Let me represent you: Legislative candidates spill backstories, views on state

To provide a glimpse of the more personal and philosophical sides of the Buncombe County candidates for N.C. House and Senate, Xpress asked each candidate (by phone or in person) the same handful of questions. Responding were Susan Fisher, Democrat, House District 114 (unopposed); Nathan Ramsey, Republican, and Susan Wilson, Democrat, House District 115; Tim Moffitt, Republican, and Jane Whilden, Democrat, House District 116; RL Clark, Republican, and Martin Nesbitt Jr., Democrat, Senate District 49. (Tom Apodaca, Republican, Senate District 48, was unavailable; he is unopposed.)

Who or what most influenced you to enter public service?

RL Clark (N.C. Senate 1995-1998) was a small-business entrepreneur who'd just lost a gas-and-convenience store to a highway widening that left him in debt and out of sorts. "I had to close my doors and terminate 16 employees," he recalls. That led him into politics, which he'd never contemplated before.

"I immediately think of Jamie Clarke," says Susan Fisher, who once worked for the late three-term U.S. congressman on Capitol Hill. The way he responded to constituents, she says, inspired her to think, "I want to do this — do this in the way he does it. Every day, to be who you are in service to the public — that's where I got bitten."

Incumbent Tim Moffitt hadn't thought of running either, until recruited by party leaders two years ago. But it was his father, an Army veteran, who most influenced that decision. His dad remembered that "public service" fondly and told his son stories about it. "I had that void in my life — of public service — and this was my opportunity to fill that void."

"I was kind of drafted into it," says incumbent Martin Nesbitt Jr., who took his mother's place as a representative in 1979 when Mary Cordell Nesbitt died in office. He was 32 at the time. "It was a natural thing," admitted the 11-term representative, now running for his fifth term in the Senate. "And it's been a great life."

Nathan Ramsey, former chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, stepped into public service because of a long-held belief that "you see where you can try to change your community … [and] one voice can make a difference." He ruefully adds, "You take one step, get in like quicksand."

Jane Whilden calls public service "genetic." Her grandfather and father were both in the legislature, and a family member even served in the colonial-era Virginia House of Burgesses. But her grandmother was her primary influence. "She was a very unusual woman for her time," says Whilden, who rode with her to take people to the polls to vote. "I can still see the car. It was a light green Chrysler. That's one of my favorite memories."

For Susan Wilson, public service was rooted in the home. "It didn't matter where you were. We were expected to come home, and the family would vote together,” says Wilson, who trudged back from college for the tradition. “The poll was just across the street. We would all meet up, walk across the street, vote, then have dinner."

What do you see as the role of state government in the lives of state residents, and in what ways does the state government currently perform well? Poorly?

"Being there for people who don't have a voice," declares Fisher. "I think we have a duty to educate, to keep safe, to provide opportunities to be healthy, because all of those things lead to the betterment of society for all of us. I think where we fall short is when we step in and try to control too much of things that can be handled at the local level."

"Most people don't realize it, but state government is where most of the things that they see every day come from," Nesbitt says, ticking off a list including public schools, community colleges, universities, medical care, child care, roads. "By and large," state government is doing those things "extremely well." The exception? "We've done a poor job in mental health."

"The state does a lot of things right," Ramsey agrees. He's proud of the state's role in providing the constitutionally required "sound and basic education" to every child, and in seeing that university education is provided as close to free as possible. "That's unique to North Carolina," he says, "and something we should be very proud of."

"State governments were set up to make the lives of residents easier," says Wilson. Education and roads were early priorities. But now, she says, "it looks like they want to break the university system" through budget cuts. She also questions moves toward privatization in public education. "If you are making money off educating children, shame on you."

"I stand for individual rights, constitutionally limited government, fiscal responsibility and free market," says Clark, who views every rule of every government as a tax that is passed on to customers. The state government’s role should be to reduce the tax burden "across the board," he says, while reducing rules and regulations that strangle many businesses.

"I think we're doing well generally in attracting businesses to our state," Whilden says. But she's "not sure we're doing as well as we can in education," given recent budget cuts. "Generally speaking, I think our state is very smart. We look forward, don't look backward. [We're] very innovative." Government's role, she says, is to "make sure all citizens in our state get equal access to things that are provided for in our Constitution."

