New Bern, NC – (Full text of complete interview follows story transcription)
INTRO - Yesterday we heard from the Republican candidate for the District Ten House seat Willie Ray Starling, who defeated the incumbent in a special election. Today we profile the Democratic candidate for House District Ten Van Braxton, a Kinston City Councilman and owner of a small Greene County farm. George Olsen has this.
Economic development in the Lenoir, Greene and Wayne County areas that District 10 comprise has long been a topic of discussion particularly with the hopes that were built up by the Global Transpark so far not coming to fruition. Braxton says he's looked on as neighboring counties such as Pitt and Craven bring in lucrative projects while his resident Lenoir and Greene Counties seemingly get left behind.
01:54 I've talked with Russell Tucker in Duplin County, who used to have part of Lenoir County (in his district). I said we don't seem to be getting our fair share, and they said most of us up here work together but maybe you don't have that person up here that's working well with us.
If anything explains Braxton's desire to represent District 10 in the state House, that's probably it a simple belief he can work with other legislators more effectively to assist his district. And his economic development beliefs still center around the Global Transpark. While he says the Transpark will likely not become the panorama it was once promised to be, he still thinks it can be a catalyst, but only with infrastructure improvements particularly roads.
03:19 I know roads are a hot issue they say it's the most over-promised, under-funded part of the state budget and that needs to be corrected but we do need a good quality interstate road that links from Kinston to the Transpark to Snow Hill and then connecting to Walstonburg Greene County's industrial park and then hitting 264. I think it would be an easy road to build for the fact there's a lot of farmland so you wouldn't have to go through a lot of small towns and housing developments and so forth.
Yet since Braxton says any road building project will be a long drawn-out process, more traditional means of economic development will continue things like tourism, particularly a project that Kinston has long been at work on.
30:11 For instance, the CSS Neuse, one of the few ironclad battleships left in existence is kind of rotting away in a park with just a tin barn cover over it. People say within 11 years it will completely decompose because it's out in the elements. We've been trying to get a museum built to house that as well as other artifacts from the Civil War.
which brings up questions of whether this is a pork barrel project. Braxton says the project has obvious benefits and pork is in the eye of the beholder.
30:11 It would be good for the state as a museum. Civil War tourism is big, so I think it would bring some money into the state and tie some of our Civil War battlefields and land sites, kind of tied in together. I think it would be a benefit for our area. I think the word pork and there are some pork projects, don't get me wrong I think that what some people call pork is just because its not being built in their own backyard, and they have their own pet projects.
Braxton describes himself as frugal, saying he doesn't believe you can solve all problems by throwing money at them which explains why he hesitates a bit after answering whether he considered North Carolina a high-tax or low-tax state. His answer was we were somewhat in the middle but he thought there was work to be done on the tax code.
27:54 I'd hate to say spend some money on this but I'd like to see us spend some money on a tax group make it up from some CPAs, people from the Department of Revenue, maybe a few legislators to take our tax system and go through it almost line-by-line. It's too cumbersome, it's too hard to understand, there's too many loopholes and things in there that probably don't need to be there. I would love to see us streamline our tax system to make it where people understand it, where it's fair, where it's equitable for everyone.
Van Braxton is the Democratic candidate for the state House District Ten seat. I'm George Olsen.
What was your initial reasoning for deciding to enter the state House race? Was there one deciding factor or just the culmination of a series of events?
00:30 Well, I guess it wasn't either one. I've been a city councilman here in Kinston for eleven. In fact, November will start my 12th year, last year of my third term. I felt like we have some good people here in place in Lenoir County and in Greene County we have good people in place as far as county commissioners, economic development people. I think where we're missing the missing link is our connection in Raleigh. I feel like maybe we don't have a good voice in Raleigh for this area to help us. I think one of the biggest issues we face is jobs and economic development, and we can do a lot from a local level but we can't do everything we need. We need a go to guy in Raleigh, and I think we've been missing that in the past. I hope I can be that go-to guy, the link between the Department of Commerce and what's going on in Raleigh and Greene, Lenoir and Wayne County to help us get more of the industrial and manufacturing jobs that we need in this area.
Was there a particular instance of something in the economic development field where you thought the district missed out on a good chance for new jobs for the lack of that go-to guy?
