North Carolina House of Representative’s District 119 is one of the most competitive races in the state. It’s also the most familiar race to voters in the three western counties that make up the district.
For the past decade, 119th district elections haven’t just been a choice between parties, but between the same two men. For the fifth straight election, Democrat Joe Sam Queen and Republican Mike Clampitt are running against each other, with Queen holding the office this time. What is different about their 2020 faceoff is the pandemic. At a virtual town hall hosted by Blue Ridge Public Radio and Smoky Mountain News, Clampitt explained COVID-19 or not, he has kept the same path these last 10 years:
“Priorities - are still the same with a few modifications. Those modifications would be, yes, we are in some hard times, the pandemic quote unquote. Businesses in North Carolina have been strung out because of some policies that have been evoked by our current governor,” says Clampitt.
For Queen, the pandemic has only strengthened his stance on the need for the expansion of Medicaid in North Carolina.
“Healthcare is the number one bankrupter of people getting sick, having a big bill arise from their illness or their accident and not having any money to pay for it. We need to expand Medicaid and create jobs,” says Queen.
In Jackson, Swain and Haywood counties that are part of District 119 there have been 41 deaths from COVID-19, according to NC DHHA on October 9. Thirty of those have been in Haywood and associated with a single long-term care facility.
The expansion of Medicaid has been stalled in the North Carolina Legislature for the last few years – this stalemate is also the reason that there is not yet a finalized budget for the state. Experts estimate that that as many as 500,000 people would be covered by expanded Medicaid. Clampitt disagree with Queen. He says Medicaid expansion will be too expensive for the state.
Republicans are hoping that this election will bring them the numbers to overturn Governor Cooper’s vetoes of their amended Medicaid plans, which include work requirements. That is why the seat that Queen and Clampitt are fighting for is so crucial. Queen’s 2018 victory over Clampitt helped Democrats break the GOP’s super majority in the House.
Racial justice and law enforcement funding will also be big topics in Raleigh in 2021. Both candidates say they support law enforcement however, during the event Clampitt accused Queen of wanting to ‘Defund The Police.’ Queen says that’s a lie:
“We’re in an era where law enforcement has had some real issues. This Black lives matter -and the conversation that America is having about race and justice is a very real one,” says Queen. “But the police and our law enforcement are a real important part of that discussion.”
When it comes to two other issues specifically important to Western North Carolina – broadband and agriculture, Clampitt and Queen are mostly in agreement. Both support the farms that have been growing hemp in the region. Clampitt explains:
“I will not take and support any legislation at all, now or in the future or ever, for recreational marijuana. But because it does have a use, the use for hemp. I have seen it to be the number one cash crop for North Carolina just like tobacco was 30 years ago,” says Clampitt, who does support medical marijuana and harm reduction measures.
Just like Medicaid, the future of hemp is in limbo. It was on this year’s Farm Act but was ultimately shelved. That means that next year, smokeable hemp and CBD products will be decided by the new North Carolina Legislature.
Early voting starts this Thursday October 15, and runs through the rest of the month.
Smoky Mountain News reporter Cory Valliancourt also contributed to this report.