North Carolina State Senate District 49

The candidates are R.L. Clark, Republican, and Martin L. Nesbitt, Democrat.


R.L. Clark

Age: 73
Address: 2 Quail Cove Road, Asheville
Occupation: Small-business owner
Years in WNC: 40 in Buncombe; Madison County native
Education: B.S. in business administration; M.Ed., Western Carolina University
Political party: Republican
Political experience: N.C. Senate, 1995-98

1. What sets you apart from your opponent?

“As a member of the North Carolina state Senate, I supported and voted for the largest tax decrease in the history of North Carolina. My opponent, as a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives, supported and voted for the largest tax increase in the history of North Carolina.”

2. What’s the biggest problem facing the state? What would you do about it?

“Jobs, jobs, jobs. North Carolina is the highest overall taxed state in the entire southeastern United States. It’s also close to the top in the highest taxed states in the entire United States. As a small-business person, if I want additional customers coming into my retail establishment, I don’t raise my prices — I lower my prices. It’s the same way in state government. What if we were the lowest overall taxed state in the entire southeastern United States? We would have industry and business clamoring at our borders to enter to do business. Which would, in turn, put untold millions of excess dollars into our tax structure for the state, municipal and county governments, as well as creating tens of thousands of jobs. We have our priorities wrong.”

3. I-26 Connector: Six lanes or eight? Why?

“I think [it is] entirely the wrong approach. I can’t answer six or eight lanes; the solution is a dual time track for a northwest outer loop with, simultaneously, refurbishing the Smokey Park Bridge area of I-26. I think they’ve both got to be done. As far as the outer loop, I’m speaking of limited access — one exit only between where it leaves I-26 and rejoins. But it’s got to be done soon.”

4. Should electronic voting machines in N.C. be required to provide a paper trail?

“Yes.”

5. Do you support spending limits for local elections?

“No, because I think that’s invading the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. And this is coming from a state candidate who, in the past, has been outspent 30 to 40 times. Last election, I had less than $20,000 to get my message out; my opponent reported spending a quarter of a million, but there was much more spent. I don’t believe in bridling free speech.”

6. Apart from judicial races, do you support voter-financed state elections?

“No, I do not.”

7. How much money do you plan to spend in the general election?

“Less than $5,000.”

8. What’s the first legislation you would propose or support if elected?

“Overall reduction in state spending and state taxes.”

9. Do you favor a death-penalty moratorium? Why or why not?

“No, I do not.”

10. How would you highlight WNC issues at the state level?

“The Democratic Party has been in control of the North Carolina state Senate for over 100 years. I am a Republican. [Democratic Sen. Marc Basnight] raises money across the state and [has] related that he will use that to elect people who are for him for president pro tem. It will be mainly to re-elect people who support him. That means any Democrat who is elected will vote lock step with the president pro tem. I think it’s time for a change — that a person is elected to represent the 49th state Senate District in Raleigh who can represent the people and is not beholden to President Pro Tem Marc Basnight.”

11. What WNC funding priorities will you push for?

“I think education is a major priority, and I would plan on introducing legislation that would return control of our education system to the local boards of education, without unfunded state mandates. On one hand, the General Assembly says we’re increasing Buncombe County’s education budget. But on the other hand, they add these state mandates that end up costing the local governments more money than the state appropriated. Which, in the final analysis, is cutting education funding instead of increasing it. My legislation would put that money directly into the classroom, where the student and teacher is located, not for fluff in education. Get back to the basics.”

12. Do you support “pop the cap” legislation? Why or why not? [Editor’s note: The legislation would eliminate North Carolina’s requirement that beer contain less than 6 percent alcohol by volume.]

“I wasn’t aware of that, but I think beer and wine has sufficient alcoholic content.”

13. What should the General Assembly do, if anything, about rising medical-malpractice-insurance rates?

“Medical-liability reform, tort reform, is a must. Sen. Basnight and his group passed a fluffy piece of legislation, but it does nothing to reduce the cost of health care in North Carolina. We’ve got to have true tort reform, which would immediately the first year reduce the overall cost of health care in the state [by] up to 10 percent and would continue to decrease the cost of health care.

“[The] Mental Health Act in 2002 was a well-intentioned, ill-conceived piece of legislation that has deprived the mentally ill in the state of critical services. This legislation must be revisited, because there are not providers in the private sector to take care of the needs of, especially, the severely mentally impaired. To me, the mental-health program is something that the state can do better, at less cost, than the private sector can do.”

14. What’s your position on lowering the tax rate on corporate profits?

“Overall, tax rates have to be reduced, including corporate, personal income tax and sales tax, especially. We’ve got to change this climate. … [In addition], I will introduce legislation to repeal entirely the sales tax on food in North Carolina.”

