By Mark Hand | ThinkProgress
Supporting oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic Coast is typically not a political winner. Politicians take huge risks by coming out in support of industry efforts to test or drill off the coast.
In 2013, the mayor of Kure Beach, North Carolina — a beach town about 15 miles south of Wilmington — signed an industry-drafted letter to the federal government in support of seismic testing for oil and gas off North Carolina’s coast. Two years later, still upset with his endorsement of offshore testing, Kure Beach residents voted then-Mayor Dean Lambeth (R) out of office, replacing him with a Democratic candidate who opposed drilling.
Residents of Kure Beach are facing a similar vote in 2018. But this time the stakes are bigger. U.S. Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC), who currently represents Kure Beach and the rest of North Carolina’s 7th congressional district, is the only House member on the Atlantic seaboard to support offshore drilling.
Rouzer’s Democratic challenger for the congressional seat, Dr. Kyle Horton, meanwhile has come out against seismic testing and drilling for oil and gas off the Atlantic Coast. And she’s also a resident of Kure Beach, unlike Rouzer who recently moved from Johnston County, North Carolina, near Raleigh, to Wilmington on the coast.
“We flipped our little town from red to blue with a new mayor, largely on the issue of opposition to offshore drilling,” Horton said in an interview with ThinkProgress, referring to the defeat of Lambeth as mayor.
Aside from wooing fellow residents who live in her town of Kure Beach, Horton’s opposition to drilling could attract significant support from voters who live in other coastal towns in the congressional district.
More than 30 coastal towns in North Carolina have passed resolutions against offshore oil and gas drilling. Altogether, 220 municipalities along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts have passed anti-drilling resolutions and nearly all the governors along the East and West coasts — Republicans and Democrats alike — have come out against drilling.
And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is currently considering exempting North Carolina and other states from offshore drilling due to its unpopularity among coastal residents. The Trump administration’s offshore drilling proposal is expected to be released later this year.
Aside from supporting offshore testing for oil and gas, Rouzer, as a North Carolina state senator, was the lead sponsor of a bill that restricted the ability of state agencies to accurately forecast and prepare for sea level rise. The bill’s passage in 2012 triggered nationwide scorn by those who argued that the state was deliberately blinding itself to the effects of climate change.
In a segment of the “Colbert Report,” comedian Stephen Colbert mocked North Carolina lawmakers’ efforts as an attempt to outlaw science.
Meanwhile, for the first time in history, Horton is among eight female physicians who are vying for congressional seats this November. Until now only one female physician has ever served in Congress: Donna Christian-Christensen, a non-voting delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands. She retired in 2015.
“It’s really a shot to make history,” said Horton, whose campaign slogan is, “Help put a doctor in the House.”
As a medical doctor, Horton said she feels a responsibility while on the campaign trail to set the record straight about the scientific consensus on climate change. House District 7 is “definitely at the epicenter of so many climate challenges,” she said.
A survey conducted at the end of September, just weeks after Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina, found that 60 percent of voters in the state are worried about climate change and many want officials to do something about it.
Climate scientists believe Florence and other recent hurricanes intensified after traveling over unusually warm waters, thanks to climate change.
Virtually all of the 7th congressional district, which stretches more than 120 miles from coastal Brunswick County in the south to the suburbs of Raleigh in the north, was hit hard by last month’s Hurricane Florence. And if elected to Congress, Horton has promised to tackle the water crisis facing much of eastern North Carolina — a water crisis exacerbated by the storm.
With the coal ash, the hog waste, and the wastewater treatment plants that overflowed, the region ended up with a toxic stew of bacteria. People with relatively minor cuts who were standing in floodwaters for long periods fell ill, Horton said.
Officials had issued strong warnings for residents to stay out of ocean and intracoastal waters due to heightened levels of potentially harmful bacteria caused by massive stormwater runoff from Florence. But the warnings were too late for some residents.
A Wilmington man died after contracting a bacterial infection while cleaning up in the contaminated water in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. During the storm, Ron Phelps accidentally cut his leg. After the storm passed, he was standing in floodwaters that caused the cut to get infected. His leg had to be amputated. But the 85-year-old’s health did not improve. He died on September 25.
Along with water contamination from coal ash and hog waste, the 7th congressional district also is facing other toxic water issues. “We are at the epicenter of a water crisis here in eastern North Carolina,” Horton said.
