Thirty-five years ago, Holly Springs was a sleepy farming community. According to local lore, cows used to cross Sunset Lake Road twice a day. Today, however, that once rural two-lane road is set to expand into a four-lane thoroughfare, one of the many changes wrought by the town’s population boom.

In the past decade, as Raleigh has grown, young professionals and aspiring homeowners have spilled into Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina on the outskirts of Wake County. The rapid change has thrown the area into an existential crisis: embrace the “progress” of new apartment buildings, high-end restaurants, and busy highways, or fight tooth and nail to preserve the old, ranch-home style way of life?

After raging in local elections for years, that battle is now moving to May’s legislative primary. Three Democrats, all hoping to win a seat in the NC House of Representatives, are facing off in the District 37 race, an election dominated by issues of affordable housing and infrastructure.

Historically, District 37 is the most conservative in Wake. The predominantly white suburban neighborhoods in this southern part of the county are home to upper- and middle-class families, farmers, veterans, and small business owners.

Following the decennial redistricting (in which the district’s borders retreated from downtown Apex and expanded north to Lake Wheeler Road), District 37 remains one of the few competitive districts in the state and is key in determining which party will control the state House.

Democrat Sydney Batch narrowly won the seat in 2018 amid an upswell of support from anti-Trump voters, besting Republican incumbent John Adcock by just 944 votes. But 2020 was a different story, as Republican voters turned out in unexpectedly high numbers. The GOP took back the district, with Republican Erin Paré defeating Batch by 3 percentage points.

Republicans, who currently make up about 52 percent of the district’s vote share, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, will likely have an edge in the upcoming election, says Andrew Taylor, a professor of political science at NC State University.

One reason is that Paré, the Republican incumbent, is running for reelection, and incumbency has its advantages; another is the natural cause and effect of politics.

“Midterms are generally unkind to the party that has the White House,” Taylor says. “Obviously, this is felt most dramatically in congressional races at the federal level, but it does also often permeate down the ballot and affect state legislative candidates. You put those two things into place and what is a competitive district on paper, in 2022 at least, makes it more favorable to the Republicans.”

The three Democrats in May’s primary are Mary Bethel, an advocate for aging and disabled adults; Christine Kelly, a marketing manager at SAS and former member of the Holly Springs town council; and Elizabeth Parent, a server at a local restaurant and transplant from Washington state. Last week, the three debated at a candidate forum organized by grassroots groups including Indivisible: Triangle Daily Call to Action, the Holly Springs Democrats, and the Liberal Ladies of Holly Springs, Apex, and Fuquay-Varina. These groups and other local activists are gearing up to educate voters ahead of the March primary.

The winner of the District 37 race will face Paré in November. During her two years in office, Paré has opposed mask mandates in Wake County schools and supported a bill that would have prohibited discussion of systemic racism and white privilege in U.S. history classes (HB 324, which Gov. Cooper vetoed). She has also expressed concern about the effects of the proposed U.S. 401 bypass on local landowners and farmers in Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina.

Bethel and Kelly are each longtime residents of southern Wake County, having lived in the area for 20-plus years. Both have seen their neighborhoods change with population growth, but their reactions to that change differ significantly.

Kelly, a vocal opponent of the rapid growth in Holly Springs, was elected to the town council in 2017 on the promise of slowing construction, building up infrastructure like roads and water systems, and preserving trees and green space. After a bitterly divisive election, she got to work doing just that, trying to preserve the area’s small-town feel and advocating for more community input on development projects.

Bethel has a more proactive approach to dealing with growth. While she also feels “steps must be taken to preserve the quality of life,” as she writes on her website, she wants to help aging and disabled adults stay in their homes with home repair help and property tax relief. She also supports offering incentives or tax breaks to first-time buyers.

“This issue needs to be addressed not only by localities (and) the General Assembly but also by the housing community, the advocates, the builders, developers,” Bethel says. “There won’t be easy solutions. But if we don’t (do anything), then people are going to continue to move out of the area. A lot of moderate-income and low-income people are finding it really hard to make ends meet.”

Bethel also wants to consider solutions like housing trust funds, affordable housing bonds, relaxed zoning regulations, building reuse and revitalization, and incentives for the construction of affordable housing.

