Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry and Democratic challenger Tate MacQueen sharply disagreed on a range of issues during an Oct. 27 debate at UNC Asheville.
The two candidates are vying for a seat in the U.S. Congress representing District 10, which was redrawn in 2011 to include most of Asheville. The area stretches southeast to the Charlotte suburbs.
As the Republican majority’s Chief Deputy Whip and member of the House Financial Services Committee, McHenry is one of the most powerful members of Congress. The Denver, N.C., resident said this year’s election “is about economic policy and continuing to grow jobs.” He repeatedly blamed Democratic President Barack Obama and his policies for a Western North Carolina economy that “is still struggling.”
On the other hand, MacQueen cast McHenry and GOP policies as to blame, noting that polls show high disapproval ratings for Congress.
A social studies and soccer coach at Charles D. Owen High School, MacQueen is best known as an outspoken neighborhood leader in the push to clean up pollution from the CTS Corporation’s former plant in Arden. He alleged that McHenry “turned his back” on those suffering from contaminants in the area “at our greatest time of need” and said the issue was the main reason he entered the race.
Given the opportunity to ask his opponent a question, MacQueen looked his opponent in the eye and said, “Have you no sense of compassion sir?”
“The answer is ‘Yes, I do,” McHenry replied.
MacQueen also criticized McHenry for supporting hydraulic fracturing, often called “fracking” — a controversial method of mining for natural gas. MacQueen said the practice can result in groundwater contamination, much like what happened to his neighbors near the CTS site.
“There is zero proof that fracking has polluted any groundwater in America,” McHenry replied.
“You’re not a scientist,” MacQueen retorted, claiming that “a tsunami of scientists” have said fracking “harms our water supply.”
McHenry said he favors allowing the mining as part of an aggressive policy to “reward the production of American energy.”
MacQueen countered that, unlike his opponent, he “didn’t take any money from Halliburton, big banks, big oil.” MacQueen said he wants the equivalent of “an Apollo Mission” to make America “energy efficient.”
The biggest impediment to growing jobs in the region is “Obamacare” (also known as the Affordable Care Act), said McHenry. Costs from the health care law are impeding small businesses from hiring employees, he said.
MacQueen said he favors a single-payer health care system, but thinks the Affordable Care Act is a step in the right direction because more people are now insured. He said McHenry is using “fear tactics” in his characterization of the law: “You guys aught to be calling it “’Obama-scare,’” he said. “I believe health care is a right, not a privilege.”
To grow the economy, McHenry said he also wants “fundamental tax reform” that includes lowering the corporate income tax rate to help lure international companies to the U.S. and prevent them from leaving.
MacQueen said he thinks the tax system already favors corporations and wealthy individuals at the expense of the working class. “Working class people need the tax breaks,” he said.
To stimulate the economy, MacQueen said he wants to end “free trade tax incentives” that encourage companies to go overseas. He also wants to invest in transportation infrastructure and “raise the minimum wage to a living wage.”
Asked their views on illegal immigration, McHenry said he thinks “border security should be first and foremost, period.” He added: “The idea [of] simply legalizing a number of people who have come here illegally is not the right approach.”
MacQueen said he wants “a compassionate approach” that includes “a pathway to citizenship.” Saying that he’s had students who “have been shipped here,” he added: “Children who came here through no fault of their own should not be vilified and treated as the enemy.”
On another controversial international topic, McHenry said he favors banning travel to the U.S. from African areas dealing with Ebola outbreaks. MacQueen disagreed, saying such a blanket travel ban could hurt international trade.
And asked their thoughts on how to deal with the ISIS terrorist group in the Middle East, the two candidates also diverged.
McHenry said he wants “boots on the ground” to combat the forces. The destabilization of Iraq and emergence of ISIS is due largely because Obama pulled the majority of U.S. troops out of the area, McHenry said.
MacQueen said he doesn’t want U.S. troops engaged in “another quagmire” in the Middle East and said he thinks neighboring countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia “have the people and the funds” to do the fighting “while we play the support role.”
As for dealing with violence closer to home, McHenry emphasized a need to focus on mental illness and protect the Second Amendment right to bear arms. He noted that he is a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association.
MacQueen said he also likes to shoot recreationally, but thinks more regulations are needed to prevent gun violence. He wants to require that consumers undergo background checks at gun shows.
The candidates were also asked about the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and recent court rulings to legalize same-sex marriage in North Carolina.
McHenry noted that he supported gay marriage bans such as DOMA and Amendment One. As far as the recent court rulings, he said, “I don’t agree with judges legislating from the bench.” Now that gay marriage is legal in North Carolina, he said his focus will be on “making sure religious organizations and individuals aren’t forced to do things against their faith.”
MacQueen said he supports the rulings allowing gay marriage: “It’s about equality, nothing more, nothing less.”
Organized by the Council of Independent Business Owners, the event marked the candidates’ first and only Asheville debate.
The 10th district leans conservative, and in 2012, McHenry beat Democratic candidate Patsy Keever by 57 percent overall despite earning less votes than her in Buncombe County.
UPDATE: Watch a video of the debate embedded here via Jerry Rice’s YouTube page.