01:54 Not exactly one point, but I think over the last couple of years I've seen that the other legislators in this area seem to be doing better for getting projects for Pitt County and Wayne County and Craven County, and I'd seen that they work together. I know these people, and I talk with them. I've talked with Russell Tucker in Duplin County, who used to have part of Lenoir County (in his district). I said we don't seem to be getting our fair share, and they said most of us up here work together but maybe you don't have that person up here that's working well with us. I think as the population gets more fragmented in the fact that more and more people live in Wake County, Guilford, Mecklenburg and our area is growing slightly but slower, so the population is becoming more and more urban, so we have to work together on a regional concept with other legislators in our area for us to get our fair share of the pie, and I'm not sure that was happening.
What unique aspects of this district that you think need to be addressed by this legislature, it's unique needs?
03:19 I think one of the biggest needs we have is infrastructure, and the biggest point there is we need a good highway possibly some rail systems but the highway is much needed. We have the GTP in Lenoir County and that has moved a lot slower than we had hoped it would of course, there were environmental issues to get it off the ground but I think now as companies come here and look at the GTP, one of the big issues they say is we need a good quality interstate road to get to this area. I know roads are a hot issue they say it's the most over-promised, under-funded part of the state budget and that needs to be corrected but we do need a good quality interstate road that links from Kinston to the Transpark to Snow Hill and then connecting to Walstonburg Greene County's industrial park and then hitting 264. I think a lot of people don't realize that to get to a good quality interstate road, about the shortest route is here (interview conducted in Kinston) to 264 .which is just north of Walstonburg. It's about 26 miles. I think it would be an easy road to build for the fact there's a lot of farmland so you wouldn't have to go through a lot of small towns and housing developments and so forth. It's just a dream, a vision I have. Everybody seems to be talking we need to upgrade highway 70 and that's a good thought, but I'm not so sure it wouldn't be easier to do a road from here to Walstonburg and connect it to 264 which is a fine quality road with 65 & 70 mile per hour speed limits, limited access and that goes straight to I-95 and into Raleigh and I-40 and the whole area, so I'm not sure that might not be a different way to go, and especially from this district which includes Lenoir and Greene County, it would also tie in Greene County's industrial park that they're starting in Walstonburg. That would tie the GTP, Kinston, Snow Hill, Walstonburg, Greene County industrial park all together. I can envision if we can get the Transpark up and running like it should be, the price of property there will skyrocket and will be higher. So my vision is some companies might want to be close, feeders to the Transpark but may not want to be in the Transpark, so the Lenoir County industrial park on highway 70 or Greene County's industrial park in Walstonburg would be good places for them to locate, and if we had that road that they could connect to the GTP in 20 or 25 minutes, I don't think that would be a barrier for companies to relocate to Walstonburg in Greene County's industrial park.
Do you believe the lack of interstate access is the sole thing lacking in making the Global Transpark the economic dream it was so long ago?
06:31 I don't know if it's all that's needed. I think it's probably the biggest thing needed at this point. I think railroad is also needed out there and that's not there. I think if the road starts coming the railroad will come so I don't think that's a major deal. The major issue is the highway because its such a long process to get the plan and do the hearings and the environmental studies. It's just such a long drawn-out process for a road, but, yes, I think that's the biggest key holding it back. Was it ever going to be the panorama that they portrayed it to be? Probably not, but it still can be the catalyst for this area to grow, and quite frankly, I'm a little worried about what's going to happen if it doesn't grow. I think we need that to be the catalyst for this area, then other industrial parks can feed off the Transpark. I envision the Transpark being more hi-tech. I think the software companies and microchips and these hi-tech things that are way beyond my understanding, I think that will be a place they're interested in coming. Some of the ones that have come recently are doing software and so forth for the military, and so I think that is you know, the Transpark will be an ever-growing, ever-evolving project that may have started out as just-in-time manufacturing, but now is changing its course to being more software, military, niche markets for the military and the military now with the war going on and things like that. There are purchases and products they need or escalating, so being close to the military bases and Seymour Johnson in Goldsboro and the bases in Jacksonville and Havelock I can really see a role for the GTP for private industry, building such hi-tech things that the military needs, so I think that can be and maybe our other industrial park on Highway 70 here in Lenoir County can be more of a manufacturing facility. Just some of the ideas I have and the park in Greene County, I think it will be more manufacturing. In our area, we need jobs for high-skilled people so our kids can go to college then come back here and work, but we also need for lower and mid-skilled people we have a lot of those people here too, and they need jobs, they need high quality jobs. Our people are hard working. They get up and they'll work hard all day. Some of them don't have the college education and some of the degrees that they might need for some of the high tech but they still can do jobs of middle manufacturing so we need a two-fold approach to how we go after jobs.
