NC Democrats need candidates like Allen Wellons to win if they're going to seize the state Senate majority. (Image via Wellons' campaign) Allen Wellons
NC Democrats need candidates like Allen Wellons to win if they're going to seize the state Senate majority. (Image via Wellons' campaign)

“I felt the state was going backwards in so many ways. First I was running as a father. Now I’m running as a grandfather. And I want our children and grandchildren to live in a state with the same opportunities that we had.”

Allen Wellons had his time in the NC General Assembly.

The Smithfield native, a Democratic attorney and farmer, served in the state legislature from 1996 to 2002, authoring bills on healthcare, redistricting reform, and judicial campaign reform. But when lawmakers gerrymandered his district into a conservative-leaning one, he lost his bid for re-election. 

So why return now, when the NC General Assembly is perhaps at its most divisive point, when the coronavirus pandemic has upended the election cycle, and when North Carolina is on perhaps the largest stage as a 2020 swing state? 

“That is a great question,” Wellons says. “My wife wanted to know the same thing.”

Aside from the obvious answer—a court-ordered redistricting means his Senate District 11 in eastern NC is as evenly drawn between Johnston and Nash counties as it has been in two decades—Wellons says North Carolina is at a tipping point.

The things Wellons worked for in the legislature, particularly nonpartisan judicial races, have been drastically altered by the General Assembly’s Republican leadership since 2010. Lawmakers voted in 2017 to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto on legislation creating partisan judicial races.

Wellon says the state’s bitterly partisan politics are a microcosm for national politics.  

“I felt the state was going backwards in so many ways,” Wellons says. “First I was running as a father. Now I’m running as a grandfather. And I want our children and grandchildren to live in a state with the same opportunities that we had.”

Wellons is running against Lisa Stone Barnes, a one-term Republican from the state House of Representatives. Barnes, a Nash County native and farmer, joined the Senate race after incumbent Republican Rick Horner announced last year that he wouldn’t seek re-election in his shifting district.

Their race could be pivotal in determining the balance of power in the state Senate. Democrats would need to pick up five seats to claim the majority, and Senate District 11 appears to be a prime opportunity. 

Indeed, it has drawn the attention of upper-echelon partisans. Wellons was one of five state Senate Democratic candidates to earn a coveted endorsement last month from former President Barack Obama, who called those candidates a “diverse and hopeful collection of thoughtful, empathetic, and highly qualified Democrats.”

Fundraising has favored Wellons thus far. As The Johnston County Report noted in July, Wellons fundraising total was four times that of Barnes in the period.  

The race has fetched a slew of negative local advertising too, aimed at both Wellons and Barnes.  

The attacks on Barnes focus on her record in the legislature, chiefly her leadership in a GOP majority that has blocked Medicaid expansion in the state.

Medicaid expansion, a component of Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, is a mostly federally-funded initiative that could extend health care to hundreds of thousands of low-income North Carolinians, but it’s been staunchly opposed by conservatives in some states. That opposition has wilted some during the pandemic, with conservative states such as Missouri and Oklahoma moving over the summer to expand. Today, NC is one of 12 states that hasn’t opted into Medicaid expansion. 

Barnes did not respond to a Cardinal & Pine interview request, but her campaign is focused on issues such as school choice, opposing gun control, and post-pandemic economic recovery. 

Meanwhile, the GOP attacks on Wellons key on a debunked report that the former state lawmaker commandeered a National Guard generator to power his farm after Hurricane Fran, even as local nursing homes went without badly-needed electricity. 

[The ads] “show it is important to them,” Wellons says of the race. 

Wellons is focusing his campaign on Medicaid expansion and public education funding, major areas of consternation regarding GOP leadership. 

“If we take this seat, we can take the majority,” says Wellon. “We can work with the governor to make us the shining star in the South again.”