On this edition of CoastLine Candidate Interviews, we meet Steve Unger, the Democrat who is challenging Chris Millis, the Republican incumbent, in North Carolina’s House District 16, which includes Pender County and the northwest corner of Onslow County.
This is the second time Steve Unger has challenged Chris Millis for the seat.
The population of House District 16 is 77% white. 16% of the District is black, and nearly 7% identifies as Hispanic. Among registered voters, 40% are registered Democrats, 35% are registered as Republicans, and 24% are unaffiliated.
Steve Unger founded Pender Sounds magazine, which later became the Topsail Voice newspaper. He served as editor and publisher of the Voice until he sold it in 2002. He now works as the Athletics Supervisor for the Town of Surf City.
Editor’s Note: We invited Republican incumbent Chris Millis to join the CoastLine Candidate Interview. He did not respond to multiple invitations.
Rachel Lewis Hilburn: Why don’t we start by having you tell us a little bit about who you are and why you want this job in the first place?
Steve Unger: It all started in the election six years ago when I was contacted by state party officials to run. At the time, I had just returned from a position I had at the Outer Banks, and I was in between residences, in between jobs. I said, I really can’t do this. So, nobody ran against Chris Millis in the 16th District after Carolyn Justice retired. Two years later, I waited and waited, talked to party officials, and at 10 o’clock on the day that the deadline was reached to file, no body had filed, so I drove to Burgaw and put my hat in the ring. That was my first challenge against Mr. Millis. I did not win. I only polled 38% of the vote. But I worked hard, and I learned a lot.
RLH: What did you learn from that time around?
Steve Unger: I learned that without strong party organization, lots of volunteers, and a united effort, it was very, very difficult to win, especially in an off year. So, I accepted the position as chair of the Democratic Party last year. We had our first convention in several years.
RLH: And you’re talking about the Pender County Democratic Party.
Steve Unger: Yes. When I ran the first time and I went around to the polling places on Election Day, Mr. Millis had more family members at the precincts than we had Democratic Party people in Pender and Onslow County. Every time I got to a precinct, I’d said, “Oh, you must be a Millis! How are you doing?” I’d shake hands, and I looked around, and there wasn’t any Democrats. It was very disturbing. When I became chair, one of my goals was to make sure we had a Democrat at every poll, which we will in Pender County. Debbi Fintak took over as party chair this past year, and we can talk about the roll of the blue ballot and what the Democratic party has done to help promote my candidacy and the candidacy of other Democrats.
RLH: How have you done in terms of raising money? Are you able to buy TV ads at this point, print ads?
Steve Unger: I have a very low-key campaign. I’ve actually raised less than a thousand dollars, but I actually have some money set aside for TV. I have a TV commercial made, and I’ve been able to put out signs. I’ve worked very strongly through our precinct organizations. Mr. Millis hasn’t raised a lot of money, even by state standards, but I’m comfortable with what I’ve done. One of the things I have is I have another job. Most people who run for office are retired or they’re independently wealthy and can put a lot of time into it. I’ve got to put time into it around my other job and also being a media consultant.
RLH: And so how will you do that? Because right now your full-time job is athletic supervisor for the town of Surf City, is that correct?
Steve Unger: Yes, and I love working for Surf City.
RLH: So, if you were elected, you would have to spend a lot of time in Raleigh, particularly during the long session. Would you give up that job?
Steve Unger: I would have to resign. I’ve discussed it with my job in the past. I might be able to work part-time for the town, but I could not work full-time. I would give up a great full-time job with superb benefits to serve in Raleigh. That’s a big sacrifice. One of the problems [with serving in the legislature is it] is practically a full-time job, but the compensation for it is very small, even if you include per diem expenses. So basically, only retired people and wealthy people can serve in the legislature.
RLH: And so, which one of those categories do you fall into?
Steve Unger: I’m certainly not wealthy. [Laughs.]
RLH: So then how would you survive?