The GTP has gotten the lion's share of attention in regards to economic development for the area. Are there other opportunities that the area, if not ignoring, is not paying as much attention to?
10:00 I don't really believe so. I think and this is a little bit of a problem rather than a good thing but I think the Transpark tends to promote the Transpark, then the County tends to promote the County. I think they need to work together a little better, and I think that's coming around. I know the economic developer that's at the Transpark now is a resident from here and I think we will see a little more sharing of ideas. There may be a company that comes to the Transpark that's not really a fit for the Transpark, yet would definitely be a fit for Lenoir or Greene County in one of their industrial parks, so we need to share and work together a little better, but I think the local economic developers with the county, they're going after projects and the Transpark is going after projects and if anything, I think we need to work a little better together than we have in the past.
Are you still operating a small farm in Greene County?
11:00 I own a small farm. It was my mother's, and my uncle used to look after it. I have two relatives and my farm which are all together. My uncle was looking after it, but unfortunately he passed away a couple years ago so I've been managing the farm, which isn't a lot to do. We rent it out and I take care of the taxes and the insurance and those type of things. Farming is that's something I'll be really interested in if I get to Raleigh. Farming has to change. It can not be tobacco anymore as more and more of the farmers are getting out of tobacco. I was over in Greene County a week or so ago and went to a prawn farm which is the pond that grows like a big shrimp and I bought some of those and we ate them and they were delicious, so those are the things where farming needs to go. We need to start thinking outside the box of the old corn and soybeans and tobacco and we need to start doing more catfish farming and prawns and sunflower and corn which might be a really big sleeper which might come about if the biodiesel fuels start coming about and I really feel they're going to, and that might be a fantastic market for our farmers.
What about the hog farms? Are you up-to-date on the new technologies they're discussing for handling hog waste in an environmentally friendly manner? Price is always an issue.
13:02 Price is an issue and I think from a state standpoint we have to move in that direction. Hog farming is big in this area in Lenoir County and Greene County and Duplin County. It employs a lot of people, and a lot of farmers have gone to turkey and hog and chicken farms and there have to be ways to dispose of that waste that is environmentally friendly. Now, the hard part is making that cost effective to the farmer, and so I think the state has to look at ways to help small and medium farmers to buy this technology and implement this technology. Maybe, and I'm not up on it and this may sound a little silly, maybe having one system we can tie several farms to and let several farms feed into this system to negate the bad effects of the waste from the farms. I think the state has to be involved. I just don't know if the small farmer can survive and pay the cost of these systems that will make the hog waste and the turkey waste environmentally friendly, so I feel like the state has to be a partner in that.
I know one of the complaints of farmers is that at one point they were mandated to go to the lagoon system which everyone now wants to abolish. Will the state have to get involved helping the farmers pay for new technology if its mandated that we're abandoning the lagoon system and going to system X ?
14:45 I think so. I think they've got to be involved somehow. That doesn't necessarily mean that the state pays for it. It might mean that the state sets up a financing system where the farmer can pay it over 10 years at a very low-or-no interest charge. I think that the state has to be a partner in this. It's real easy for legislators to go to Raleigh and mandate these things for people to do, but when you look at it from the other side there has to be some help for these folks. If you're going to make them do it, then you've got to help them do it. We've run into this with the city. The state mandates we clean our sewer systems. We attack storm water run-off and that's good. I'm not saying those are bad issues, but when the state comes down and mandates that we do that, somebody has to pay for it. It's not a free ride, so from a city standpoint we just have to raise revenues from sewer and water and those types of things to offset the cost of building these things. Well, a farmer can't raise his prices. A farmer's prices, it's one of the few businesses where the prices are set with the farmer having no input. I owned a Goodyear tire place here for over 25 years, and if my costs went up, I would have to pass that along to my customers by raising my prices. Farmers can't do that. Their prices are set for them. It's one of the few if not the only industry where their prices they make the product but their prices are set for them and they've got no control over it.
Out of curiosity, is the farm you're renting out a working farm?
16:38 It is a working farm. We rent it out I'm not smart enough to be a farmer but we rent it out and the person who rents it plants soybean and cotton and tobacco. My little part is he produces a lot of tobacco for the size of the farm it's about 25 acres. It's good sandy soil, good old sandy Greene County soil, and it really does well in producing good tobacco, but this year he has soybeans on it. So I do a few things out there maintenance-wise, but he plants the crops, he harvests the crops.
