An unexpected vacancy in one of Western North Carolina’s state house districts has two candidates scrambling for a victory that could have major consequences in the General Assembly.
Voters in Madison and Yancey counties - as well as parts of Haywood County - will make their choice in the 118th district.
For the last eight years, North Carolina’s 118th House District has been represented by Burnsville Republican Michele Presnell. When she abruptly announced her retirement last December, two candidates – first-term Haywood Commissioner Mark Pless and Canton labor union official Alan Jones – seized upon the opportunity.
Retaining the seat is important for Republicans, who saw Democrats break their veto-proof supermajority in 2018.
“We need every seat and then we need to add some seats,” said Pless, the Republican. “I think we have to have a balance of power. I think we have to have people in there that can have conversations, but sometimes in the long run, I think we just kind of have to be able to push our ideals forward. And I think we need to be able to have that majority so that we can protect the people.”
Democrat Jones, however, stresses the need for some equilibrium in the Republican-dominated legislature.
“I think it's about balance so that we can truly keep both sides in check,” he said. “It keeps either side from being too extreme and that we can truly have conversations about what everyday working families are looking for.”
Whoever ends up winning will have to deal with the same pre-pandemic problems the legislature hadn’t been able to solve during Presnell’s time, like rural broadband access.
“These current providers are not willing to come out of these areas just because of the economic impact,” said jones. “If they're not making a bunch of money, they don't want to be out there. I think that we've got to either find a method through some type of incentive with them subsidy, some type of program with these large providers to get them out there and treat it truly like utility, like we do our electricity, where it's there.”
Pless, in his first term on the Haywood commission, says it’s a different problem in his home county.
“You know, I think a lot of the problem for Haywood County is individualized as compared to Madison and Yancey,” he said. “We don't get the grants because of our tier rating.”
For economic development purposes, Haywood County is considered a Tier 3 county, which places it among the most prosperous in the state. But local elected officials have long complained that rating ignores the county’s more poverty-stricken communities.
That’s apparent in the huge number of free school meals that have been served during the pandemic, suggesting the county has a long way to go to address issues like generational poverty and food insecurity, according to Jones.
“We need to be looking at trying to provide living wages,” he said. “I mean, in North Carolina, we've cut the corporate tax down to two and a half percent. I feel that we need to hold corporations accountable so that we have a tax base. As working families, we can't be holding the burden where these corporations are doing nothing and these CEOs are out here making millions of dollars and we're just struggling to get by.”
Specifically on food insecurity, Pless supports the use of vouchers to boost quality of life and farm incomes.
“Several years ago, you may remember, the farmer's market had gotten some grants and they were able to actually hand out vouchers to where people could go and get food,” he said. “I asked them last year to look into that again, I don't know where we're at in the grant process, but I think there's enough federally to where we could use some of the local farmer resources here to get food to people, very inexpensively.”
The two candidates hold predictable party stances on Medicaid expansion – Jones for, Pless not – but they do share some common ground in this red-leaning district, especially on the issue of defunding the police.
“Listen, we don't need to be defunding the police. We need to give them resources,” said Jones.
“I don't think we need to defund them. I think we need to increase what we have here,” said Pless, who shares with Jones a similar opinion on something that may come up in the legislature next year – red-flag laws.
“I think law enforcement, they are trained very well,” Pless said. “If they're involved in it, a lot of times they can talk people into giving up weapons. It's not a situation that you have to forcibly go take it. A lot of people would be willing to let a neighbor or a family member, somebody hold it until they were in a better state of mind. I think that's a better choice than taking away people's rights.”
Early voting continues through Oct. 31.