Steve Unger: I would find another way to keep my head above water. I mean, that’s what I’d have to do. This job is important enough, if I win this seat, I mean, I will open an office in our area to serve constituents, so they can come meet with me about what we’re doing in Raleigh. [Laughs.] I’ll probably live there.
RLH: And if you won this seat, this would be the first time you’d ever held elected office of any kind?
Steve Unger: That’s correct. I’ve enjoyed being involved in politics, and I’ve enjoyed rebuilding our party and getting the message out, but I have not held elected office. I like to say it’s fun being involved in politics. I wish more people would get involved. One of our challenges is getting Millennials involved in the political process.
RLH: If elected, how would you, as a freshman in the minority party, build relationships or go to Raleigh and expect that you could get anything to happen?
Steve Unger: You’ve got to go back to the time when Caroline Justice represented the 16th District. She was a Republican who really reached across the party aisles.
RLH: She enjoyed a lot of bipartisan support.
Steve Unger: She certainly did, and she’s a personal friend of mine. The Democrats controlled the House at the time, but she knew how to reach across and work with people of all persuasions. In fact, when she was county commissioner, she once ran on a slate that included Democrats and Republicans.
RLH: She’s not running. You are. So how would you do that?
Steve Unger: The first thing we’ve got to do, as Democrats, is take enough House and Senate seats so that, with a Democratic governor—and I fully expect Roy Cooper to come out ahead—that he would be able to veto measures passed by the legislature, and that’s the first step, is taking back enough seats so we have a greater competitive balance.
RLH: So you’re not talking about working across the aisle. You’re talking about getting a majority.
Steve Unger: Realistically, I don’t think we can get a majority until at least the next election, but you have to get enough seats so you can negotiate. And right now, there’s no negotiation. The Republicans can go into session, a two-day session, pass HB2, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. So, we need to gain enough seats back, have a Democratic governor, and then we start the dialogue and working across party lines. There are issues where the parties do work across party lines, but there really aren’t that many.
RLH: A political scientist and pollster from Elon University recently said the unpopularity of HB2—this is House Bill 2, popularly known as the “bathroom bill”—may actually have a reverse coattail effect on the presidential race, generating a bit of added support for Secretary Hillary Clinton by mobilizing progressive voters to turn out. How do you feel about HB2, and what are you seeing as you travel around the region?
Steve Unger: I personally and professionally oppose it. It’s discriminatory. It’s costing our state millions and millions of dollars of lost revenue due to events not coming here, including major sporting events. For a party that prides itself on being pro-business, this is a big mistake for the Republican Party. It was a reaction to a problem that didn’t exist. Transgender people in the bathroom, my gosh, they’re at risk. It’s a phony issue. Nobody has taken the bait in the other states. Even the governor in South Carolina said, “Hey, I’m not touching this one.” It is terrible legislation. It’s discriminatory, and it needs to be repealed. That’s my stand, and I think the majority of North Carolinians feel that way. Now, my opponent Chris Millis is a co-sponsor of the legislation, and I know he supports it because at a recent debate in Onslow County, he expressed his continuing support for it. I just think we need to take care of this. It’s making us the laughing stock of the nation and hurting our economy.
RLH: When you say “take care of it,” what do you mean? Are you talking about a full repeal?
Steve Unger: It needs to be completely repealed. Maybe a compromise is possible, but I totally feel that it needs to be repealed. It echoes racial discrimination that we’ve had in the past. North Carolina has been far more progressive in its attitudes, and it’s something we cannot allow to happen.
John (email): How many illegal immigrants currently reside in Pender County? What impact did those people have on the budget of the county? Specifically, can you speak to the economic impact to the education budget?
Steve Unger: I have no idea how many illegal immigrants we have. I know we’ve got a hardworking Hispanic population, and the number of Hispanic voters who are citizens has increased dramatically to 7% and will continue to increase in the future. I think the impact of these immigrants has been a very positive one on the economy. I’m friends with many Hispanic people and many leaders in the Hispanic community. I really can’t address how many. I don’t have a crystal ball in front of me. But in the end, immigration has always been good for the United States of America because immigrants have made up what’s new, what’s exciting, and are willing to work hard and make this country a greater nation.
