raises over the last several years, but, according to the National Education Association, North Carolina's average teacher pay is just under $51,000, versus about $60,500 for the national average.

In health care, Phelps said his top priority would be expanding Medicaid — a signature provision of the federal Affordable Care Act that Republicans, including Steinburg, have strongly opposed. Phelps and other Democrats have argued the federal government would pay most of the expansion's costs, allowing the state to affordably cover thousands of low-income workers and provide support to rural hospitals.

Steinburg says prison reform remains a priority for him, noting the murders of correctional officers last year at prisons in Bertie and Pasquotank counties. In addition to more raises for correctional officers, he said he would seek to lower their needed years of service for retirement benefits from 30 to 25 years, adding that was in line with other law enforcement agencies.

Steinburg also continues to want new leadership for the Department of Public Safety and the division of corrections, claiming correctional officers have lost confidence in Secretary Erik Hooks, Chief Deputy Secretary Reuben Young, and Director of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter.

On prison reform, Phelps said North Carolina needs to give correctional officers better training — including joint drills with local first responders — and give them additional raises. The state needs to recruit, and keep, the “best of the best,” he said.

Asked about Steinburg's calls for replacing the leaders of DPS and the corrections division, Phelps disagreed. He said they are hard-working state employees, and argues Steinburg isn’t qualified to say whether they should stay or go. Steinburg doesn't have experience running prisons — nor does he, he acknowledged.

In the wake of hurricanes battering the state in recent weeks, Steinburg also discussed storm recovery and resiliency. He said he would support upcoming legislation to get disaster money to counties hit by Hurricane Florence, including more funding for buying out flood-prone properties.

However, he also said farmers have not recovered yet from 2016's Hurricane Matthew, and faulted Gov. Roy Cooper for “sitting on” some $500 million in relief money.

As for storm resiliency, Phelps said “storms are only going to increase,” and he suggested lawmakers should work with N.C. Emergency Management on storm issues, including looking at building codes. He also said he supports Gov. Cooper's proposed $1.5 billion package for Florence relief.

Commenting on Phelps, Steinburg claims the Washington commissioner is under-qualified to serve the district and would return the state to “tax-and-spend” policies. Phelps doesn't have the legislative experience or connections with state and local officials that he does, Steinburg claimed, saying the district would “suffer” if put in Phelps' hands.

Addressing Steinburg's criticisms of him as unprepared to serve the district, Phelps reiterated that, as an attorney and county commissioner born and raised in the area, he knows the law, the issues and the people.

“There's no learning curve with me,” he said, adding his campaign enjoys broad support from Republicans and unaffiliated voters.

Given Republicans may retain control of the General Assembly, Phelps also said he will show bipartisanship if elected.

“Your party affiliation is not as important as your idea is,” Phelps said.

Name: Bob Steinburg

Age: 69

Occupation: Salesman, president of Wolfestein LLC, sports marketing

Education: Associate degree in retail business management from Corning Community College; bachelor's degree in business administration from Upper Iowa University

Prior offices/campaigns: Elected in state House District 1 in 2012, re-elected in 2014 and 2016; ran unsuccessfully in House District 2 in 2010

Civic affiliations: Past president, Edenton Emergency Aid nonprofit; past president, Albemarle-Pamlico Republican Club; active member, St. Paul's Church in Edenton

Family: Wife, Marie, two adult sons

Name: Cole Phelps

Age: 29

Occupation: Owner/founder, Law Office of D. Cole Phelps; adjunct professor at East Carolina University

Education: Bachelor's degree in family and community services, ECU; juris doctor from the North Carolina Central University School of Law

Previous offices/campaigns: Elected, Washington County commissioner in 2012, re-elected 2016

Civic affiliations: Participant, Friday Fellowship, a leadership development initiative; founder, D. Cole Phelps Scholarship Foundation

Family: Single