With a higher than usual midterm election turnout, Democratic candidates in New Hanover County performed strong on most of Tuesday’s ballot, setting up a shift in power on the board of commissioners.
With incumbent commissioner Rob Zapple and Julia Olson-Boseman garnering the most votes in that race, the five-member New Hanover County Board of Commissioners will be controlled by Democrats for the first time since 1991.
They will join Jonathan Barfield Jr. and Republicans Woody White and Patricia Kusek, with Republican Skip Watkins losing his seat in the election.
“It’ll certainly be a different dynamic,” Zapple said Wednesday. “I’m hopeful that all the commissioners and county staff will work together on an agenda that I think that we’ve already set on economic development, growth, support for education, the opioid epidemic, trying to do whatever we can about the water issue. These are all issues that we’ve identified.”
Zapple added that he hoped under the new makeup, the board would rely on the comprehensive plan on planning and land use that the county adopted in 2016.
“As a commissioner I know there’s been a number of issues that came forward for rezonings, etc., [in which] exceptions were made,” he said. “There were justifications that I certainly didn’t agree with.”
One example Zapple gave of that was of an 85-acre residential project on Gordon Road that he and Barfield voted against last year but were outvoted by the board’s Republican members.
"From an economic development standpoint, I don’t see the vision changing," Barfield said about the new makeup, though he added he would like to see a return to budget work sessions between commissioners and county staff members.
Olson-Boseman did not return messages for comment Wednesday but did campaign on development issues and addressing impacts including traffic.
“It made a great campaign issue,” Kusek said Wednesday. “There’s a big difference between campaigning and governing.
“It was kind of hard to attack the existing county commission with the record we had the past two years,” she said, pointing to items such as a reduction in the county’s tax rate.
Some in the business and real estate community said Wednesday they planned to take a wait-and-see approach.
Hansen Matthews, partner in Wilmington-based commercial real estate firm Maus, Warwick, Matthews & Co., said his early reaction was one of caution.
"While Julia Boseman is a real estate attorney and thus a small business person, her populist campaign message about 'controlling growth' is seen by some as a code phrase for plans to block rezoning applications for commercial development," he said. "One local development company is already shifting its focus from the unincorporated area of the county to the possibility of building projects inside of the city limits or in other counties. The rezoning application process is simply too expensive, too time-consuming and too dicey to embark upon if the odds appear to be stacked against them."
Others said party affiliation might not be as much of an issue on local issues.
"In my experience, at the local level, it is less about party and more about comprehensive plans, development ordinances and land use maps," said Tyler Newman, president and CEO of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy. "Folks will be willing to continue to invest in the community and meet consumer demand if there is certainty in the development process.
"I am hopeful that it will be similar to what we have seen recently with Wilmington and its city council. They have approved transformational projects that were consistent with their new comprehensive plan, which is focused around accommodating the huge influx of new folks that are likely to be moving here. I’m confident that the new New Hanover commissioners will continue to encourage the type of investment that we need — which will provide housing options, jobs, tax base, water/sewer/stormwater infrastructure, transportation improvements, etc."
Democrats fared well Tuesday on most of the ballot options New Hanover County voters, where political newcomers beat out incumbents on the school board and judicial races also broke in the party’s favor. Even in the Congressional matchup, first-time candidate Kyle Horton tallied more votes in New Hanover County than Republican incumbent David Rouzer – though Rouzer won the district overall.
Whether national politics influenced voting down the ballot or grassroots momentum in local races brought out voters, turnout was a significant factor.
In 2016, the county went to Donald Trump in the presidential race by 50.3 percent. While it’s not unusual for midterm elections to favor the party out of office in D.C., local turnout was higher than in previous midterms.
"New Hanover leaned definitely toward the left. Once you get outside of it, it is a little bit more muted,” said Aaron King, associate professor of political science at University of North Carolina Wilmington.
He said this election’s voter turnout of 51.4 percent in New Hanover County eclipsed the 2014 midterms by 10 percent.
"It is so interesting that the typical person cares so much about national politics. I would say local politics matters so much more," King said. "All that took is a classroom full of people or a group of neighbors to swing an election."
King was referring to the race between state Sen. Michael Lee, a Republican, and former Wilmington Mayor Harper Peterson, a Democrat. At the end of Tuesday night, Peterson led Lee by 36 votes.
New Hanover County Elections Director Rae Hunter-Havens said mailed-in absentee ballots that have not yet arrived but were postmarked by Election Day might still be counted as well as provisional ballots that are approved by the board of elections, which meets Nov. 15 the day before the scheduled canvass when vote counts become official.
Lee also can request a recount.
Hunter-Havens said Wednesday afternoon that officials were gathering data on provisional ballots to get an estimate of how many were cast through the county.
In a statement Wednesday, Lee did not specify if he would ask for a recount.
“We will know the outcome of this race in the coming weeks when all votes are tallied and certified in the canvass process," he said.