RLH: Is there anything the state of North Carolina needs to do when it comes to the influx of refugees?
Steve Unger: I think we need to be welcoming to them. Obviously, refugees have to be vetted. But right now, do you realize the largest number of immigrants coming into our country are Asians and Indians? We’ve actually had reverse migration back to Mexico in the last couple of years. So, you have to look at the issue in terms of the entire perspective.
RLH: Your opponent Republican Chris Millis led the charge in the state legislature to do away with film incentives as a tax rebate, despite the fact that he represents a part of the state that benefitted tremendously from that tax rebate for film producers. We’ve watched business in the film industry drop off to next to nothing. Now there’s talk of beefing up the grant fund and pursuing TV series because they stay in town longer, and therefore spend more money here for longer. Where do you stand on film incentives? If you were elected, what would you do in Raleigh on that front?
Steve Unger: Well, I’ve got a sticker on my car that says, “FILM=JOBS.” I was a strong advocate the last time I ran to keeping these incentives in place. You can just see what these incentives do in other states like Georgia, where they’ve made a tremendous amount of difference and where a lot of my friends in the film industry have gone to keep work. You can’t just say it’s this business, this film. It’s all the extra people who worked in the film industry. All the gaffers, all the people operating cameras, all the extras. It’s severely impacted our economy here. There’s been several studies. Some studies say it aids our economy to the tune of millions of dollars. Others studies say it may cost us. I think it’s been very, very good for our area. For Mr. Millis to help torpedo something that’s helped our area is totally wrong.
RLH: So what do you say to someone who says, “I don’t like to choose favorites and help our certain industries or companies. That’s not capitalism.”?
Steve Unger: All you have to look at is the incentives we offer to other large businesses that come in, like the GEs of the world. South Carolina has been successful bringing in Mercedes Benz. We don’t seem to have any problem offering tax incentives and rebates to big companies, but when it comes to film, for some reason, the film industry was singled out. Those tax incentives really impacted thousands of people in our economy.
RLH: One of the issues that this Republican-dominated legislature has pushed in the last couple of years is regulatory reform. Is there any part of that general push—and that is a big umbrella—but is there any part of that push that you would agree with and support?
Steve Unger: I think we need to do things for small businesses. We need to provide incentives. We need to take a look at how we can improve the health care situation for owners of small businesses. I was just talking to a friend the other day who is in the private sector, and health insurance costs have risen dramatically. We’re going to look for solutions through Obamacare, perhaps extending it to Medicaid. I think a lot of this so-called reforming regulations is an excuse for hurting our environmental regulations. They talk about drilling off the coast. Mr. Millis has a very poor ranking among environmental organizations. We’ve got to protect our environment if we’re going to have quality for the future. You can just say, “Hey, this is so we can save money for businesses.” I think that’s often used as a smokescreen.
RLH: There’s always criticism of the current administration and the prevailing party, the majority in Raleigh, by the other party, the minority party, and we’ve certainly heard a lot of that this election season. What do you think is going right in Raleigh?
Steve Unger: What’s going right is I think we’re going to take a bunch of seats back. [Laughs.] We need to reorder the priorities. I’m glad to see Mr. Millis has obtained financing for the first leg of the Highway 17 bypass, and I give him credit for that, even though I think he was a little late to the table. Sufficient pressure was put on the Department of Transportation. This is a big project for our district.
RLH: For those folks who haven’t followed that, describe what that is.
