Friday evening, more than 100 people came to McDowell Technical Community College’s auditorium to hear the candidates talk about the issues.
The candidates’ forum for the 2018 elections was held by the McDowell County Food Advisory Council, which is seeking to address the serious problem of food insecurity.
The candidates who appeared at the forum were Republican N.C. Rep. Josh Dobson and his Democratic challenger Howard Larsen; Republican N.C. Sen. Ralph Hise and his Democratic challenger David Wheeler; Republican County Commissioners Tony Brown, Brenda Vaughn and David Walker as well as their Democratic challengers Paula Swepson Avery and Michelle Price. Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows was not able to attend but his Democratic challenger Phillip Price was there. Meadows sent a prepared statement which was read aloud.
Senior Center Director Weyland Prebor was the moderator. Each candidate had the same amount of time to introduce himself or herself to the audience at the beginning. Prebor asked the audience to show respect for all of the candidates and refrain from either applauding or heckling.
But before the forum got underway, one audience member could not show such restraint. As he introduced himself, Hise talked about the passage of the “marriage amendment” in North Carolina and how regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court says, marriage in this state is still legally recognized one man and one woman. He also talked about controlling Medicaid spending and changing the formula of the gas tax. He then talked about his support of HB2 because of how Charlotte “completely lost its mind” by allowing transgender people to use the restrooms of their choice.
At that point, Cheryl Swofford stood up and yelled at Hise: “Stop it! I can’t stand it! Do unto others as you would have them do unto you! Stop being mean to gay people!” Swofford was a Democratic candidate for N.C. Senate earlier this year but lost in the spring primary.
Prebor told her she would have to leave and she did. The other candidates introduced themselves without incident.
Prebor then started the rounds of questions. The first subject was naturally the problem of food insecurity and what programs would the candidates support so people can get the food they need. The question also included whether they would support more organic farming.
Phillip Price was the first candidate to answer this topic. He said he was not that familiar with what’s being done in McDowell to address food insecurity. Both Larsen and Dobson were asked the same question.
“I think you need to encourage any farm to table programs,” said Larsen before handing the microphone to Dobson, his Republican opponent.
“Food insecurity is among our most vulnerable, our young and our old,” said Dobson.
He added the General Assembly has taken measures so that food is available for youth who qualify for assistance. “When we talk about food insecurity, we need to take care of our young and our elderly and our budget does that,” said Dobson.
Hise was also asked the same questions about food insecurity.
“In North Carolina, we’ve got a lot of lawyers and outside interests that are trying to shut down our farm industry,” he said, referring to the large hog farms in the state. “We have a strong record of protecting the agriculture and farm industry.”
When he was asked about this subject, Wheeler, who is Hise’s Democratic challenger, talked about how 24 percent of children live below the poverty level.
“Something’s wrong when we’re touting how great things are in Raleigh and 24 percent of our kids are below the poverty level,” he said. “I don’t think Raleigh has the right focus.”
Prebor then asked the county commission candidates about food insecurity.
“A lot of our children depend on breakfast and lunch at school and then go hungry on the weekends,” said Michelle Price. “We need to get our kids out into the farms. I understand the importance of food and good quality food is essential to your well-being.”
Vaughn said our society needs to move away from eating fast foods and teach our children how to preserve foods and make it last. “We need to put the responsibility on the parents,” she said.
Walker talked about the high majority of McDowell children who are on free or reduced lunch. He said he supports the idea of a “food hub” in McDowell, which is the goal of the Food Advisory Council, and pointed out EBT/SNAP users can get fresh foods at the Marion Tailgate Market.
Like Vaughn, he stressed families taking more responsibility. “A person needs to take care of their family,” he said.
When it was her turn, Avery talked about the work of the West Marion Community Forum, which established a community garden, has a pop-up market and takes fresh foods to the elderly.
“Yes we’re supposed to feed our kids but you don’t know their circumstances,” said Avery, adding some people are faced with struggling to pay bills at the same time.
“We’ve got to provide low cost foods to low income families,” said Brown. “We’ve got to teach people to cook and preserve food.”
He added he was raised poor but his family never went without food.
The candidates were then asked about jobs, housing and education.
Brown was the first to speak. “We have 350 manufacturing jobs going unfilled because they can’t pass a drug test or they have the mindset that they don’t have to work,” he said.
Wheeler said there is a surplus of jobs but “the problem is they are all low paying so no one wants to take them.”
In response, Hise said the new jobs being created are not minimum wage but good paying.
“McDowell is one of the best and most innovative with job training,” he added.
Vaughn said housing in good neighborhoods should be made more affordable. “If we can better equip our children, everything else comes behind it,” she added.
“It’s a great time to be a student in McDowell County,” said Walker. He talked about the Universal Advanced Manufacturing Center, which is a partnership between the county and McDowell Tech. He said the county, the school system and the college meet once a month to talk about their issues and needs.
Avery said county employees need a raise. She added when the salaries of county employees were published in The McDowell News, many people were appalled when they saw how little the salaries are.
“I’m all in favor of people earning more,” said Brown. “We have to be more conscious of providing more money to our county employees, teachers.” He added McDowell too often hires young people and gives them the training and experience they need and then they leave to work in nearby counties where the pay is bigger.
Michelle Price said McDowell needs more progressive industries like Microsoft and Google and provide them with the resources those type of operations need to thrive. Her husband Phillip said “There is boasting about the low unemployment rate but there is no wage growth.” He supports the growing of industrial hemp across western North Carolina.
The candidates were asked how they would respond to the opioid crisis in western North Carolina and McDowell County.
Hise talked about when he was mayor of Spruce Pine how shocked he was to learn from his police chief that the vast majority of arrests were about prescription drug abuse.
Wheeler said in this state around 1,000 people are being killed by opioids.
“The opioid epidemic in our state and our nation does not have simplistic solutions,” said Dobson. “I wish there were.”
After a break, the forum continued with other topics.
The county commission candidates were asked if they would support banning smoking or tobacco use at all county-owned properties, not just the front lawn of the courthouse. Vaughn, Avery and Michelle Price said they would support such a ban while Walker and Brown said they would have to do more research before giving an answer.
The candidates for the N.C. House and Senate were asked about supporting an adult day care, or PACE program, for McDowell.
This non-partisan event was put together by McDowell residents Alpo Portelli, who is a conservative Republican, and Heather Yzquidero, who is a progressive Democrat. The forum invited candidates who were facing opposition in the Nov. 6 election. Early voting starts Wednesday.