Wilmington lawyer Michael Lee is vying for a seat in state Senate District 9—with hearty endorsement from incumbent Senator Thom Goolsby. Lee, a fellow Republican, has twice previously run for the same seat--to Julia Boseman in 2008, and to Goolsby in the 2010 primary. While Lee has never won an elected position, he serves on the Port Authority Board, as well as the state Department of Transportation’s board. Lee views job growth, education reform and a balanced budget as integrated pursuits.
WHQR's Katie O'Reilly: Tell me about your top three priorities in office.
Michal Lee: I think economic development, jobs, and education, and they all kind of interrelate with each other. Jobs in New Hanover County, the state of North Carolina, really anywhere, rely upon a strong education system—not just K-12, but also our community college system and our university system. So that is really how it relates into jobs and economic development, in the way that we not only educate our children, so that they can be trained to work in a global economy, but also because those businesses and industries looking to move somewhere want a great place for their kids to go to school. So it kind of dovetails together with education.
KO: Okay, so how would you improve education in District 9?
ML: Not just District 9, but across the state. We really need education reform in North Carolina; we need to think about doing things differently. We need a model where funding follows students and just doesn’t get deposited in schools. Our parents need more choice and we need to better compensate our teachers.
KO: By that do you mean more funded options for private and charter schools?
ML: I think they need more options, whether it’s private schools, charter schools, or your traditional public schools—maybe one school is open choice because it’s a magnet school with math and science. I know we’ve put labels on schools for those things, but I’m not sure that we’ve really integrated the core curriculum in those schools, as advertised, in many of those instances.
KO: Do you have any specific plans to spur economic development?
ML: Infrastructure is incredibly important. We need to not only pay attention to our infrastructure, but we need to plan our infrastructure in connection with our ability to attract jobs and business to, not just New Hanover County, but North Carolina as a whole. We need to market ourselves as a region—we need to cooperate as a region to attract jobs. Jobs in Pender County, Brunswick County, Duplin County have a direct economic impact on New Hanover County. We also need to look of course at New Hanover County as well, and as we position ourselves regionally to attract those businesses, we need to do it in a way that we can supply them with the appropriate infrastructure. A lot of people think about infrastructure just from bricks and mortar, rails, roads, the ports. But we also need to look at our IT infrastructure—do we have the appropriate IT infrastructure in place, in the ground, such that certain of these information technology businesses can actually locate here, and be able to operate their businesses?
KO: Okay, any other ideas for attracting jobs to District 9?
ML: Another thing we really need to be looking at—we’ve been incredibly successful at the Port Authority with—are public-private partnerships. One example is the wood pellet industry. This is giving our agriculture industry access to Europe to sell agricultural products by virtue of the ports. And the way to do that without investing really any money on infrastructure is to enter into a public-private partnership. So that’s just a really good example of where government doesn’t create jobs, but government can help facilitate the process by thinking out of the box and having some really creative measures that they’re working through to allow private business to operate in a very accessible and profitable way—helping multiple industries in North Carolina.
KO: The Republican legislature has gotten a lot of flack for blocking the expansion of Medicaid. How would you help low-income citizens get affordable coverage?
ML: Ideally, we would give free health insurance to everyone, but the reason behind that was we just couldn’t afford it. And one of the issues we’ve had with Medicaid is ability to predict how much we’re gonna spend in any given year. So, the reason to not expand it is we were already over budget by hundreds of millions of dollars from the previous cycle. When you’re over budget you can’t expand those services until you can bring the budget in line. And I think that’s one of the things that DHHS and the legislature and other thought leaders in North Carolina are trying to figure out: What’s the best way to provide care to our citizens in a way that we can budget the cost so that we can pay for it?
KO: Would you ever support same-sex marriage in North Carolina?
ML: No. My faith guides the way I believe about certain things. I think that the measure that allowed the voters to decide is the best way to do it. If the voters in North Carolina speak, I think that we should listen to what they say. So I think that that process really was the right one, as opposed to the legislature making that decision. I think it’s important that those decisions that truly need to be made by the citizens of North Carolina are actually made by them.
KO: Michael Lee, thanks for joining us today.
Wilmington attorney Michael Lee is one of three Republicans vying for Thom Goolsby’s soon-to-be open seat in Senate District 9. A third-time candidate for this office, Lee has been active on the Port Authority Board and in the North Carolina Department of Transportation for the past few years. And, Lee believes that a key factor in spurring regional economic development lies in education reform.
Lee says he’s a proponent of public-private partnerships, aggressive initiatives to spur business-friendly infrastructure, and incentives such as those employed to attract the film industry to District 9. He adds that businesses and industries looking to operate in the Cape Fear region are also prioritizing great places for their kids to go to school.
"We can’t keep doing the same things we’ve been doing for the last twenty years. We can’t just be talking about the same issues, because they don’t ever change. We’ve got to look at real, dramatic education reform in North Carolina. See what other states are doing, see what other countries are doing—so that our children have the ability to compete in a global environment."
To this end, Lee advocates for better educator compensation, enhancing classroom efficiency via more teachers’ assistants—and providing parents with more options for private, charter and nontraditional public schools.