Steve Unger: It goes back to 1993 when, in my newspaper, we said, “Why not a bypass instead of widening the road?” People said, “Yeah! What a great idea.” Of course, the DOT was up in arms because they hadn’t even considered a bypass in their plans. Sam Hunt, who was the head of DOT at the time, said, “Okay, we’ll widen the road and we’ll build the bypass.” He said this in 1993. Now, we’re sitting here 22 years later and trying to get traffic around Hampstead and a modern road. Finally, we’ve accomplished something. We still need to find funding for the leg between 210 and I-40, but I give him credit for doing that in our area.
RLH: The voter ID law has largely fallen along party lines in this state. Passed in 2013, the law was struck down by a Federal Appeals court. It was described as targeting African Americans with almost surgical precision and imposing cures for problems that don’t exist, which, as a matter of fact, is the language you used when talking to your opposition to HB2. Where do you stand on the voter ID law and is there anything that we need to do at this point in the state of North Carolina to do to set things right?
Steve Unger: I’ve totally opposed it because voting is a right. It’s not just a privilege. It’s a right. There are folks out there who can’t get IDs. It was designed deliberately to keep folks from being able to vote who might vote for the Democratic Party. This has been done in other places nationwide. It’s part of a national Republican strategy. It was fine-tuned here to keep minorities from voting. One example I can give you is that I worked at the YMCA for a number of years and still teach there part-time. I decided I was going to create an ID policy where adult basketball players had to show IDs before I would allow them to play. And I realized—
RLH: And why?
Steve Unger: I wanted to make sure it was the right player playing, that it wasn’t somebody playing who wasn’t supposed to be there, that they were cheating to be there. Kind of like the voter ID people do. Turns out, a lot of them didn’t have IDs. A lot of them didn’t have driver’s licenses. That opened my eyes. What are we going to do about the elderly who can’t get out of nursing homes or stay at home and can’t get another form of ID? We’ve disallowed perfectly acceptable forms of ID. I think the whole thing was designed to keep people from voting, to keep Democrats from voting.
RLH: Well, how do you answer this argument: Governor Pat McCrory says it takes a legitimate state-issued driver’s license to be able to buy Sudafed in a drug store, so why should it be easier to vote?
Steve Unger: I’ve got to show my ID if I want to buy alcohol. So what’s the difference? This is a right. It’s not a privilege. You can get a gun a lot easier, in terms of ID requirements, compared to our restrictive voter ID election laws. There’s simply no reason for it. There’s almost no evidence of any cheating. The number of bona fide fraudulent voting cases is incredibly small. Instead, we create a law that keeps people from voting and discourages them from coming to the polls.
RLH: Where do you stand on hydraulic fracturing?
Steve Unger: I’m against it in North Carolina. I don’t think it’s necessary. The state of New York has banned it. The formations we have in mid-state are meh, they might do it, they might not do it. We’ve already seen—
RLH: What do you mean by that, “they might do it, they might not”?
Steve Unger: The formations we have here are not as good as the formations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and other places.
RLH: We don’t have the same volume of resource there.
Steve Unger: No, we have a small area that would be suitable. But look what’s happened in Oklahoma, where they’ve had earthquakes and they’ve had potential of groundwater pollution. I don’t think we need it in North Carolina. We need to protect our environment. We don’t need offshore drilling. We don’t need seismic testing that could hurt the environment. I’m so glad that President Obama reversed his stance on this issue.
RLH: How do you think the state legislature has done with teacher pay increases? That’s been a big selling point for Republican candidates during this campaign season.
Steve Unger: Well, at one point, we were almost dead last. There’s been some improvements in that area, but these improvements are overshadowed by trying to get rid of tenure, denying opportunities for folks to teach who were in another area, the ending of programs to promote teachers. We haven’t made it any easier for our teachers in our educational system. We don’t have enough funding coming from the state level to build schools. The lottery was supposed to be 100% dedicated to education, and I’m glad that now they’re not going to pull it in other areas, but that was needed to build new schools. Instead, our property taxes went up 30% in Pender County because the whole amount of building new schools was on the backs of the taxpayers. The way we rate teachers and schools, it seems like we change it every three or four years, and the current system doesn’t look any better. It looks worse than previous systems. The idea of putting public schools in private hands that are underperforming, I don’t agree with that.