"I hadn't ever really thought about the role state government played," Moffitt admits. Now he sees that role as making the "day-to-day lives of residents go as smoothly as we can without involving ourselves in that pursuit." There are ways to improve in all areas of government, he adds, by being "more effective and results-oriented."

What do you think would improve the function of the legislature? (Give at least one concrete example of a needed change.)

"I wish it wasn't as partisan," Moffitt says. "Because I'm not a partisan person. … I don't think good solutions to problems that affect our citizens are partisan. I think good solutions are nonpartisan. Kind of like math. Math is not partisan."

The biggest problem right now, says Nesbitt, "is the dramatic political swings, and I think over time that's going to take care of itself. It's kind of a two-party state now. We've got to have less trauma when we change parties. We can't have a stop-and-go North Carolina. That's what people are finding out is not healthy."

Fisher calls the current lack of working "across the aisle" more "self-serving than public-serving." She advocates turning the redistricting process over to an independent commission, and she supports having the governor or an independent commission look at legislators’ pay. Legislators receive $13,591 annually, plus $559 per month in expenses; those in leadership positions earn more. "We are going to have fewer and fewer people coming from their communities to do these jobs . . . if we don't do something with the pay," she believes.

Clark recommends limiting legislators to no more than two or three terms in office. Because of the tremendous influx of special-interest money, that would also curtail a lot of corruption, he says, acknowledging that his position goes against his own party. But he feels the status quo means being a legislator "becomes a career, [and] citizens are not well served."

Whilden would limit each legislative session to perhaps three or six months. "It's very hard on people in the hinterlands," she says of the current stop-and-start legislative process that brings the legislators back to Raleigh repeatedly.

Wilson would institute bipartisan seat assignments as a means of promoting more communication across party lines. She also favors a [nonpartisan] redistricting committee. The current redistricting system, she adds, has sparked lawsuits and wasted time and money. "It's unfair to people," she says.

"Move it closer to Asheville," Ramsey quips. That whimsy illustrates a more serious challenge. "The [legislative] solution that may work in our community may not work in coastal North Carolina, Chapel Hill or Raleigh," he points out. "I think that more authority should be given to local governments and to local school boards to make local decisions."

What needs in Western North Carolina do you feel get the least attention from the legislature, and what do you propose to achieve improvement?

"I'm not sure the legislature really realizes the impact Asheville has on the rest of Western North Carolina," says Whilden, who thinks the area is seen more as a tourist trap than as the economic engine for Western North Carolina. She'd like to get the word out about innovations in the business community and creativity in schools and in community care. "I think we need to go and brag."

“Western North Carolina, even before this current economic recession, has struggled economically," says Ramsey. Incomes are lower than the state average, median family incomes are generally about half those in metropolitan counties, and there's a higher cost of living. He proposes a "fundamental restructuring" of the distribution of university-system resources and programs, along with how community colleges are organized — two things he feels currently "put us at a disadvantage."

Fisher points to numerous de-annexation bills in the past session and laments that cities are less able to "provide a revenue base for city services," calling Asheville a good example. "People use city services, then they go home to the county and don't have to foot the bill." She promotes aid to small businesses. "Over the last several years, that is what has made us continue to thrive — the inventiveness of our small businesses. We need to reinforce that."

Wilson cites the Tobacco Settlement Agreement as an example of how the legislature negatively affects this region. Money that was supposed to be used in WNC, she points out, was diverted elsewhere. "That's unacceptable to me." She supports infrastructure for high-speed Internet, expanded reach of community colleges, attention to WNC roads and bridges, and a solution to the environmental hazard of coal-ash dams here.

Moffitt would move more transportation dollars from the center of the state to WNC, where the geography is unique, as is the wear and tear on roads. "I've been involved in transportation and road issues for 26 years professionally," he says. "My hope is to be the chair of DOT appropriations, where I can focus that expenditure toward us here in the mountains."

"I see two major issues involved," says Clark — job creation and public education. To improve things in Western North Carolina, he explains, "I think you have to approach it from statewide levels because of the condition of the economy."

"I know there's that perception, and from time to time that's true," Nesbitt says about any neglect of WNC. But he points to the WNC Agricultural Center, the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center, and 10 new buildings at UNCA as examples of attention, along with "our share" of Medicaid, public school, community college and university dollars, and even roads. Still, given WNC's poverty and undereducated population, "anything that helps education, we end up benefiting from."

Contributing editor Nelda Holder can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 147, or at nholder@mountainx.com.

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