As incumbent Republican Sen. Chuck Edwards proceeds unchallenged toward November’s general election, a three-way race has emerged to determine his Democratic challenger. Mills River Mayor Pro Tem Brian Caskey, behavioral technician Cristal Figueroa and entrepreneur Najah Underwood each seek to represent Senate District 48, which was redrawn in September to include much of eastern Buncombe County in addition to Henderson and Transylvania counties.
Caskey touts his election as Mills River’s only Democratic leader as proof that he can build bridges with conservative voters in a district that still leans Republican even after last year’s redistricting. The only candidate with previous political experience, he was also the race’s fundraising leader at the time of the Xpress questionnaire, with a more than $18,000 lead over Figueroa.
Both Caskey and Figueroa identify transportation infrastructure upgrades as key to managing Western North Carolina’s rapid population growth, but they disagree about District 48’s greatest specific need. Caskey is focused on Medicaid expansion, while Figueroa, who identifies as Mexican American, is most concerned by Henderson County’s partnership with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement through the 287(g) program.
And Underwood, an African American millennial, is focusing her campaign on equality. She calls nondiscrimination in government policies her highest priority and hopes to improve life for low-income households through higher wages and greater spending on social programs.
The name of each candidate is linked to their responses in the post:
Occupation: Small-business owner (Biltmore Tutoring in South Asheville)
Previous candidacy or offices held: Current mayor pro tem in Mills River (elected 2017)
Key endorsements: Did not respond
Amount of money raised: $23,000
Top three donors: I have refused all corporate PAC money and accept individual donations only.
What makes Western North Carolina home to you? My ancestors were among the earliest colonists to settle in Western North Carolina, in Ashe County. My parents and grandparents moved to Florida in the 1960s to take jobs in the aerospace industry. I spent many childhood summers in WNC, and after finishing college, moving here was a very natural thing to do. We’ve been here for 24 years now, half my life. My family lived in eastern Buncombe for about 15 years, and we now reside in Mills River.
What do you bring to the General Assembly that other candidates don’t? I bring life experience and much-needed expertise to the General Assembly. Those have both been missing in recent years. I have a BS in biology from Stetson University and a master’s degree from UNCW, I’ve spent 20 years working in the corporate world as a systems manager, and I’m now a small business owner and educator. I bring honesty, integrity, persistence, relentless energy and an independent spirit to a body that could use a lot more of those things.
What do you see as the greatest specific need for your district compared to the rest of WNC, and how would you propose meeting it? This district would benefit tremendously from Medicaid expansion. We are already paying for it with our federal taxes, but that money is going to other states, like California and New York. By expanding eligibility, we would take back $4.7 billion from the federal government, allow 635,000 of our working poor to enjoy health coverage, stimulate business activity and create 37,000 jobs. Most of those jobs would be created in six counties (including Buncombe).
If nominated, how will you work to win voters in a district that independent observers have said still leans Republican? I’m the first Democrat ever elected to the Town Council in Mills River. As the only Democrat on that board — and that’s a common theme in my committee work — I am well known for working across the aisle, being reasonable and getting things done. I would credit that work ethic for my unanimous election as mayor pro tem by the Mills River Town Council. I never sacrifice my values, but I’m proof that Republicans and Democrats can work together.
In what ways can the state support the rapid population growth taking place in WNC? Population growth in N.C. has outpaced that of the rest of the U.S. in each year since 1970. However, the state is not investing as it should in mass transit, light rail, education, health care and infrastructure. We must be forward-thinking and proactive instead of reactive, planning for and adapting to the inevitable growth rather than acting surprised when it occurs. It’s time to build a better, stronger North Carolina, and people are tired of watching this legislature fail.
How will you contribute to resolving a state budget process that has proven highly contentious in recent years? The budget is contentious because the goals of the majority party in Raleigh are to create jobs by infusing massive amounts of public tax dollars into already profitable corporations! The “yes men” in the legislature are enriching corporate CEOs and denying critical funding to education, environmental protections and health care. “Trickle-down theory” is a myth, as increased corporate tax cuts have led, inevitably, to a slowing job market. It’s time to use the budget to invest in things that really matter.
