Breaking Down The Local Elections: What Lies Ahead

By Scott Nunn, posted Nov 4, 2020
Although the dust has not settled on all races, New Hanover County once again proved it’s become a difficult place for one party to gain control.
Last-minute mailed ballots, provisional ballots and potential recounts could change some outcomes, Joe Biden, however, appears to have won a county that has supported Republican presidential candidates going back to at least 2004. But support for Biden, which was a slim margin in New Hanover County, and fellow Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper did not spill over to key local races: Republican Michael Lee is leading incumbent Harper Peterson for N.C. Senate, and Democrats failed to build on their majority advantage on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, with Leslie Cohen and Kyle Horton finishing at the bottom of the six-person race.
The top vote-getters in the county commissioners race were Republicans Bill Rivenbark and Deb Hays and Democrat Jonathan Barfield, the only incumbent who appeared on the ballot in the race.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo had been watching the commissioners race closely and had expected the Democrats to fare better after the debate surrounding the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
“I figured that the Democrats were going to mount a pretty significant challenge to those seats [vacated by Woody White and Pat Kuseck, who both did not seek re-election],” Wilmington’s veteran mayor said Wednesday. “We were all looking to see how the hospital issue played into the election, thinking it would have a profound effect on it, but it did not.”
Saffo, who was not up for election this year, said he believes the decision to form the Partnership Advisory Group to lead the process tamped down a lot of the negativity that emerged when the possibility of a sale was first announced – a move that appeared evident Tuesday.
Although the Democrats took control of the board in 2018, Democrat Julia Olson-Boseman – the board’s chair – has joined with the two Republican members on some key issues and was a staunch supporter of the NHRMC deal from the start.
With the contentious and time-consuming hospital issue now off the table, Saffo said he hopes the city and county can move ahead on some critical issues affecting the larger community and region, notably affordable housing and the viability of WAVE Transit.
Olson-Boseman said that although the county would be involved in the hospital transition, she views the deal as completed and said she was excited about what Novant brings to the table as it takes over NHRMC and is eager to see the $1.25 billion community foundation “begin [an] incredible investment into our community.”
Olson-Boseman, who plans to seek another term as chair, said the commissioners would have plenty on their plate, including the Senior Resource Center’s development of a master aging plan, redevelopment of the county government center, opening of the Healing Place treatment center and continued work with the school system. She said Rivenbark’s experience as a school board member – a position he currently holds – would benefit the commissioners.
Olson-Boseman also agrees with Saffo that affordable housing initiatives and an enhanced public-transportation system will remain important goals.
Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday that she’s confident the new board of commissioners will continue to focus on economic recovery for local businesses and the employees negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 
She said the chamber has been working diligently with the county, city and others on identifying aid initiatives. She sees the development of business-led workforce training and upskilling programs to prepare workers for in-demand jobs as vital needs.
Beyond the immediate challenges of the pandemic, English said she hopes the commissioners prioritize growth in jobs and the infrastructure enhancements needed to accommodate growth, such as along Interstate 140, the Port of Wilmington and the U.S. 421 industrial corridor. 
“We need to focus on supporting the retention and expansion of existing businesses, including our film industry and other businesses already in our region,” English said. “We also must aggressively market our region for those who might want to move a business to or start a business in New Hanover County.”
Election tidbits
• GenX: A hot-button issue in 2018 especially in the N.C. Senate race did not appear to be much of a factor in 2020. The pollution of the Cape Fear River – and subsequently local drinking water – by chemical giant Chemours helped Peterson unseat Lee two years ago, a result Lee appears to have reversed Tuesday.
• Governing in New Hanover County is now a family affair for two people -- Commissioner-elect Bill Rivenbark is the younger brother of Wilmington City Councilman Charlie Rivenbark.
• As of Wednesday afternoon, Joe Biden had 64,876 votes in New Hanover County, and President Donald Trump had 62,420. Of Tuesday’s voting in the county’s precincts, Trump was winning in only three: Cape Fear 2 (Castle Hayne), Federal Point 8 (Carolina Beach) and WB (Wrightsville Beach).
• Of the 129,544 ballots counted so far in New Hanover, 16,870 were cast on election day, 87,108 were by in-person early voting and 25,566 by mail.
• New Hanover County results are not official until the Board of Election’s canvass on Nov. 13, after which a recount can be requested for extremely close races.
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