RLH: You’re talking about charter schools?
Steve Unger: No, we’re talking about underperforming schools. There’s a move afoot among the other party to put them in the hands of a private operator who would try to turn around the school program. Charter schools, they are supposedly another kind of public school, but they drain the resources from our traditional public schools. I think private schools ought to be able to succeed on their own merits, and I do not favor further expansion of charter schools.
RLH: But the idea behind charter schools is that they’d be something of a laboratory setting where teachers and administrators could try new teaching techniques and pull out the best, and then those best practices would be coopted by the rest of the traditional public school system. Is that not the idea behind them?
Steve Unger: It sounds like a great idea, but last year in Michigan, they did a twenty-year study of the performance of charter schools, and they showed the biggest success of charter schools was enriching the operators. That the performance of charter schools was essentially no better, no worse than that of traditional public schools. Why are we going to sink all of these resources into a second school system instead of improving our current school system?
RLH: You mentioned the Pender County bypass, and you talked about having been involved and aware of that issue since the early 1990s, so transportation is obviously something that’s important to you. What else would you like to see for this area? How does this area need to improve along those lines?
Steve Unger: Transportation infrastructure—looking ahead to the next ten, twenty, thirty, forty years—really ought to be the number one issue. We need to reestablish that rail link that was taken out between Castle Hayne and Rose Hill. That’s very important to my district. Highway 53 was supposed to have a bypass. That kind of drifted away. That needs to be relooked at to route heavy traffic and trucks around Burgaw, for instance. The entire corridor, I know we’ve talked about another river crossing down here, across the Cape Fear River. Transportation issues need to be looked at regionally, not just county by county. We need to plan for the future. We need to plan for open spaces. We need to plan for parks. We need to plan for our schools. We need to look at what kind of area we want to leave for our children in the future. We know one thing: People are going to keep coming here. The population of Pender County is going to double in the next fifteen years, and it’s doubled in the last twenty years. We’ve got to be prepared for this as public servants and do a good job to leave it to our children and grandchildren.
RLH: Why do you think a very conservative Republican has been elected two terms in a row to this House seat, District 16. Pender County, or actually the district itself which includes this northwestern corner of Onslow county, has a majority of registered Democrats. What does that say about the population there?
Steve Unger: The first thing is that there are some folks who are still registered as Democrats, but they don’t vote Democrat anymore. Some of them are now unaffiliated, and if you look at what’s going on, unaffiliated people tend to vote more Republican than they vote Democrat. So those numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of where we are. The other thing is, when District 16 was created—that was after a Supreme Court decision where Pender county had to be left alone as a district and not chopped up into six pieces—District 16 included portions of Castle Hayne, Ogden, other parts that were more Democratic, and it was a better opportunity for a Democrat to be elected. In fact, the first time Carolyn Justice won, it was a very close election. During the redistricting, the Republicans included precincts in Onslow County that are heavily Republican, and I love the folks up there and I’ve spent some time in Richlands, but it makes it hard for a Democrat to become elected. As you know, courts have decided that our districts are unconstitutional for the state House and Senate, and they’re going to need to be redrawn. Now the question is, Will there be a special election after we redraw them? I don’t know. That was raised today, and I hadn’t heard of that before. I guess I’m going to have to research that.
RLH: When you look at the way the votes have fallen—and we’ve talked about this before with a political scientist very recently—this is one of the more polarized times that we’ve seen particularly in legislatures and on Capitol Hill. We just see votes happening along party lines. How do you expect people to enjoin people to vote for the person and not necessarily the party? Are you only going to be able to count on Democratic voters in this election?
