House District 115

Voters in the new 115th House District will enjoy no shortage of attention in the days leading up to the Nov. 5 election.

The race pits three markedly different candidates in a battle that — at least in terms of funding — seems epic. Rep. Mark Crawford, a Republican, sounds deliberately vague when discussing his fund-raising efforts — saying only that he has “at least $10,000″ in donations to spend. But Democratic challenger Bruce Goforth predicts that he’ll burn through more than $100,000 (counting both the primary and the general election) in his bid to win voters’ approval. By contrast, Libertarian Robert Parker estimates he’ll spend no more than $2,000.

“It’s unreal,” concedes Goforth.

N.C. House and Senate members earn $20,659 annually (not including per diems and mileage), says Wesley Taylor, financial service manager in the General Assembly’s Budget Office.

Although Crawford is considered the incumbent, technically, he isn’t: His current district is doomed to extinction by year’s end. Thanks to North Carolina’s redistricting, former House District 51 has been broken into three smaller districts — 114, 115 and 116. The 115th covers all of the Owen School District, most of the Reynolds School District, and four precincts in the Roberson School District, reports Goforth.

Only me

Each candidate trumpets the qualities that set him apart from his opponents.

Crawford — a real-estate agent who’s also a certified substitute teacher — believes he’s the only state legislator who regularly teaches in the public schools. He also points to his high-school and middle-school soccer coaching, his “selfless devotion to duty” in getting up in the middle of the night to drive to Raleigh to tackle legislative business, and his military service in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Then there’s his legislative experience, which “makes you far more knowledgeable with the system and far more effective than you would otherwise be,” Crawford declares.

“Another thing that sets me apart: I’m not bound by ideology,” asserts Crawford. “I literally try to do what’s best for the constituency, regardless of what side of the political spectrum it comes down on.”

For example, Crawford says he was one of the leading advocates of the Clean Smokestacks bill — which, he proudly notes, won him a certificate of appreciation from the WNC Alliance, an environmental group. He also says he was the only Republican who was willing to introduce a bill proposing a cigarette tax to supplement the Mental Health Trust Fund and a bill for an alcohol tax, whose proceeds would have gone to Medicaid funding (specifically to the Community Alternatives Program, aimed at keeping the disabled out of institutions and in their own communities). Both bills failed, though Crawford notes that a budget bill he co-sponsored later ended up securing $20 million for the Community Alternatives Program.

Goforth, meanwhile, maintains that his political makeup as a moderate, fiscally conservative Democrat sets him apart. Goforth also points to his eight years on the Buncombe County Board of Education, which he thinks helps him understand the educational needs facing the state. His school-board service and experience in owning his own business will also provide insight into budget issues, he says. And then there’s the personal side.

“I don’t care how bright you are — you cannot be effective in Raleigh unless you have the personal skills to negotiate and build coalitions,” declares Goforth. “Our current representative hasn’t shown those skills. I spent nine years as a purchasing manager doing mostly negotiations, and I’ve worked with all types of people and been able to build coalitions — as in the school board — to make things happen.”

For his part, Parker says he’s distinguished by his Libertarian devotion to “strong principles of freedom and liberty — both supporting the Constitution and protecting the freedoms that are guaranteed by it.”

Parker notes that even though many politicians pay lip service to the promise of lowering taxes and balancing the budget, he means to actually keep that promise if elected. He’s also distinguished by the issue that got him interested in running for the seat: the USA Patriot Act, which Congress passed after last year’s Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The law — which drew criticism from civil libertarians — bestows sweeping new powers on federal investigators to probe terrorism.

“I think the USA Patriot Act represents the single most offensive encroachment on our civil liberties and our freedoms that’s been passed in my lifetime,” proclaims Parker.

But with that much interest in national issues, then why is Parker running for state office? “It’s a start,” he replies.

Core issues

Parker names balancing the state budget as one of the issues most important to him.

“Our state budget is far too big,” he observes. “We’re spending more money than we bring in. You don’t have to be an economist to realize that’s not going to work.”

