October 29, 2010

Republican Hood Richardson aims to unseat powerful Senate leader Marc Basnight


Four years ago, Washington, N.C., Republican Hood Richardson wanted to go head-to-head with incumbent state Sen. Marc Basnight at the ballot box.

Defeated in the primary, Richardson was deprived then of the chance to unseat North Carolina’s most powerful politician. And realistically, at the time, his odds of winning would have been slim to none.

But this election season, with the North Carolina Republican Party laser-focused on flipping the Democratic-controlled Senate, the GOP challenger in state Senate District 1 is in the game.

Although Richardson, owner of an engineering and surveying business, said the party has not contributed to his campaign -- for which he expects he will spend about $25,000 -- the state GOP has hammered Basnight in numerous fliers, attacking his funding of Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head and falsely connecting the project to teacher layoffs.

The mailings also accused the Manteo Democrat of benefiting from the pier project because family-owned Basnight Construction, run by his cousin, is one of the minor subcontractors,

“I think what bothers people about Jennette’s Pier is it brings people by his restaurant,” Richardson, 70, said, referring to Basnight’s Lone Cedar Café, located a short distance down the road. “Whether he did anything or not, there’s an appearance of evil.”

In his response, sent earlier this month in a double-sided letter to constituents, Basnight said that the pier -- the first of three the North Carolina Aquariums plans to build on the coast -- had been authorized in a unanimous vote by the General Assembly. The project will create jobs, he said, and be an economic and educational asset to the region.

Basnight, 63, said in an interview this week that seven Senate seats are in play, but the “big, big, heavy fight” is over senate leadership.

Elected in 1984, Basnight has been voted Senate president pro tempore by his peers every session since 1993 and is the longest-serving senate leader in state history.

Compared with most other election years when he didn’t see the need to campaign, Basnight has aggressively addressed his opposition this season. According to a report this week to the state Board of Elections, Basnight has about $249,000 remaining in his campaign kitty. He began with about $717,000.

“The people behind these attacks do not want me leading the Senate -- they don’t want our area to have a voice,” the senator wrote in the letter.  “They want to move power from the coast to the Piedmont and, as these fliers have shown, are perfectly willing to lie to achieve their goals.”

According to the nonprofit Civitas Institute’s Vote Tracker, state Board of Election figures, as of Oct. 26, show Democrats are going to polls in higher numbers than Republicans.

Basnight said he is “hopeful” that he will prevail at the polls, but he acknowledged that this year’s political turmoil could still hurt him.

“If I’m not re-elected president of the Senate, I will not be very effective,” he said. “That is something we all understand. And the East would be affected.”

A widower with two grown daughters, Basnight is both beloved and belittled for his effectiveness over the years in bringing the bacon home to his district. Roads, bridges and state attractions have all sprung to life or been improved under his watch. But he also has been a strong advocate for the state university system, he said, fighting to keep tuition costs affordable.

The district includes Beaufort, Camden, Currituck, Dare, Hyde, Pasquotank, Tyrrell and Washington counties.

With his speech slowed considerably from a motor neuron disease diagnosed shortly after his wife Sandy’s death in 2007, Basnight said he has been able to keep up with the demands of campaigning and running the Senate, driving hundreds of miles around the state.

“I go everywhere,” the senator said.
He walks slower, and he can’t run anymore.  He could live 15 more years, he said, or he could live two more years.

“But that’s the same with any disease we don’t understand,” Basnight said. “What I have does not affect my mind at all.  I go about my daily routine.”
To his opponent, Basnight “and his crowd” meddle too much, regulate needlessly, tax too high, and lack a sound approach to creating jobs and restoring the economy.

Times are tough, in Richardson’s view, and government needs to toughen up and worry less about human bloat than bureaucratic bloat.

“We’re trying to cater to everybody’s needs -- all of a sudden obesity is disease,” he said. “We need to do away with the underwater basket-weaving classes.”

Richardson, married with three grown children, said he’s not sure where he would pare the state budget, but he said it clearly can be made more efficient.

“Medicaid patients can get penile transplants -- come on, give me a break!” he said.

Serving his fourth term on the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, Richardson favors tax credits for small business. He also supports deporting illegal immigrants, he said, to free up jobs for legal residents.

“We need to get back to basic government,” he said, adding that there’s too much entitlement. “The quality of life is important. And the quality of life is not socialism.”

But Basnight said there’s a balancing act in meeting the needs of citizens, as well as the state.  For instance, he said, North Carolina is the only state in the nation that does not require county governments to maintain their streets. And the state’s universities and colleges, he said, are some of the most affordable and high quality in the nation.

If power shifts to the Republicans, Basnight asked, will they start charging citizens on a local level for those services?  He believes, he said, that good-paying jobs and a healthy economy are directly related to a good education.

“How do you get that education? You pay for it,” Basnight said. “You pay for it with taxes. “

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