Steve Unger: If I only count on Democratic voters, I’m not going to win. However, the party is important. The Democratic Party in this state uses something called the blue ballot initiative. That actually came from Randy Voller, the previous chair [to the NC Democratic Party]. Where it’s been initiated, it’s worked very well. In the most recent election this past spring, Michael Morgan, who is running for NC Supreme Court Associate Justice— These are nonpartisan elections for judges, but he was supported by the Democratic Party. For the first time in 15 years, we won a victory statewide where he polled more votes than his opponents did in Pender County. It’s turning Pender County purple. I don’t think partisanship is necessarily a bad thing. I think Millennials are loath to necessarily join one party or another. We see the future with the Bernie movement this past spring. We need to make our party relevant, and we need to make our issues relevant to a younger generation.
RLH: Do you support your party’s candidate for president?
Steve Unger: Oh absolutely. Hillary is easily the best choice. She has a tremendous amount of experience. She’s been in government. She’s worked hard. She’s in a variety of rolls. If you separate everything else, if you looked at two candidates and you said, “Is this person qualified? Or is this person qualified?” She certainly comes out way ahead.
RLH: So let’s say that you are elected. You go to Raleigh, and now it’s two years later, you’re finishing up your term. What has changed? What kinds of laws have been passed? What policy has changed? How has this district benefitted from your time?
Steve Unger: We’re still going to be a minority party, so part of it is fighting the good fight, looking for compromises, looking for areas where the two parties can work together.
RLH: What are some of those areas?
Steve Unger: I think we need to work together on education and the environment. We need to look for ways to save money for small business, rewriting tax codes and making taxes more equitable. There are areas where we can find common agreement.
RLH: How would you make taxes more equitable?
Steve Unger: I can’t give you real specifics. There’s areas I don’t know as much about that I’ll have to learn more about. But I do know the tax burden locally on folks who own property is extreme. I know personally, I supported the school bond, but gosh, I’m paying $150-$200 more a month to pay my mortgage [due to property taxes]. We need to look at reforming the tax system. I’m certainly open to ideas from people and others to do that.
RLH: If you were elected, what are you most concerned about? What would be the biggest learning curve for you? The biggest challenge?
Steve Unger: Oh gosh, when you go into office, there’s tons of challenges. You have to defer and learn from people who know more than you. My biggest challenge is going to be earning a living on the side while I occupy the seat and serve the people.
RLH: Should potential constituents be concerned that that would be a focus for you?
Steve Unger: I think that’s true for anybody who is coming into office. We have to have more people coming into Washington every election. We need new blood on the local level, the county commissioner level, running for municipal office. I don’t think it’s a concern. I’ve always been a fast learner. I’ve always been fascinated by politics ever since I was young. I worked on the McGovern campaign. So, I’ve been around a while. I would enjoy doing this as a public service, to serve the people. Mr. Millis has served two terms. The Republicans talk about term limits. I guess I should ask him what he feels about term limits.
RLH: Where do you see the greatest opportunities for economic growth in North Carolina? How would you help to facilitate that growth as a state legislator?
Steve Unger: It’s information technology. It’s finding ways of following our computer revolution, education. It’s certainly not in textiles. You have to look at some states that have already transformed, places like Massachusetts and others. Places like the Research Triangle, the Raleigh area, the Charlotte area, these are vibrant metro areas, and Wilmington is right there too. We’ve got to create opportunities in rural areas too. Not just building more hog farms. We have to find ways of helping folks statewide and creating economic opportunity state wide.
RLH: Is there a racial divide in North Carolina that the state legislature has any responsibility in helping to solve, helping to bridge?
Steve Unger: There is a racial divide. I’m not sure what the answers are except that, right now, most of our legislators are Republican. There’s far more Caucasians than there are minorities. I think sensitivity is important. We need to also look at the growing ascendency of Hispanics as part of our permanent population as we have more and more Hispanic citizens. The big Hispanic migration here came in the 1990s with the hurricanes, and they’ve stayed. They’ve been part of our economy. They’re going to be a major portion of our political system in the future. I think we’re talking about tolerance across racial divides, pulling more women into politics, and making a difference. I’m a believer in the fact that all segments of society need to be represented and work together.