N.C. House Rep. Ray Russell of Boone, a Democrat, is seeking re-election to the District 93 seat, with Republican Ray Pickett of Blowing Rock challenging him for the position. In the N.C. Senate race, Republican Deanna Ballard of Blowing Rock seeks re-election to the District 45 seat. She is challenged by Democrat Jeanne Supin of Boone.
Election Day takes place Tuesday, Nov. 3.
The Watauga Democrat asked each candidate to provide a short bio and responses to a series of questions for publication. The responses have been edited for space, style and punctuation.
1. Why are you running for this office? You may also wish to briefly mention your top issues or goals if elected or re-elected.
2. What aspects of North Carolina’s COVID-19 response do you support, and what would you do differently?
3. What actions would you support to aid in the economic recovery from the impacts of COVID-19?
4. What specific actions would you support to improve education in North Carolina?
5. The towns of Boone and Blowing Rock and Watauga County have passed resolutions calling for 100 percent clean energy in North Carolina by 2050. Do you believe this goal is achievable, and do you support it? What do you believe state leaders should do with regard to energy policy?
Yes/No questions: Answers must begin with a Yes or No. If necessary, one or two sentences explaining the position may follow.
6. Do you support Medicaid expansion in North Carolina?
7. The General Assembly elected in 2020 will draw new Congressional and legislative maps for North Carolina. Do you support an independent, nonpartisan process for redistricting?
8. North Carolina currently offers a maximum of 12 weeks of unemployment benefits. Should the maximum duration of unemployment benefits be expanded beyond 12 weeks?
N.C. HOUSE DISTRICT 93 Ray Pickett (R)
Bio: I’m a longtime resident of the High Country and a small business owner. I have served on the Blowing Rock Planning Board and Town Council. I’m an active volunteer with the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club and Hunger and Health Coalition.
1. I decided to run because I have a deep love for the place I call home and the people that live here. I have worked in local government and I’m ready to take my passion for service to Raleigh. I will work to keep taxes low, help build a better education system, update our transportation infrastructure and support small businesses.
2. The main response was to shut everything down. In the beginning of the pandemic we were not sure what to do. As we learned how to reopen safely we should have included all businesses, not just some. The picking and choosing who gets to make it and who doesn’t is what I had a problem with. I believe we should take the guide lines of DHHS and the CDC and apply them to all businesses.
3. I would support a responsible reopening with proper safety measures in place. Keep taxes low and offer low-interest loans to help businesses make it through these hard times. I would also continue to put money in the state’s rainy day fund so we are prepare for the next crisis.
4. I would support the continuing improvement of the internet connectivity in our schools. I would support the expansion of broadband internet around the state. I would also support a plan to train and retain our best teachers. I would like to build a plan to better prepare our students for after high school, weather that is university, trade school or community collage.
5. I’m not sure we can be 100% clean energy by 2050, but I support clean energy. I want our mountain air to be clean and clear for future generations to enjoy. State leaders should always be looking at new technology to help our state be a better place to live and work. We should encourage our energy companies to continue to advance clean energy.
6. No, I don’t support Medicaid expansion in its current form.
7. No, I do not support a so-called nonpartisan process; as long as people are involved there will be a partisan lean to it. I would be in support of looking into computer-drawn maps, depending on the parameters.
8. No, I think there are more problems with unemployment than just the 12-week limit.
Ray Russell (D)
Bio: I founded RaysWeather.Com 20 years ago, Boone’s 2016 Business of the year, and have taught computer science at Appalachian for 30 years. Previously, I was a minister for six years. Rhonda, my wife of 42 years, is an early childhood educator. We have two daughters and four grandchildren.
Contact info: Ray@RayForNC.Com; Ray Russell for NC, PO Box 2745, Boone, NC 28607
1. Four years ago, I was an unaffiliated voter who had closely followed politics, but I never considered running for office. However, the ugliness of the 2016 election inspired me to run for the North Carolina House. Turns out, my dream of a government that was responsive to citizens was shared by thousands of people across Ashe and Watauga counties.
Here are issues I campaigned on two years ago, worked for in office, and will continue to pursue:
• I support expanding access to affordable health care. It isn’t just a moral issue, it’s an economic issue. Expanding Medicaid would give health insurance to over six-thousand North Carolinians in Ashe and Watauga counties while lowering costs for everyone. It would create over 300 new jobs in these two counties and provide funding to keep our rural hospitals open.
• We must fix a struggling education system. For many years, North Carolina’s education system was a “cut above” other states. After 10 years of a Republican majority in the legislature, we are now 40th in the country in our support for students, teachers and schools. I have worked to expand rural broadband access, which is needed now more than ever.
• I voted to cut taxes for the middle class, increase health insurance options for small businesses and self-employed workers, and will continue to fight to close tax loopholes that have allowed wealthy corporations to avoid paying their fair share.