For decades, chemical companies Chemours and DuPont secretly discharged the compound GenX and similar potential cancer-causing chemicals into the Cape Fear River from their plant south of Fayetteville, North Carolina.
In 2017, Rouzer accepted a $1,000 donation from DuPont Good Government Fund. DuPont was the original producer of GenX before spinning off its performance chemicals division and creating the Chemours Company in 2015.
“My opponent has been on the train of defunding and dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency,” Horton said. “It’s because he gets a ton of money from big oil and gas and he’s getting money from all these big polluters, that he’s really putting their profits over people.”
Horton said her campaign does not accept any corporate political action committee money, nor any money from fossil fuel companies or other polluting industries. “As a doctor, I believe our kids should not be guinea pigs at the hands of a Fortune 500 company,” she said. “Mothers out here are horrified that the water that they are putting in their kids’ sippy cups is contaminated. I want to put the health and wellbeing of our families first.”
But it’s going to be a difficult race for Horton. Rouzer, who is seeking his third term in office, easily won his first election to the House in 2014, with 59 percent of the vote compared to 37 percent for his Democratic opponent. In 2016, he grabbed 61 percent of the vote, with his Democratic opponent getting 39 percent. The district went for President Donald Trump in 2016 by a margin of 17.7 points.
So, Horton is facing tough odds in a solidly Republican district. But as the election nears, Rouzer has seen his win probability drop from 97 percent to 64 percent, making the seat far less safe for Republicans. Right now, FiveThirtyEight predicts Rouzer will win 51.9 percent of the vote in the district compared to 45.2 percent for Horton.
In recent weeks, Horton, a medical doctor, has been busy helping hurricane victims — last month Florence devastated the congressional district which she hopes to represent starting in January,
The severity of the storm, however, also could hurt voter turnout. “I understand if voting is not the first thing on their minds come the first Tuesday in November,” Horton said.
Beyond the impacts of Florence, water issues have become extremely important to military personnel and their families who live on military bases in North Carolina.
At Camp Lejeune, a large Marine Corps facility in the state, for instance, service members and their families drank and bathed in harmful chemicals at concentrations as high as 3,400 times the level permitted by safety standards.
And Horton has also vowed to address service members’ concerns about environmental contamination of military installations if she succeeds in November. The 7th district is home to thousands of active duty military personnel as well as veterans facing major health issues.
Horton has a history of working with the military. Prior to moving back to North Carolina earlier this decade, Horton worked as a doctor at the Veterans Affairs in Richmond, Virginia, and was on the teaching faculty there. Horton also worked in a post-deployment clinic for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
“I had patients that I near tragically lost to delays in care within the VA health care system. I had patients who attempted suicide before they got integrated into mental health care because the VA has been understaffed and under-resourced,” she said.
Horton, who hopes to get a seat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee if elected to Congress, made 20 stars part of her campaign’s logo. The stars represent the number of veterans that are lost to suicide every day in the United States.
In the seventh congressional district, Horton wants to help military personnel facing high levels of a chemical in their water supply at the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. The air force base was one of almost 400 military installations identified by the Department of Defense with a known or suspected release of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-PA) and several other House members have introduced legislation that would require the EPA to study the extent of perfluorinated chemicals, including PFOAs and PFOS, in the water and start to clean up and establish more stringent federal standards.
This family of chemicals is linked to a series of deadly cancers, thyroid, autoimmune, metabolic and neurologic diseases, along with endocrine disruption. “I am planning to champion this bill,” Horton said.
Throughout the campaign, Horton has had little chance to confront her opponent — Rouzer has refused to debate the Democrat. In his two terms in office, Rouzer’s held very few public events. “We are hoping that he will take his responsibility seriously and agree to a debate,” she said.
Rouzer did appear at a candidate forum Tuesday night with Horton, although the forum did not give the candidates an opportunity to debate the issues.
Rouzer’s campaign had not responded to a request to answer questions from ThinkProgress at the time this article was published.
In the meantime, Horton will continue to attend forums and hold her own town halls. On November 5, the day before the election, Horton plans to hold a veterans’ town hall aboard the USS North Carolina battleship in Wilmington.
If will offer her a chance to take one last “deep dive into veteran’s issues” — including serious health problems faced by veterans caused by harmful toxic air and water — before residents head to their voting precincts, she said.