You are not an educator but your wife is a retired guidance counselor. What would be your educational priorities for this area?
17:41 Well, I think all over education needs to be looked at. My number may not be correct, but its somewhere between 55-60% of the state budget. That's huge, and I don't think that number is too far off. Are we getting 55-60% of the state budget bang for our dollar? I'm not so sure we are, and I'm not so sure it's anyones fault. I think we need to step back and look at education from the student's viewpoint, the teacher's viewpoint, as well as the department of Education's viewpoint in Raleigh. I think we need to get some folks to sit down and say what's wrong with education. Are we not educating our children? Do we have some schools that are underperforming? What do we need to do from the standpoint of the school underperforming and where does the blame lie? I'm not getting into a blame game, I'm just getting to where do we need to focus our attention. Is it the quality of the students in this school? Is it the teachers are they not qualified to teach? Is it the socioeconomic values of the community? So first, if you have underperforming schools then you need to find where the problem is and that's where you need to attack. Who better to come up with the ideas to do that than the teachers who are on the frontlines everyday. My wife was a guidance counselor for 29 years. She had enough sick leave and so forth to retire with her 30 years, and I had to hear it many a night, a blow-by-blow, about what went on in the schools that day. Sometimes it just makes you angry that the people in the schools who probably know what's best for the schools are not listened to, and so I think we need to listen to the teachers and the local folks and the principals to figure out how we need to make our schools better, because, quite frankly, with the amount of dollars the state of North Carolina is putting into the schools, I don't think we're getting the most bang for our buck, so they need to be improved, and education is so important. My dad preached to me education, education, you need to get your education, and I used to hear that until I was sick of it. But you know what? He was right. And it's so much different now than it was 35-40 years ago when I was in school. The world is so much more competitive and I see the American people and the American children and the North Carolina children not keeping up with the competition from overseas in our math and science skills. We're losing all our manufacturing jobs to overseas. We're going to be losing all our hi-tech skills if we don't educate our children to be able to do those things here and do them economically.
You served on a gang violence task force in Kinston. Tell me about your experience on the task force what you learned and what you'll carry from that to Raleigh.
21:28 One of my friends who is a police officer says we're a small town police force with some big city problems, and I don't think Kinston is unique. I get tired and sad when I turn on the news and see someone else got shot in Kinston, but its happening all over. I think the system has failed. I was criticized a little bit one morning after two people had been killed. I said the city council has failed. The schools have failed. The community has failed. Basically what I was saying was we've all failed. We've let these young adults down. Granted, they have to be responsible for their own actions, yet we've let them down in not having parents there to train them when they were young, in not recognizing some of the problems in schools and helping them to learn some skills and to get out and get a job. I think the gang violence is a really tough problem. I don't think its as big here I think there's a lot of wannabe's here. They want to be associated with the Crips and the Bloods and some of these other gangs. But having said that, we do have some problems here, and I think there's no simple, easy one answer. The breakdown of the family here in Lenoir County is big. There's not a lot of fathers in the homes, and I think that's the first step. The family environment is not what it was when I grew up. I think the churches have failed. I think the churches need to get involved, and some of what I learned on this gang task force is some of the most promising programs are faith based, and I think that's true. I think that's where it's going to have to be. I think the churches we have so many churches in this community, and they've all got to understand including my church that we have to come outside of the four walls. We have to get into the community and go after these children black, white, Hispanic it doesn't matter. We have to go after these children and try, at least try to get them away from their gang being their mom and dad to getting some adult mentors back in their life, to get the church back in their life, to get them to grow up in more of a religious church environment instead of a street environment, and that's no easy task, because we all like to live in our little comfort zone of working our job all week then going to church on Sunday and come home and think that's it for the week and I'm one of those, so I'm not throwing off on anybody else. I'm one of them, but we have to get outside the walls of the church. We have to get into the community. I think that's one of the keys to turn the gang problem around and help save these children.
What would you like seen done in the Legislature to promote families in the area? That seems to be a constant I've heard from candidates. I just heard one the other day say there aren't enough fathers involved in their children's lives. What can legislators in Raleigh do that could make that happen?