Occupation: Behavioral technician
Previous candidacy or offices held: N/A
Key endorsements: Western North Carolina Central Labor Council/AFL-CIO
Amount of money raised: $4,559
Top three donors: Joel Salgado, David Thomas, Luis Eguiarte
What makes Western North Carolina home to you? I was born, raised and educated here. Western North Carolina has made me who I am today. I am a daughter of Henderson County. My father used to pick apples in Hendersonville and plant tomatoes in Marion. I am a proud alumna of UNC Asheville. I have been afforded great opportunity in WNC and I want to make sure that generations to come have the same.
What do you bring to the General Assembly that other candidates don’t? A different perspective on pressing issues. As a Mexican American millennial woman who is not independently wealthy, I understand the struggles the average North Carolinian faces because I face them too. I work multiple jobs, I understand how our current immigration system impacts families and individuals, I have student loan debt, and I am working toward becoming a homeowner. It’s time that officials in Raleigh represent the communities they come from and not the corporate interests that line their pockets.
What do you see as the greatest specific need for your district compared to the rest of WNC, and how would you propose meeting it? Henderson County is one of only four counties in the state that participate in the 287(g) program (a partnership between the Henderson County Sheriff and ICE). It breeds distrust between our immigrant community and local law enforcement. It tears families apart and negatively impacts our local economy. I would fight to end the 287(g) program in North Carolina.
If nominated, how will you work to win voters in a district that independent observers have said still leans Republican? The fact of the matter is that no matter what side of the political aisle you stand on, you want what is best for your children, yourself and your community. I would show voters that I am willing to fight for what is best for everyone. We have far more in common than many would like us to believe. It’s time to move past the political divide and do what is right for the people of this great state.
In what ways can the state support the rapid population growth taking place in WNC? Investments in infrastructure. We need to start thinking outside of the box regarding transportation in WNC. While the widening of I-26 will alleviate some congestion between Asheville and Hendersonville, we could explore other options. For instance, there are railroad tracks that are going unused. Let’s explore the option of creating a light rail system to connect the two cities. Not only will it help with commutes, it is also more environmentally friendly.
How will you contribute to resolving a state budget process that has proven highly contentious in recent years? By passing it. Republicans have proven that the only reason they are not voting on the budget is because too many representatives are present. They are undermining the democratic process. If we can flip the Senate, I pledge to vote yes on the budget that sits before the Senate.
Previous candidacy or offices held: N/A
Key endorsements: None
Amount of money raised: $600
Top three donors: Najah Underwood
What makes Western North Carolina home to you? What makes WNC home for me are the mountains, the people and the hospitality. This is the only place where the seasons bring an overwhelming sense of magic every season.
What do you bring to the General Assembly that other candidates don’t? I am a millennial with values of equality and passion to encourage others to think of our government not as a job or a career, but a moral obligation and civil duty to enhance the country to be better every single day. Everyday citizens need to be in office fighting for individuals that this system is designed to be against.
What do you see as the greatest specific need for your district compared to the rest of WNC, and how would you propose meeting it? The greatest need in WNC is the ability for policies to be nondiscriminatory. We need to face the truth and break down barriers for low-income households, raise wages and demand better corporate responsibility for employees.
If nominated, how will you work to win voters in a district that independent observers have said still leans Republican? I will work to win voters in my district by reaching across the aisle and getting the red vote. Republicans in this district have common issues we agree on that need to be addressed. In addition, I will advocate for individuals to get out and vote and register new voters.
In what ways can the state support the rapid population growth taking place in WNC? The ways to support rapid population growth would be through promoting family planning, enhancing our education systems, providing attainable housing and decreasing infant and maternal mortality rates.
How will you contribute to resolving a state budget process that has proven highly contentious in recent years? I will advocate using a method that will boost government spending for employment benefits, infrastructure, education and health care. In doing so, I will promote reallocation of money and policies to effectively and fairly break down barriers of the economic effects from the previous budget.