15. What changes, if any, would you propose to the state’s economic-development-incentives policy?

“I would propose eliminating the economic-development incentives and utilizing the plan of lowering the overall highest taxes in the Southeast.”

16. The Canary Coalition is pushing for reform of the state Division of Air Quality. What’s your position?

“If you look at the daily monitorings that have been done all this year, our air quality is extremely good, and I don’t think that we, as a state, can do anything about the pollution coming from coal-fired generating plants in the Tennessee Valley. This is going to take federal legislation. The Canary Coalition needs to be working on the federal level instead of the state level.”


Martin L. Nesbitt

Age: 58
Address: 180 Robinhood Road, Asheville
Occupation: Attorney
Years in WNC: Entire life
Education: Law degree, UNC-Chapel Hill
Party: Democrat
Political experience: In state House since 1979 (except for 1994-96). Appointed to Senate in 2003

1. What sets you apart from your opponent?

“I’m not going to be judgmental about my opponent; I really don’t know where [Republican candidate R.L. Clark] stands on a lot of issues. I have represented this region for some 25 years. I believe that government is a tool of the people to improve their lives and to improve their opportunity. I work on programs and vote for funding of programs that I think will do that.

“Everything starts with education, and my No. 1 priority since I got there is to make sure that the public schools and community colleges and the universities are the best they could possibly be. We’re lucky here in Buncombe County that we have two very good public-school systems. Our community college is one of the best in the nation. And our university is rated as one of the best liberal-arts universities in the country.

“If you arm people with education, they can find opportunity. But to that end, I’m constantly looking for ways to create more and better jobs in this region. I’m becoming convinced that our best future lies not from bringing some stranger in here to provide jobs, but to spend more energy on our existing industries and small businesses and help them grow and prosper, and keep them from leaving here.

“At the same time, we’ve got to help those among us that need our help. In this great country, it’s a right of every child, in my mind, to receive good medical care. We owe it to our seniors to make sure they have a life of dignity as they age. Some of them can pay for that themselves; unfortunately, there are more and more people who can’t. When they retired 30 years ago, their property taxes were $100 a year, and now they are $3,000 a year. And their retirement hasn’t gone up that much, and their Social Security hasn’t gone up that much. When they fall into bad health, that’s what Medicaid and Medicare and those programs are for, and we need to make sure that people can get the health care and the care that they need.

“I’m working now on mental-health reform, to reform the mental-health-care delivery system in this state. It’s in a shambles right now, and we see the results of a bad system every day in the paper. I’m hoping that if I am able to go back to Raleigh in the next term, we will complete the reform of that system and we will be able to get back on top of the mental-health problems that are plaguing the state right now.

“I’m very activist about government. In the time that I have been there, I have seen how our government can make people’s lives better, and that’s the direction I am working in.”

2. What’s the biggest problem facing the state? What would you do about it?

“The biggest problem that we have right now is that we have a lack of money. This recession that we’ve had for the last four years has been devastating to the state treasury. As a result of that, we have virtually every program in North Carolina underfunded at the current time. It’s resulting in the state not being able to deliver services to the people.

“Over the last two years, we’ve put a cut to the base budget of the public-school systems of $70 million. At the same time, we created some new programs in the schools that were worth more than that, but the school systems were forced to cut teachers’ aides at the same time they were hiring new teachers. And that’s bad public policy.

“The mental-health system I mentioned before: woefully underfunded. And we’re down there having to make decisions now about redefining our target population. In other words, ‘Who is it we’re now serving that we’re not going to serve any more?’ Well, I think the people that I represent want me to make sure that anybody that has a mental-health problem gets help. Our job is going to be, as this economy rebounds, that we take the money that comes in from the state and apply it to these programs and get them properly funded.

“It goes on down the line. There are hearing officers that can’t hold hearings for people who need their driver’s licenses back. I’ve had calls from constituents over the past few years concerning the inefficiencies of every department of state government there is, complaining about waiting lists; [people] can’t get responses. And I know it’s a direct result of the cuts that we made in the budget. There will be a great temptation, when this thing is over, to simply cut taxes and not worry about the needs of the state, and when you’ve just gone through a period of cutting budgets for four years, it’s going to be terribly important that we go back and fund these programs for people.”

3. I-26 Connector: Six lanes or eight? Why?

“I favor a solution that’s neither of the above. What I would have preferred over all of the above is to route that traffic on a new, interstate-quality road from about Weaverville, across Leicester Highway and tie into I-26 where it ends. That would have bypassed the downtown area of Asheville. I don’t think there’s any satisfactory solution to that problem as long as you’re directing all that traffic through town.