Bethel is a little more progressive than Kelly on issues of affordable housing, but ultimately, Parent blows them both out of the water. For Parent, a millennial and working-class mother, affordable housing is a top priority. Like many others, she struggled to afford a home and was only able to buy one with financial assistance. For her, it came in the form of a loan program for veteran families.

Parent says she wants to expand a home loan program that was successfully used in Chapel Hill to a statewide basis. The Community Home Trust helps people purchase a home through an income-based loan. Parent also wants to ban foreign investment in North Carolina, a practice that has decimated the housing supply and sent prices skyrocketing. The ban would apply to out-of-state buyers who have no intention of making a purchased house their primary residence.

“I’m from outside of Seattle, so I saw how that affected us firsthand,” Parent says. “I want to incorporate things that other places have used as a potential solution to this affordable housing issue. Why can’t we set the standard for other states?”

More About Mary Bethel

Bethel, a kindly grandmother with a Southern twang, is a fierce advocate for seniors and people with disabilities. She was a lobbyist for AARP of North Carolina for 10 years and worked for the North Carolina Coalition on Aging. Healthcare is among her top priorities.

“The number one cause of personal bankruptcies in this country is medical debt. As many as 600,000 people could be eligible for benefits if North Carolina expanded Medicaid,” Bethel said during last week’s forum. “It also would help our struggling (rural) hospitals.”

Bethel thinks there is a lot of momentum for the expansion of Medicaid, particularly because Republicans may be softening on the issue, she says. An expansion could bring up to $2 billion into the state’s economy.

Like the other Democrats running in District 37—an area with a large number of veterans and law enforcement officers—Bethel is in favor of “responsible gun reforms,” such as expanded background checks and red flag laws. Bethel seems like she might take a stronger stance on gun control if elected, however.

“I think our country is ready to talk about this more and make real hard decisions,” she said during the forum.

More About Christine Kelly

Kelly, a confident public speaker and energetic candidate, is on the same page as her primary opponents when it comes to issues like education and healthcare, but her plans seem more specific and actionable. At the candidate forum, Kelly discussed how she would work with Republicans by starting with a common goal.

“We will win some; we’ll lose some. But we’ve got to keep trying,” Kelly said.

On universal healthcare, “the solution is to sit down and start somewhere,” she says. “Bring in some universal healthcare provisions as they did in other countries. You start and then you make it better.”

Kelly is also a strong proponent of building up infrastructure and transportation. During her time on the Holly Springs council, Kelly supported the passage of a $40 million transportation bond. She also supported the adoption of tree preservation and historical preservation ordinances and helped ban the open carry of guns in public parks and government buildings.

“The gun lobby that came to attack us was incredible,” Kelly said, adding that their voices faded after the law was approved. “The common sense thing to do was the right thing.”

Kelly is running for state office after losing a bid for Holly Springs mayor in 2021 when she was defeated by Sean Mayefskie by nearly 22 percentage points, a margin that doesn’t bode well for her winning this House seat.

More About Elizabeth Parent

Parent, 28, has a unique take on problems facing the state. As a former resident of Washington, she’s now seeing North Carolina struggle with many of the same problems her former neighbors did—housing affordability, weakening infrastructure, and the tech boom.

“If we don’t break ground on solutions like the commuter rail now, we are going to be grappling with more and more congestion every single day as more and more corporations move here,” Parent says, adding that public transportation would also help protect the environment and lower housing prices.

Parent is passionate about protecting the environment. She wants to expand the state’s recycling program, create algae farms to pull carbon out of the air, and take advantage of potential solar power inland and wind power offshore. She also strongly supports legalizing recreational marijuana, a move that massively boosted the state of Washington’s tax revenue.

“Once we legalized marijuana, our public funding went way up,” she said during the forum.

Parent, a survivor of sexual abuse, is also a strong advocate for women’s rights, survivor’s rights, and mental healthcare. She is all for bodily autonomy, she says, adding she will vote to uphold abortion and LGBTQ rights.

Ultimately, Parent says she is tired of politics as usual.

“It’s time to hold our politicians accountable,” she says. “North Carolinians deserve results. I believe that it takes a fresh perspective and a new voice, not the same old same old, to break things up and say, ‘Hey, this is a problem.’ It takes one person who is passionate, proactive, and is willing to have those conversations across the aisle to get work done.

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