Early voting starts Thursday in North Carolina and all week we've been focusing on local and state politics. Now we look at the hotly contested race for NC House District 115 in Buncombe County. The race is likely to be close. Incumbent Democrat John Ager, owner of Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview, won the last election by fewer than 500 votes. Now he faces Republican Frank Moretz, a retired anesthesiologist and co-owner of Highland Brewing Company. Ager and Moretz both stopped by WCQS to talk about the issues. Those full conversations are above. I've highlighted some of the key topics below. (I have put Ager's responses first because he's the incumbent.)
Asheville Districts Bill
One of the last acts of the legislature during the short session was also one of Ager's major accomplishments, though he had lots of help. He, along with the rest of the Democratic delegation of Buncombe County, and a number of Republicans, joined together in the surprise of the session, defeating a bill that would have split Asheville into six districts for the purpose of electing city council members. It was being pushed by a powerful Republican lawmaker in Senator Tom Apodaca over the objection of the entire Buncombe delegation (besides Apodaca) and the entire city council. It was on its last stop on the House floor before final passage when it was upended, due certainly in part to Ager's steadfast opposition, as well as Representatives Brian Turner and Susan Fisher. It was also was a rare display of bipartisan opposition to Republican leadership when a number of Republicans, including western NC lawmaker Josh Dobson, stood up to speak forcefully against it. I spoke with Ager at length about it, and while Moretz was not a legislator, he had plenty to say about the bill's defeat as well.
Voter ID and Redistricting Lawsuits
I interviewed both candidates during a few weeks in which several rulings came down impacting North Carolina elections. The state's sweeping Voter ID bill, which also limited early voting, same-day registration, and pre-registration for teens was tossed out. Additionally, Congressional districts and state districts were being ruled unconstitutional, leading to uncertainty as to how ballots would even look. I got both of their opinions on the various issues.
House Bill 2
By now most people know about House Bill 2, or North Carolina's controversial "bathroom law." The bill was hastily passed by lawmakers after Charlotte expanded protections for the LGBT community. The bill nullified a portion of that ordinance dealing with public accommodations. HB2 mandated that people use public restrooms corresponding with the sex on one's birth certificate rather than their gender identity. It also barred local municipalities from expanding protections to gay and transgender people, and prevented them from raising the minimum wage. Backlash to the bill was swift and severe. Companies have canceled expansions, musicians canceled appearances, conferences left, and most recently sporting events, including prized NCAA and ACC tournaments were moved out of state. The economic damage is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but most Republican lawmakers have refused to repeal it. Both Ager and Moretz agree HB2 has problems, but they differ in that Moretz puts blame first on Charlotte for the ensuing backlash.
When it comes to education, the Republican-controlled legislature faced a barrage of criticism over the years over the issue of teacher pay. They did increase teacher pay during this election year, but some say the raises don't go far enough. Meanwhile, teacher assistants were cut and other issues were troubling to public school advocates, including a controversial scale for grading school performance, raising the cap on charter schools and introducing a voucher program to send children from failing public schools to private institutions. Republicans, for their part, are running claiming they've increased teacher pay. And while that's true in some senses, the reality is a bit murkier when you dive into the specifics. Here's Ager and Moretz's responses to questions on education:
Medicaid and healthcare
My conversation with Ager touched on Medicaid as we discussed tax policy. Moretz is a physician, spending many years of his life as an anesthesiologist and a legislative advocate for AllCare. Because it's his area of expertise, we spent a bit more time on the area of healthcare.
The legislature, under Republican control, loosened environmental regulations, allowed a solar tax credit to expire, and dealt with Duke Energy's coal ash problem. On environmental issues, both Ager and Moretz are believers in solar energy, but Moretz is a bit more skeptical about wind power.
The Top of the Ticket
In this highly-charged partisan election year, it may be informative to voters to know where candidates stand on the two major-party candidates, so I asked. I should note that these interviews took place over a month ago, before a number of revelatory controversies have emerged. I emailed both candidates to ask whether their positions had changed. I did not hear back from either in time for publication.
****Early voting starts Thursday, October 20th and runs through November 5th. Election day is November 8th. Here is Buncombe County's early voting schedule and locations. More information, including sample ballots, can be found at the Buncombe County Board of Elections website.****