• I am working to keep our water clean by cracking down on corporate polluters, such as Duke Energy. I want to increase penalties for companies who pollute, and provide funding to hire more water quality specialists who can detect and stop threats.
• Supporting our family farmers will always be a top priority. I’ve sought disaster recovery, assistance for local meat processors, supporting hemp farmers and making health care more affordable for farmers and their employees.
2. We must understand that this is an economic crisis caused by a public health crisis. In order to fix the economic crisis we must control the public health crisis. During this process, we must work to protect the health of families and the economic health of small businesses. That is why we must listen to medical scientists and doctors on re-engaging in business activity. As scientists learn more about how to control the spread of COVID-19, we are gradually in a better place to re-engage in a wider range of business activities. Governor Cooper’s approach has saved lives compared to the reckless approach in states like Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi, where death rates due to COVID-19 are 2 to 3 times the rate in North Carolina.
3. I repeatedly supported more CARES Act grants for businesses hit hardest financially, including tourism, gyms, amusement parks, theaters and others. I supported a bond referendum to address long-standing needs this state has in school construction and renovation, water-sewer infrastructure needs and building needs at universities and community colleges. We must fix our unemployment insurance system that was reduced to the worst in the country by a Republican majority in 2013.
4. School funding in North Carolina has been cut repeatedly during the past 10 years. We are now 40th in per-pupil investments, falling behind all our neighboring states. We should raise teacher pay to the national average, restore the teaching fellows’ program to recruit and retain the best teachers, reduce class sizes, restore funding for pre-K, invest in early childhood education so that children are ready to learn when they get to school, revamp our failed assessment program and provide the necessary resources to school districts so that every child has access to a sound education.
5. When the pandemic is finally under control, climate change will still be the greatest economic and health threat to our state, our country and our planet. No only have our communities committed to 100% clean energy by 2050, so have our electric cooperatives. To achieve these goals, we must focus on conservation, efficiency and a gradual change to renewable energy sources. The best news is that North Carolina is poised to be a world leader in these issues with tremendous opportunity for economic growth for good-paying jobs.
6. Yes. 600,000 people in North Carolina would have health insurance today if the legislature had expanded Medicaid. As a result, the legislature has rejected $28 billion, 37,000 jobs and financial stability for rural hospitals.
7. Yes. I co-sponsored four bills for nonpartisan redistricting in 2019.
8. Yes. North Carolina is dead-last in the country for unemployment benefits.
N.C. SENATE DISTRICT 45 Deanna Ballard (R)
Bio: Deanna Ballard is an NC native who has built a career based on dedicated service to others and a firm foundation in conservative values. Elected in 2016, Deanna has worked diligently for her constituents while serving as co-chair of the committees on Education/Higher Education Appropriations and Policy, and as a member on multiple committees including Health Care, Rules and Operations and Transportation.
Contact info: Deanna.Ballard@ncleg.net; 919-733-5742
1. I have served the N.C. Senate since 2016 and continue to serve because I feel called to step up, engage and build onto the great work the N.C. General Assembly continues to do. I have new ideas, lots of energy and sincerely represent all constituents across the district – not just the county I live in. I believe in responsive communication, in meeting folks where they are and in working together to accomplish what’s best for our district, as a whole. All ingredients for effective service and stronger communities and thus thoughtful leadership and representation.
2. I’m very supportive of the bipartisan nature of the work the legislature has done over the last 6 months. I’m also supportive of the priorities funded by the COVID relief acts we have passed – over $3.5 billion in federal CARES Act funding has been appropriated for education, child care assistance, PPE, improving rural broadband, small business relief grants and more. Republicans did push bills that would have reopened shuttered businesses more quickly, but those were vetoed by the governor. Also, I would have liked to have seen more consistency from the governor’s executive orders and more transparency when it comes to COVID testing data from DHHS. However, I think our local/regional health department leadership (Jen Greene) has been awesome to work with during these challenging times.
3. Quickly, but safely, re-open the schools for in-person learning, which will also help parents get back to work. Move forward into Phase 3 so that the remaining closed businesses can open with necessary precautions taken. We must continue to work with internet providers on addressing the broadband and connectivity gaps, especially in our rural areas.
4. School Choice has been front and center since schools closed in March. As many public schools chose to utilize remote learning, we saw parents clamoring for educational options, especially those from low- or middle-income families. Another area of improvement would be in providing more professional development opportunities for teachers in regards to remote and distance learning instruction and resources. I will continue to support making college more affordable and investing more in our great community college system workforce programs. Further focus and investment in early education instructors will also be critical moving forward.
5. While I don’t know if that goal is achievable, it is admirable and something our community should rally around to support. I look forward to working with local elected and business leaders on this objective in the years to come. I was named a Clean Energy Champion by the Chambers for Innovation and Clean Energy in 2018 and will continue to support efforts to move our state’s energy policy into the 21st century, while carefully balancing that with strong economic growth.
