Smith looks to unseat Hunter in District 5


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Republican challenging Democratic state Rep. Howard Hunter III’s re-election in newly drawn House District 5 is a self-employed home improvement contractor from Gates County.

Phillip Smith, who filed for the District 5 seat last month, says he’s running for the state Legislature because he wants to improve public education, control spending, and to be responsive to district residents. Because neither he nor Hunter, D-Hertford, has a primary opponent, they’ll face off in the November election.

During an interview last week, Smith, 36, said he doesn’t know Hunter, but acknowledged defeating him in November will be a challenge. Smith noted Hunter, a funeral home owner and former Hertford County commissioner, is already well known and has won prior elections by wide margins. Hunter, who is seeking a third term, in fact was re-elected without opposition in 2016.

Notably, House District 5 also has been redrawn for 2018, losing Bertie County while gaining all of Pasquotank County, which had been split with House District 1. Legislative analysis of the new district has shown it still leans Democratic.

Despite those challenges, Smith believes he’s up to the task of winning the seat. He said he's had to get his name out and build support for his business, and would do the same in his bid for public office. He also pledged to be responsive to constituents.

“People need someone they know will listen to them, and I’m going to do that,” the first-time candidate said.

Smith said he decided to run for office in large part to improve spending on public schools. As a father of children in public schools, he said he wants to help the schools. However, he also claims Gates County commissioners raised taxes to benefit schools against voters' wishes. With schools in neighboring Hertford and Pasquotank counties also needing more resources, and after speaking with local Republican officials, Smith said he decided to run for the Legislature.

Smith said one way to help schools would be to restore more funding from the N.C. Education Lottery to counties. When lawmakers created the lottery in 2005, they made a commitment to provide 40 percent of its proceeds to school construction. From 2010 and on, however, they began diverting revenue to other purposes.

Local officials, Hunter among them, have decried that as a broken promise that has cost counties millions of dollars. Notably, lawmakers last year committed to start restoring lottery proceeds to counties, and approved an additional $75 million for needs-based school capital grants.

Smith said restoring lottery funding won't provide all the funding schools need, but it's a start.

Smith also discussed school safety, which has become a major, national issue since a mass shooting that killed 17 at a Florida high school last month.

Smith said he strongly supports Second Amendment rights and supports allowing teachers to carry a firearm on school campuses. Knowing that school personnel are armed should deter would-be shooters, he said.

Asked about economic development and supporting businesses, Smith said he wants to reduce costs and regulations that make it hard for small businesses to start and succeed. Just in his own business, he said, he's encountered a “crazy” amount of “red tape” and high costs for insurance and licensing.

In recent years, Republican lawmakers have reduced personal and corporate income taxes while broadening sales taxes to cover more services. Smith said he supports that approach, but said Republican tax reforms haven't significantly benefited his business.

Some Republicans have also supported granting incentives to attract large businesses to rural North Carolina. Smith said he'd be willing to support such incentives if they bring good jobs to the area. Hunter has also supported business incentives over the years.