BOONE — To begin the Watauga County Meet the Candidates Forum on Oct. 23, attendees heard from the two candidates vying for the Fifth Congressional District U.S. House seat, the two candidates running for the Watauga Clerk of Court position and the district attorney.
The forum —moderated by Omer Tomlinson — is hosted by the Boone Area and Blowing Rock Chambers of Commerce and took place in the Watauga County Courthouse. Boone Area Chamber President David Jackson said the event allows citizens to listen to what candidates have to say about various topics.
Democratic candidate D.D. Adams and Republican U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx were both able to give opening and closing statements and given questions by a moderator on topics such as supporting tariffs or free trade, the balance of regulations as it concerns small businesses and protections for the environment, support for maintenance of the Blue Ridge Parkway, solution for controlling costs of health care, if it’s time for Medicare to be for all people, how to solve excessive student loan debt, their ideas on immigration policy and how the income tax system could be simplified.
On some of the issues, such as tariffs, both Adams and Foxx agreed to not supporting tariffs. However, on other issues the two had opposing views.
When it came to health care, Foxx said that sensible health care insurance was the way to go. She said the system the country had before Obamacare — she stated that the majority of the nation’s citizens were covered with health insurance through their employer at this time — was a successful way to approach the topic.
“Government-run health care isn’t the answer,” Foxx said.
Adams said that officials can find a way to fix the health care system by inviting stakeholders to the table to come up with solutions together. She stated that if she’s elected, “we’re going to have health care for all.”
Adams also differed from Foxx when discussing student loan debt. She stated she believes students with student loan debt should be able to negotiate their loans as people do with bankruptcy claims.
Foxx — who currently serves as the chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce — said that the average student loan debt is $27,000. She claimed that this number is not an insurmountable amount of debt and is like a car payment. Foxx said that the students with large amounts of debt aren’t completing education, so she is pushing for higher education institutions to assist their students in completing school.
“Every student or person I’ve talked to has more than $27,000 worth of debt,” Adams said. Adams advised that she would like to give students a better quality of life by expunging debt and “let them go live their life.”
Candidates running for Watauga Clerk of Court — Diane Cornett Deal (D) and Travis Critcher (R) — as well as current District Attorney Seth Banks, a Republican, addressed the crowd for a few minutes to introduce themselves.
Deal explained that through her time in the position, she has seen the system go from no technology used to using technology to allow people to pay court costs and fees online as well as receive notifications from the clerk’s office about upcoming court dates.
Critcher stated that he would be impartial, positive and proactive if elected for the position. He said he has two children, obtained a degree in industrial management and serves as the director of International Field Support at Samaritan’s Purse.
Watauga County Commissioner candidates
The six Watauga County Commissioner candidates — Democrat incumbent Larry Turnbow, Democrat incumbent Billy Kennedy, Republican challenger Tim Hodges, Republican challenger Tommy Sofield, Democratic challenger Charlie Wallin and Republican challenger David Blust — answered questions regarding the need for more school resource officers, capital school improvements and the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s “superstreet” idea for N.C. 105.
When it came to funding more school resource officers, all six said that there’s a need to keep on increasing the numbers until one is in every school. Kennedy and Turnbow said the board needs to take a multi-pronged approach to combating school violence and said there has been a lot done recently, including adding new counselors and new nurses.
Hodges said the board needs to be proactive instead of reactive and put one in every school in the county. Sofield said that they have an opportunity to be on the front line of combating mental health, plus said the county could figure out a way to use state and federal funding.
Wallin said that he’s seen a lot of changes in the last six years in school safety for the better. Blust said there’s “a lot of bad people out there” and said he wanted an armed SRO in every school and said there’s a lot of money out there to help fund it.
When asked about the importance of the capital needs for Watauga County Schools, Hodges, Blust and Sofield all mentioned a possible bond referendum to fund the schools and that it should have happened already. Blust said a new elementary school could have been built for the price of the rec center, which he said will end up costing up to $45 million.
Wallin said that the process has been under way to not just replace some schools, but to address air conditioning, roofs and parking lots. Kennedy said just like the rec center, there’s a proper way to do it and to figure out what’s a need and a want to cut unnecessary spending.
When asked about the N.C. 105 “superstreet” project, every candidate was against it. Sofield, Blust and Hodges asked the citizens to make their voices heard, with Blust imploring the town of Boone to “put their foot down.” Wallin, Turnbow and Kennedy said that leaders need to come up with better solutions to make the road safer.
On a question regarding employee recruitment and retention and affordable housing, all the candidates mentioned how tough it would be. Wallin said no one has wanted to make a sacrifice in talks, while Blust said government doesn’t need to be in the business of affordable housing. Turnbow and Kennedy mentioned an offer to the town of Boone for an affordable housing project that they said Boone turned down and Hodges added the town didn’t want to work with the county on water and sewer. Sofield said that infrastructure is how it will happen.
North Carolina General Assembly candidates
Republican incumbent Rep. Jonathan Jordan of N.C. House District 93 and Democratic challenger Ray Russell went back and forth one more time before Election Day.
In the N.C. Senate District 45 race, Democratic challenger Wes Luther was present while Tomlinson announced that Republican Sen. Deanna Ballard couldn’t make it due to another event.
Jordan said that when he first joined the North Carolina General Assembly eight years ago, his opponent’s party had raised taxes "every way they could" and if they take back over, would likely raise taxes again. Jordan said he wants to continue “beneficial”policies."
Russell said his life is not defined by the “vicious” campaign his opponent has endorsed and that he wants to spend the next chapter of his life serving the people.