“I actually proposed that 15 years ago, when we did the original [highway] trust-fund legislation. And somehow it got pushed aside for this idea. Quite honestly, I think the people in local government at the time wanted the traffic in Asheville, on the theory that it created business; but for whatever reason, it got moved downtown. I am pushing now for the DOT to reopen that idea and look at building us a proper bypass around the city of Asheville. We’re blind lucky right now that no one uses I-26, but when they find it and see how nice it is compared to the Pigeon River Valley, the traffic is going to be tremendous through here. That’s my solution. In the meantime, I’m not sure one is any better than the other. They are both going to create a nightmare in our downtown area.”

4. Should electronic voting machines in N.C. be required to provide a paper trail?

“Yes. I have spent a lot of my time in the last 10 years [working on] opening up the voting process; I was one of the original advocates for early voting. I have been for no-excuse absentee ballots. You don’t have to have an excuse that you can’t vote; you can just do an absentee ballot.

“Anything that we can do to make voting easier for the population, we should do. But in all of those cases, there was a paper trail, and there was the ability to go back and take a vote and cancel it if it was improper. I, for years, had advocated for online voting. I assumed if we could move billions of dollars around the world using computers, then we could vote. I have become convinced that that is not so and that lack of a paper trail could lead to manipulation of the vote totals. No one wants that to happen. Until someone can find a fail-safe way to do it any other way, I do believe we do need a paper trail, and we do need confirmation of a person’s vote.”

5. Do you support spending limits for local elections?

“First of all, as we’ve done campaign-finance reform over the years (and I’ve been very active in that), it’s unconstitutional to limit spending in a campaign. It falls under freedom of speech, and people have that right. We all know you have a right to free speech, but if you ever have a right to free speech, it’s in a campaign, and money is speech. It is protected, and the ability to spread your message is protected.

“The only way we have found in Raleigh to limit spending in campaigns is to go to public financing of campaigns, with the understanding that if you take public money, you agree that you won’t spend any more. And you can do that; that would be a voluntary choice that someone made to limit their spending. It’s become reasonably successful. We’re doing it in judicial campaigns this year.

6. Apart from judicial races, do you support voter-financed state elections?

“It does two things: It gives people the money to campaign. And the way it is set up, if your opponent decides to go on a spending spree, then the public financing accelerates to where you can compete. It may not match them dollar for dollar, but it gives them enough to compete. We found out with the judicial candidates, they were having difficulty raising enough money to even get their message out . And this gave them enough money.

“We have seen a phenomenon in statewide elections that you haven’t seen in local elections, but you will — where the state parties or the national parties descend on a particular district and dump tons of money in it and win an election with sheer volume of money. Up until 1995, if I spent $10,000 in an election, that was a lot of money, and I always said you can’t buy an election with money. Well, I was thinking if somebody wanted to spend $25,000. But if they come in and spend $250,000 and you’ve only spent $10,000, the voters only get one side of the message, and they are convinced that it is right.

“We’ve got to stop that from happening. We’ve got to figure out how a candidate can get their message out and defend themselves if you are going to ask them to limit their spending. Public financing of campaigns is the only way I have found legally to do that. A lot of people don’t support that. But I think in the judicial races, I think the public will agree with us on that, and I think that can be translated into other races too.

“You’ve got to understand that the real issue in money and campaigns, to me, is, ‘Are the people getting a fair and balanced message about the candidates?’ That’s what you’re trying to achieve. It’s not whether I win or the other candidate wins. It’s trying to run an election in a way that the voters have good knowledge of who they are voting for on Election Day. And when voters understand that that’s where you’re coming from, they tend to be supportive. But it takes some education.”

7. How much money do you plan to spend in the general election?

“I don’t want to tell you that right off.” Somewhere between $5,000 and $150,000. Nesbitt and his opponent “will watch each other’s spending, and we know how to do that, and that will determine what I spend.”

8. What’s the first legislation you would propose or support if elected?

“When you go to a legislative session, you don’t work on one piece of legislation. Legislators can actually chew gum and walk at the same time, and those who are active are multifaceted and can work on several fronts at the same time. In the past, if I had told you ahead of time what I would spend all my time on, nine times out of 10 I would have been wrong. You end up spending your time on whatever it is you want to do that is hard to do. Some things that you think would be hard to do just fly by, and other things get hung up. The Clean Smokestacks Act was a two-year project, and it finally got passed. A lot of times, if you do your job right, the word doesn’t even get back here that you did it. You just get it done and you [go] on about your business.

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