Republican N.C. House Rep. Nathan Ramsey and Democratic challenger John Ager have a lot in common. They’ve both been longtime residents of Fairview, where they own and operate neighboring farms. But when it comes to the issues facing the N.C. House, they shared opposing viewpoints at an Oct. 9 forum at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center in Asheville.
They’re each hoping to represent District 115, which stretches from Fairview to Black Mountain and Weaverville.
Ager, whose father-in-law is the former 11th District Congressman Jamie Clarke, slammed Ramsey over his vote not to expand Medicaid. “This was one of the no-brainers that the no-brainers in Raleigh turned down,” he said. “It was going to help 500,000 people.”
Ramsey defended his vote, saying the expansion would’ve cost the state millions: “We need to reform Medicaid expansion before we expand it.”
Ager also went on the attack over a new state law paving the way for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial form of mining for natural gas. He said Ramsey voted in favor of the 2013 Domestic Energy Jobs Act, “which is what started the whole fracking business.” Environmental groups have been airing TV commercials criticizing Ramsey and other Western North Carolina Republicans for the move.
But Ramsey was one of the only Republicans in the state to vote against a more recent bill this year that will allow the state to start issuing permits to companies to begin the mining process. He said he’d like to see more studies on the practice to determine its safety. “I voted against fracking,” said Ramsey.
Ager called new rules regulating coal ash contamination “a sweetheart deal” for companies like Duke Energy, which operates a Buncombe County power plant that stores the toxic waste in ponds near the French Broad River. Ramsey disagreed, calling the law “the most stringent coal ash bill” in North Carolina’s history. The law places the Buncombe County plant, located on Lake Julian in Skyland, on a high priority list for cleanup.
The former chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, Ramsey cited the endorsement of the Republican chair of the county school board, Rob Rhinehart, as a sign he’s supportive of public education. He called this year’s teacher pay increase — which he voted for — “an important first step” even though it’s “not a perfect solution.”
The teacher raises didn’t go far enough for Ager, who said the state’s pay still ranks near the bottom in the country. He said the problem is a matter of insufficient revenue, blaming tax cuts Ramsey supported that primarily benefit “the very wealthy.” Ager said he wants the state “committed to find the revenue so we can build the North Carolina education system.”
Asked if they support changing the way Asheville voters elect City Council from an at-large system to a district system, Ager said he’d only favor such a move “if City Council thought it was a good thing.” Republican Rep. Tim Moffitt, who represents District 116 in Buncombe County, has floated such an idea in the past. Council aggressively opposed it.
Ramsey didn’t answer the question on district elections directly, but said he thinks Moffitt’s successful push to impose a similar district election system on the county’s board of commissioners in 2011 “has worked out really well.”
Meanwhile, Moffitt, whose district includes much of western Buncombe, did not attend the forum. His Democratic opponent Brian Turner criticized his absence, telling attendees, “I’m sorry that you’ve come out tonight and will not be able to hear our different approaches to what North Carolina is about. I want to hear from the constituents.” It was the third forum in the last two days Moffitt was invited too but did not attend, he said. “My opponent wants to sit back and stuff lies in your mailbox,” Turner added. “I’m sorry he’s not here to defend his record. I think his record is indefensible.”
Democrat Terry Van Duyn, the incumbent state senator in District 49, which includes Asheville and most of Buncombe, addressed the crowd of about 70 people. As she discussed her background and priorities, her Republican opponent Mark Crawford listened from the back of the room. He declined to participate even though he was in attendance.
UPDATE Oct. 10: According to forum organizer Lizzi Shimer with the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe, after the event the group received an email from Crawford saying that he was “upset that he was not recognized to speak.” Shimmer writes in an email to Xpress: “He did leave early and did not notify our volunteers or the moderator that he was present. We’ve sent him an apology signed by our cosponsoring organizations.”
The forum was organized by the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe, The American Association of University Women, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Children First/Communities in Schools, and the YWCA. Asheville Citizen-Times Executive Editor Josh Awtry served as moderator.