Luther said that he feels like North Carolina has fallen behind on some issues such as education and wants to help fix those issues and “always choose the people in the mountains over the elite in Raleigh.”
On the N.C. 105 “superstreet” Jordan said that the people need to develop one unified voice and go to NCDOT with that voice, saying that first drafts always change. Luther said they have to rely on people to act accordingly and convince NCDOT to look at a different plan. Russell called the plan “brain dead” and said it was indicative of Raleigh not listening to Boone.
On the six state constitutional amendments, Luther and Russell said the bills are deceptive and don’t make it clear what is being voted on. Jordan said that voter ID is a “common sense issue” and said that to simply be against all six is just a “campaign of ignorance.”
When asked about voter fraud, Russell said that Republicans are trying to suppress voters. Jordan said that he’s heard from people who have had their votes stolen and it isn’t reported about more because it's too easy to commit. Luther said voter fraud is not an issue and that voter ID disenfranchises poor voters.
Soil and Water
Tomlinson introduced the two Watauga County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor candidates in attendance. Chris Hughes said this race is about the future and creating a long-term vision for the county. Bill Moretz said that as a long-time farmer, he knows the importance of farming and how soil planning can combat erosion from bad construction.
Watauga County Board of Education
The crowd heard from the five candidates running for the Watauga County Board of Education — incumbent Jason Cornett, Danny Watts, Steve Combs, incumbent Jay Fenwick and incumbent Gary Childers (appointed to the board in 2017). Each gave opening and closing statements as well as answered four questions about school resource officers, prioritizing school capital needs, teacher recruitment and retention and oversight given to home schools and charter schools.
As the county currently has three SROs and two vacant spots for these positions, candidates were asked how the schools should go about funding to have an SRO in each of the nine schools. Each candidate agreed that they think an SRO should be placed in every school, but they all had different approaches to school safety overall.
Watts was first to answer the question by suggesting the creation of a safety patrol of community volunteers to monitor schools and potentially stop perpetrators from entering facilities. Combs said he supported the security upgrades the current school board is doing, but shared concerns about keeping out the “good” community members who want to visit schools while trying to keep out the “bad” people.
Fenwick stated while he supported SROs in school, he said there are other factors that should be taken into consideration with school safety.
“We can’t trick ourselves into thinking that, that is the magic bullet,” Fenwick said. “There is no magic bullet. Security is a process not a product.”
Childers said the simple answer to the question was to continue what was being done — by seeking funding for SROs through the county, town governments and state resources. Cornett approached the question by saying that school safety is something that’s going to take the community as a whole working together — not just schools or law enforcement.
The candidates were all in agreement that Valle Crucis and Hardin Park schools were the top two capital priorities for the district. Cornett explained that the frequent flooding at Valle Crucis and the high traffic volume at Hardin Park were the reason for the urgent needs with the facilities.
Fenwick noted that Watauga County Schools hired an architect to create a long-range plan on how to go about capital needs. Cornett explained that the $1.5 million the county will receive each year from the property tax increase set forth in 2017 will go toward the district’s long-range plan in upgrading its facilities.
Combs, who has previously served on the board, said this plan should be executed in a way that doesn’t put a tax burden on the county’s citizens. Watts said he was for doing anything that would help the children, but wasn’t sure if raising taxes was the answer.
“I don’t want to raise taxes, but if it helps the kids maybe we should, but I don’t really think we should,” Watts said. “If we as a board and the county commissioners put our heads together, we could do this without raising taxes.“
Watauga County Sheriff’s race
The two candidates running for the Watauga County Sheriff’s position — Democratic incumbent Len Hagaman and Republican challenger David Searcy — each answered eight questions given by Tomlinson.
The two discussed topics such as domestic violence, support or opposition to universal background checks for gun permits, the alleged increase of meth labs in the area, the war on drugs, the legalization of recreational marijuana, the duties a sheriff performs, how to train SROs and current problems the sheriff’s office is facing.
If elected, Searcy said he would look into implementing a program he’s been studying that started in South Dakota as a sobriety program. The program was intended to address the increase the state was seeing in fatalities due to DWIs, but also helped to decrease the domestic violence that was taking place by requiring people to come in and take an alcohol/drug screening test every morning at the sheriff’s department.
“It cut down on the amount of alcohol or illegal substances that were being consumed in these homes,” Searcy said.
Hagaman said while this program sounds “great and wonderful,” the sheriff’s office would have to do it in concert with the court system. He said WCSO currently has a full-time officer dedicated to a domestic violence unit as well as another half-time position.
The two were in agreement when it came to background checks for gun permits, being that the topic is very complicated. Hagaman explained that the sheriff’s office is responsible for the issuance of handgun and concealed weapon permits. While checks are done with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he said sometimes the sheriff’s office doesn’t get full mental health records. Searcy added that in regards to mental health, the sheriff’s office can get tied up in HIPAA regulations when hospital or health workers aren’t allowed to release information.
Going forward, Searcy said he would like to implement new plans and patrol techniques if elected. He said he would like to see positive programs implemented that are going to help children — such as a domestic violence program and programs in schools such as an at-risk youth program. He added that he’s been speaking with women’s groups to potentially expand housing for women with addiction as well as a program that could be equipped to receive women and children when parents exit incarceration.
If re-elected, Hagaman said he would continue programs WCSO has established such as crisis intervention, mental health task force training, a SARTDART (Sexual Assault Domestic Violence) unit, the Problem Orienting Policing Unit, Operation Medicine Cabinet, initiatives with addressing inmate recidivism and taking on the new SRO positions once they’ve been filled.