NEW HANOVER COUNTY — In the shadow of a global pandemic, ongoing water-pollution litigation and a census year, and with memories of last cycle’s narrow margins fresh in the minds of both candidates, now-incumbent Harper Peterson faces Michael Lee in the District 9 N.C. Senate race.
Two years ago, Peterson unseated Lee, who served two terms as the District 9 senator from 2014 to 2018, by 231 votes. In the final weeks of the race, a StarNews freelancer and a former New Hanover County GOP chair filed an ethics complaint against Lee, alleging he used his role in public service to profit in his private enterprise. Lee calls the accusations in the complaint baseless.
“That would require those city council members to be doing something that is a felony,” he said. “It would require a conspiracy of the planning commission. That the six Democrats out of the seven people on the city council were in conspiracy with the Republican.”
As a private citizen, Lee is an attorney.
“My practice involves land use,” he said. “It’s what I do for a living. It’s a very small piece of what I do for a living, honestly. It’s probably 5% of what I do, is land use.”
Peterson denies any involvement with the filing of the 2018 October complaint.
“Well, when you look at it, it’s an interesting association,” he said. “I haven’t used that in my political ads. It’s ripe for it, but I haven’t.”
No such last-minute surprises have been lobbed yet this cycle. Both candidates acknowledged the pandemic pressures levied on campaigning have made this election less about in-person outreach and traditional campaigning strategies, and more about the ideals and records of each candidate.
“He has a record now,” Lee said. “He hasn’t passed a single piece of legislation, and I think that’s important for people to know.”
Peterson said he considers Lee to be a tool of “special interests.”
“I see him as an ideologue for the Republican Party, a button pusher,” Peterson said.
Peterson entered the N.C. Senate in 2018 along with 20 other Democrats. A shift toward blue candidates in that election broke the Republican supermajority, leaving the GOP with 29 of the total 50 senators. Still, it left Democrats in the minority at the state legislature.
Peterson said all of his attempts reaching across the aisle have faltered because the Republicans view him as untouchable. Peterson received significant financial backing from state-level Democratic groups, who view his race as a must-win if the Democrats are to have hope for reclaiming a majority in the state senate.
“Anything I said or initiated was dead-on-arrival because they didn’t want to see me get credit for anything,” Peterson…