Like Jordan, Wilson’s freshman lawmaker has come ‘to play’ 

Rep. Ken Fontenot (R-Wilson), left, talks with Sen. Buck Newton (R-Wilson) at his legislative office in Raleigh. North State Journal

RALEIGH — Sporting a red blazer and matching Air Jordans, Rep. Ken Fontenot (R-Wilson) smiled ear to ear while discussing his activities during his first term in the North Carolina House with North State Journal. 

In addition to serving at the legislature, Fontenot is currently a pastor but is also a military veteran, having served in the Marines from 2005 through 2014.  

Fontenot, grinning about his matching footwear, said he draws inspiration from basketball legend Michael Jordan. 

“What I loved was the passion – that he was going to make his mark while he was there” Fontenot said. “And so that’s what I said I’m going to do is I don’t know how I’m going to be here, but I am coming to play.” 

And play he has as evidenced by his charismatic floor remarks, including his vocal support for House Bill 823, which expands school choice scholarships to all students in the state. 

Last week, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper launched a “state of emergency” over the bill that included a video statement on Twitter and a “state of emergency” banner on the governor’s official state website. 

Fontenot, who hails from the same county as former “education governor” Jim Hunt, had some choice words about Cooper’s rhetoric on school choice. 

“First off I would say the governor’s actions unfortunately reek of political politics and dramatics and desperation knowing that we have veto override power and yes, we’re going to use it,” said Fontenot. He added it was no secret they would override a veto on the bill and said that “on day one” lawmakers agreed “we will override every veto.” 

“When it comes to this education thing, what I find frustrating is he is championing this system [one of] his children didn’t participate in,” Fontenot said. “They went to a private school – St. Mary’s.” 

“Why is it that because he’s more affluent… he has access to these things and then the people that need it, because their school system was not meeting their needs, shouldn’t have it?” asked Fontenot. 

Following his time in the Marine Corps., Fontenot was a teacher at a private Christian school in Wilson County before becoming a teacher for Wilson County Public Schools.  

Citing support for school choice by minorities, Fontenot said comments made by one Hispanic mother about children having an immediate need for educational choices “really hit the nail on the head.” 

Paraphrasing, he said the woman had asked, “Why should we have to wait for you to get your act together? Our children need to be educated now. If a school is failing, it’s failing now. If they don’t have a substitute, they don’t have a teacher, it’s now. What are you doing now?” 

Fontenot remarked that the governor continues to ignore this problem of “now” and that this is “not a race issue, it’s an education issue.” 

Common sense policies were strong issue for Fontenot, who cited major policy decisions implemented when he served in the military that put soldiers at risk.  

His passion for common sense policy items is highlighted by a bill to update statutes with new criminal offenses for the unlawful sale of and possession of embalming fluid after constituents brought it to his attention the fluid was being used to augment certain drugs. 

House Bill 278, the Rakim Shackleford Embalming Fluid Act, would make it a Class I felony for a funeral director, embalmer, or a trainee to give or sell the fluid to another person who is not in the profession. The bill also makes it unlawful to possess the fluid by a person not in those professions. 

“They take embalming fluid and they mix it with PCP and they dip either cigarettes or joints in it,” said Fontenot. “It causes psychosis. You can’t feel pain.” 

Due to the numbing effect of the fluid, people using the concoction and who resist arrest typically don’t even feel it when police use a taser, according to Fontenot, who was referring to remarks from the Wilson County Sheriff.  

“That was from the mouth of my sheriff. He’s a black Democrat who is very common sense on drug laws who even told me he’s like, ‘Look, race is not the issue. The issue is that we have prosecutors that won’t prosecute. I can arrest them all day, but unless we can prosecute, it makes no difference’.” 

The Wilson lawmaker said a group of women came to him about the matter and one said, “Hey, my son was killed in an embalming overdose. It’s not even illegal. What will you do?” 

“I only made one promise,” said Fontenot. “My promise was that I would see this bill passed first session and it looks like we’re not too far from that line.” Fontenot added that he believes the bill will pass the Senate sometime in the coming week. 

One of the things Fontenot has seen in his first term and that he believes in is that “you have to work together.” 

“I’m pretty passionate about just coming to some common ground. Are we always going to be able to do that? Well, no, not always,” said Fontenot, who added, “But you know what I’m not going to do is assassinate your character when we don’t.” 

He also spoke about working with colleagues on the other side of the aisle on their bills and the lack of trust in those who hold public office.  

Fontenot said it is fine not to agree, “But what I don’t like, honestly, is executive overreach and he’s [Cooper] being criticized justly with this ‘state of emergency’.” He asked who will listen to the governor if a real state of emergency happens before Cooper leaves office. 

“When we have all-time low in public trust of office, we don’t need more unsubstantiated posturing in a state of desperation to hopefully get at people – who already told you plainly their agenda – to not do it,” said Fontenot. “Especially when we have a public outcry over transgenders… trans boys and sports. They don’t want it, nobody wants it.” 

“It’s one of the only bills that we passed that actually didn’t get a whole lot of flak on it,” Fontenot said of the bill barring biological males from women’s sports. “I was pretty surprised. But I’ve even had people on the other side of the aisle say, ‘I really support the bill, but can’t vote that way’.” 

The bill mentioned by Fontenot is House Bill 574, the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, which has passed the House and is expected to also pass the Senate. A veto of the bill by Cooper is expected, as is an override.  

While this is Fontenot’s first term as a legislator, it was his second campaign for office. He narrowly lost a bid for the House four year earlier. 

In 2018, he ran as an unaffiliated candidate and narrowly lost to Democrat Jean Farmer Butterfield by just 449 votes or 1.6%.  At that time, the North Carolina Republican Party had already reached out to him after noticing his leadership abilities in his community. 

When he ran again in 2022, he ran as a Republican and faced a new opponent, Democrat Linda Cooper-Suggs. Fontenot also had stronger support from the NCGOP which dropped over $279,000 into Fontenot’s campaign. Additionally, maximum donations to Fontenot also came from NC Red, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis’ PAC, as well as from the campaign committee for House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Kings Mountain). 

Fontenot beat Cooper-Suggs by 2,353 votes or over 8.4% of the total votes cast. 

When asked how he ended up flipping a historically Democratic district to Republican, Fontenot refuted the notion “gerrymandered maps” had anything to do with it. 

He said that Democrats making that claim needed to explain how he and a Native American Indian candidate both won their races when they “ran with the maps your Supreme Court drew and that your people voted for 110 to 5.” 

Fontenot, who has been married for 16 years and has three young children, will be run for reelection in 2024. 

About A.P. Dillon 1320 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_