6. No, not at this time. Reversing the course and expanding Medicaid now would cost North Carolina citizens billions over the next 10 years and take away funding from important priorities like public education. Under the proposed Medicaid expansion, the federal government would fund 90 percent of expansion, but there is no guarantee this will continue in perpetuity as Democratic and Republican administrations have both considered lowering federal Medicaid funding.
7. Yes. While the North Carolina Constitution clearly outlines the responsibility in drawing our legislative districts lies with the General Assembly, implementing an independent redistricting commission, a model used by a number of other states in the U.S., will certainly be an option considered and discussed moving forward. Of course, I would have to see all the details of such an independent commission before fully supporting such a change.
8. Yes, and they likely will be expanded as things currently stand. NC actually offers up to 20 weeks of benefits as the duration is tied to the unemployment rate in the state and is periodically updated (this calculation will be adjusted next on Jan. 1 using the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for July, August and September). When the adjusted rate is below or equal to 5.5%, the number of weeks is set at 12 but if the rate were to rise to above 9%, the weeks would be set at 20.
Jeanne Supin (D)
Bio: A 25-year Watauga County resident and small business owner, I help mental health, addiction clinics expand and improve desperately needed services. I have spent decades trying to turn government policy into tangible benefits for real people, and I’m running to bring that expertise and perspective to Raleigh.
1. I have spent my career helping mental health and addiction clinics expand and improve desperately needed services, and for decades I have seen first-hand how state policy can either help or hurt real people. I will bring that real-world policy perspective to Raleigh to help families and communities thrive.
2. The COVID-19 health crisis is different than its social and economic effects, and each deserves a different response.
Because I am not a doctor, epidemiologist or public health expert, I should not pretend I can evaluate lockdowns, masks or contact tracing. I am eternally grateful that Governor Cooper is not swayed by amateur opinions like mine and instead relies on data and consensus among health experts. Absolutely there are unknowns, and hindsight may reveal mistakes. Yet pandemics are full of unknowns; that’s why they’re pandemics. Health experts offer our best defense against illness and death.
The social and economic fallout from this pandemic is also real and heartbreaking. Yet we could have prevented these hardships had we ensured the following: access to health care, medical and protective equipment; payroll, unemployment and wage protections; mortgage, rent and utility relief; child care, worker, teacher and family supports for work and school disruptions; universal broadband; and most importantly a shared trust that our needs will be taken care of during times of unexpected crisis. This is government’s job. Many N.C. legislators pursued these essential supports this summer, but the Republican leadership chose to go home, instead. We are suffering from economic and social crises that never should have happened.
3. Small businesses, workers, teachers, tradespeople, wait and hospitality staff, students, those unemployed and those barely employed need money to recover. There is no secret to recovery or a more subtle way to describe it. And it’s government’s job to provide money in times of crisis.
State leaders must continue to press for more federal leadership and relief. Yet in the absence of federal action, North Carolina must still provide for its own, including:
• Rent, mortgage, payroll and utility stimulus for small businesses, independent contractors and the self-employed who are struggling to re-open or stay afloat at lower-than-normal capacity.
• Unemployment, wage, childcare, food, housing, utility and other basic assistance for families unable to make ends meet.
• Medicaid expansion to close the health insurance gap and receive federal health dollars.
• Rapid broadband expansion.
• Educator-led supports for safe school re-openings.
4. I am proud to be endorsed by the N.C. Association of Educators, and I will promote recommendations outlined in the 2020 WestEd Report, including significant investments in per-pupil spending, teacher and staff pay and development, universal broadband and facilities and equipment. I will also support the Teachers Fellows program, new teacher mentorships, balanced tenure protections and rights to unionize and collectively bargain. I will also promote community investments in health, mental health, meaningful work and sustaining wages so families can help their children walk into school each day ready and eager to learn.
5. Not only are these resolutions achievable, they are essential if we hope to protect our children and communities from worsening hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, diseases and deaths. In October 2019 Governor Cooper released the NC Clean Energy Plan outlining specific steps to reduce emissions significantly by 2030 and entirely by 2050, including transforming our electric grid and infrastructure, seizing green economic opportunities, and incentivizing utilities and customers to make rapid transitions to renewables. I will work tirelessly to ensure each and every recommendation comes to life.
6. Yes. Medicaid expansion will provide health insurance to 500,000 or more North Carolinians and bring upwards of $4.7 billion annually in federal dollars for hospitals, mental health and addiction clinics, and local communities. Our private health systems are so desperate for Medicaid expansion they have promised to pay the required 10% state matching funds, and all 39 states that have already expanded Medicaid, without exception, have reported overwhelming positive benefits.
7. Yes. We label the alternative “gerrymandering,” but that’s just a fancy word for cheating. Cheating has no place in a real democracy.
8. Yes. We should not be proud to have the worst unemployment benefits in the nation and care so little about our struggling neighbors. In 2013, the Republican legislature slashed unemployment benefits to an average of $264 a week for 8.4 weeks, which would not even cover the average monthly rent for a 2-bedroom dwelling ($1,285).