25:13 Maybe not a lot. One of the things I think Raleigh could do and I'm not going to be a legislator who thinks you can solve every problem by throwing money at it, because it's been proven over and over again that that does not work. Having said that, if there's some programs in the community and this is where its crucial where so many times someone will put a program together, and it looks good on paper so the state will throw money at the program but they don't follow through so I do feel like the state should be involved in communities to help parenting problems, to help pregnancy programs to stop these 13, 14, 15 year olds having babies they're children themselves and they're having children. I think we need to be involved carefully that where we're putting money is getting results. I see too many state programs where the plan looks good on paper and the state throws money at it and the plan is a failure, but somebody made a lot of money off that program. Nothing makes me madder than to see that. But there are good programs out here and I think we need to be involved with programs that are successful and that are working to stop early pregnancies, to help fathers to understand the responsibility having a kid's easy, but being a father is tough. To be a father and to be a role model and to be a mentor there's a couple of programs here where some of the men are stepping up and becoming mentors in the school, and if that program proves to be successful, why shouldn't the state help them with some resources? I'm not saying bankroll it for them, but help them if it's successful and it seems to be working. Too many times, and I think the state goes into a lot of different programs in good faith, but they get taken advantage of. I'm tired of that, and I don't want to see that. If the program works, then I think the state should be involved. These programs, these pie-in-the-sky deals for somebody just to make some money on off the backs of taxpayers, I'm definitely against that and I'll fight those things.
Are we a high tax state, a low tax state, or do you think we're just about right?
27:54 I don't know. I feel like we're maybe in the middle. Having said that, I've got a couple of friends in South Carolina and they're talking about our taxes are a lot higher than South Carolina's. So we have to be we want to attract people to come live here, and there are a lot in the Raleigh & metropolitan areas, but they have to feel like it's a good deal to move here, to move to Lenoir County or Greene County or Wayne County, so our tax system has to be fair and equitable. What I would like to see, and again I don't know the whole system backwards and forwards and I'll be the first one to admit that, but what I do see and what I do hear is I'd really like to see us not I'd hate to say spend some money on this but I'd like to see us spend some money on a tax group make it up from some CPAs, people from the Department of Revenue, maybe a few legislators to take our tax system and go through it almost line-by-line. It's too cumbersome, it's too hard to understand, there's too many loopholes and things in there that probably don't need to be there. I would love to see us streamline our tax system to make it where people understand it, where it's fair, where it's equitable for everyone. I'd like to see us do that.
Do you think the budget process the state goes through is adequate? We balance the budget every year, but some would say there's some shenanigans going on taking money from this fund to fill a hole in another.
30:08 We do balance the budget every year. We have to. The Constitution states that. I don't think they should take money out of the highway fund to balance the budget or pay for other projects. Now, having said that, here again, once you get used to taking money from one project to put it in another, it's tough to get off of that, so I think there should be a concentrated effort to stop weaning the General Fund off the highway money and some of these other projects. I think no budget is perfect, never has been one, never will be one. There's always things that I may like that you don't like. You always get around to people talking about pork. I'm not sure pork is the right term. I don't believe in wasting money. I don't do it in my personal life. I've never done it with the city. The tax rate with the city is actually less now that when I started 11 years ago. I believe in being frugal, but I also believe in spending money where it can help you, and some of the projects they call pork may be certain projects that small towns like Kinston need to help them grow. For instance, the CSS Neuse, one of the few ironclad battleships left in existence is kind of rotting away in a park with just a tin barn cover over it. People say within 11 years it will completely decompose because it's out in the elements. We've been trying to get a museum built to house that as well as other artifacts from the Civil War. Some people might say that's pork, and I guess that depends on your definition of how you spend money. I think it would be, number one, good for the community. Number two, it would be good for the state as a museum. Civil War tourism is big, so I think it would bring some money into the state and tie some of our Civil War battlefields and land sites, kind of tied in together. I think it would be a benefit for our area. I think the word pork and there are some pork projects, don't get me wrong I think that what some people call pork is just because its not being built in their own backyard, and they have their own pet projects. I think the state needs to be involved in some of these projects. Some of them, probably not, but some of them that have a good basis, a good plan, there's a good reason for doing it and there's a good result after it's done, then I think the state should be involved with these. I think that's part of a legislator's job. I think a legislator's job is two fold to go up there to Raleigh to look after the welfare of the state of North Carolina, but also to help his area economic development, tourism, getting money for that district to help with local projects I'm not talking about private projects to benefit a person, group or company, but to benefit the community and to benefit the area.