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48th SENATE DCT: 'Why not give voters a choice?' Wood says

NC Senate candidate Rick Wood speaks to a crowd of supporters. NC Senate candidate Rick Wood speaks to a crowd of supporters.

A Henderson County School Board member since 2008, Rick Wood had grown increasingly frustrated with the state Legislature's treatment of public schools.

"I had access to see how our school system was affected by decisions in Raleigh, and most of those decisions by the current leadership, including one of the most powerful leaders, that being Sen. Apodaca, regarding education I feel like were adversely affecting education in Henderson County and in North Carolina," he says.
"I like a lot of people was concerned about it but what can you do? Some people (participated in) Moral Monday (protests)— they expressed themselves that way. Other people write letters to the editor."
His own words as a classroom teacher seemed to echo in his head.
"In teaching civics in high school for all those years, I told my students, 'Please consider being a good citizen. Get involved in the process. Find an issue. Study the political parties and find the one that you are most comfortable with. Consider running for public office. Always vote.'
"I talked about it all these years so why not set an example," he says. "I looked at the numbers. I'm a practical person. I saw the money he was getting from special interest groups — in 2012 nearly a half million dollars with no general election opponent. I looked at the political party breakdown for the district."
The stack of evidence might have led another practical person to another choice.
Wood is a Democrat in a county that has not elected a Democrat in a countywide race since 2002. He is challenging a powerful incumbent running in one of the reddest among three dozen or so safe Republican seats that helped the GOP seize supermajority control of the Legislature. Sen. Tom Apodaca might well pile up enough cash to outspend Wood by 20-to1. Yet in the end Wood decided that he didn't want to give Apodaca a pass.
"I said, Why not give the voters a choice?" he says. "Voters rarely have a choice in Henderson County. The primary is where you have the winners. In the six times he ran only three times did he have even a general election opponent and they very rarely raised much money, lost badly."


Small donors give $8,500

Wood's campaign has been low-key so far.
Of his campaign treasury of $21,975, he has received $8,488 in donations of less than $100, nearly all of it from the district.
"That's a huge contrast to my opponent," he says. "The last reporting, I counted four individuals from this district (donating to Apodaca) and a lot from other parts of this state and other parts of this country, political action committees, all sorts of donations. That's a big difference. A lot of the people that donate to my campaign are retired teachers (and) some active school personnel. They can't afford to donate $500 or $1,000. We're just depending on an active boots-on-the-ground campaign to reach out to voters and that type of thing."
His typical campaign events now are low-key gatherings at homes of supporters.
"I'll speak about 10 minutes, take questions from them, then I'll bring out my notepad and say, 'What's on your mind? What are the issues that are important to you?' I take notes and I've learned from issues that I wasn't aware of," he says. "One is mental health. That seems to come up a lot.
"I do put in a pitch for a way people can help and ask for donations," he adds. "We'll sometimes get a few at that event and sometimes through a mailing. I hope there'll be a lot more opportunities in the coming months. I hope groups will sponsor forums. I know the League of Women Voters probably will. I hope newspapers will cover the campaign and give candidates the opportunity to contrast themselves, especially for a grassroots campaign like mine. I can't spend a ton of money on getting the message out in that way."

Fracking could be an issue

Wood was not persuaded by the 11 percent teacher pay raise that Apodaca, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and other Senate leaders rolled out. The tradeoff of giving up tenure and losing classroom assistants is too great a price, he says.
"They're not asking for an 11 percent raise," he said. "They want to be treated fairly, they want to have teacher assistants, they want to have textbook funding. They want to have these things that are important to help them do their job... I would have voted against the budget in 2013 for a number of reasons but one is the draconian education cuts. So I'd be one different vote there."
To pull the upset, Wood would have to get the votes across the political spectrum, from an energized Democrats, from independents and from Republicans. Beside schools, he sees the environment as an issue that could tilt his way. A bill that clears the way for energy exploration through hydraulic fracturing is an example of legislation that sailed through with too little close examination.
"We're rushing something that has potential severe consequences as far as the environment," he says. "Fracking, based on what little I studied, there's some real questions about what it does potentially to drinking water.
"Out in Oklahoma and Texas they're having little seismic movements where they haven't had earthquakes in 30 years. They think it might be related to activity underground. It seems like we should err on the side of the environment of North Carolina and not on the side of possibly outside interests that will come in and benefit potentially from this. I think all too often in the last three or four years we have erred on the side of business versus the environment and the common working man, and I think this is an example of that."

'Working man gets left out'

Wood says he doesn't know what to expect from Apodaca, who will have the ability to broadcast his message on television and radio and in print. He said he hopes the incumbent will attend forums, the best chance Wood has to draw contrasts directly in their positions.
What about Apodaca's record of using his power to help the community, whether it's putting in a good word for park grants, guiding legislation to help bring the Sierra Nevada brewing Co. to Mills River or inserting $58,000 in the Senate budget for the Hands On children's museum?
"He is in a very powerful position and he pretty much controls the legislation in the Senate," Wood acknowledges. "He does have the power to bring home some bacon for his Senate district. That will be something he will talk about I'm sure."
Wood makes one observation that no pundit would challenge
"If one of the most conservative Senate districts in the state of North Carolina turns aside the second most powerful guy in the state Senate," he says, "that in itself would send a strong message to Raleigh and to the leadership that, Hey, there are people concerned about what you're doing to public education, what you're doing to the environment, what you're doing to voting right. You're doing so much for the wealthy but you're not doing enough for the common working man. He gets left out. They don't have the money to buy the influence and the access to the leaders that the special interests do."
During a campaign kickoff in January, Paul Goebel, another retired basketball coach, recalled how many times he'd seen Wood take his underdog West Henderson High School Falcons on to the floor against bigger faster teams. Underdog or not, Goebel said, he always fought.
"I'm a competitive guy," Wood says. "I think we can run a competitive campaign. You know, Apodaca's made a lot of people mad. Voters need a choice. If voters choose to return him for a seventh term, then so be it. I've got a different message. I've got very different priorities. I think there's enough unaffiliated voters that we can make some inroads."