Parker also thinks the state’s educational system needs to be improved. For example, he advocates teaching children to read by using phonics, rather than the whole-language system. And although he acknowledges that government can’t run without taxes, he would like to see no higher than a 10 percent state income tax. Still he concedes that it’s probably more feasible at the moment to work within the current system.

Goforth’s core issues include education, health care and jobs. On the education front, he advocates improving technology and vocational-education programs. Goforth would like to offer high-school students incentives to enter the teaching profession to head off a projected future teacher shortage; he’d also like to boost teachers’ salaries to the national average.

“We’ve got to work with federal and state [officials] to get a group insurance [plan] that is affordable to everyone,” Goforth declares. “And I think we’ve got to work on a prescription-drug plan that won’t continue to rob the elderly and the poor.”

Goforth also favors tax incentives to encourage major corporations to locate in WNC. He’d also like to see a fully equipped industrial park built here to keep the area competitive — though he acknowledges that the project would probably have to be funded by a local bond issue, rather than state action.

Crawford, meanwhile, says one of his top issues is safeguarding local-government funding from the governor, who withheld reimbursements from local governments for two years running. And even though a new half-cent sales tax will replace the lost revenue stream, Crawford says the legislature still has to defend local-government funding from the governor’s sticky fingers.

Crawford also wants to continue efforts to improve the educational system, citing a bill he co-sponsored to reduce a portfolio requirement that he says was a time-consuming burden for new teachers.

Another key issue cited by Crawford is ensuring that there’s adequate funding for health and human-service needs even as the mental-health system undergoes major reform.

Mark Crawford

Age: 41

Home: Black Mountain

Party: Republican

Occupation: Real-estate agent

Education: Owen High School (1978) and The United States Military Academy at West Point (1982)

Years in this community: 22

Political history: State legislator since April 2001, when he was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Rep. Lanier Cansler; ran unsuccessfully for state House in 1996 and ’98.

Bruce Goforth

Age: 60

Home: Asheville

Party: Democratic

Occupation: General contractor, president of Goforth Builders Inc.

Education (formal and informal): Reynolds High School (1960); has taken courses at Gardner-Webb University and A-B Tech

Years in community: 49

Political history: Two terms on the Buncombe County Board of Education (1990-98); current president of the local Democratic Men’s Club. This is his first bid for state office.

Robert Parker

Age: 30

Home: Black Mountain

Party: Libertarian

Occupation: “I am running for office,” declares Parker. (His previous job was working as an Asheville mortgage lender.)

Education (formal and informal): Carolina Day School (1990), The College of Charleston (1994 – bachelor’s degree in U.S. history, minor in religion).

Years in community: 10

Political history: First bid

Questions and answers

Here are the candidates’ responses to some specific questions:

Mountain Xpress: Do you support a state lottery? Why or why not?

Mark Crawford: No. It will cost the state more money than it will bring in, he says, because a lottery would take money out of circulation that the state would otherwise pick up in tax revenues.

Bruce Goforth: No — though he would vote to send the issue to a referendum. “I don’t think you can build a budget based on gambling income — too inconsistent — and I think it’s an additional tax on the poor.”

Robert Parker: No. “I support legalization of gambling, if that’s what the people want. But I do not support a state-sanctioned lottery, because it’s simply a very thinly veiled tax on the people who can least afford it.” If the state were to have a lottery, then Parker thinks private enterprise should be able to get in on the act, too.

MX: Studies in other states have shown that for every 10 percent increase in tobacco taxes, the number of young smokers drops by 6 percent, and the number of cigarettes smoked by youth drops by 11 percent. The World Bank says a 10 percent tax increase has cut the number of smokers by from 4 to 8 percent in every country studied. Given those numbers, do you support the state Senate bill that would increase North Carolina’s cigarette tax by 50 cents?

MC: Yes. He wrote his own legislation to increase taxes on cigarettes (though it didn’t pass).

BG: Yes. “I think we’re one of the lowest states, taxwise, on cigarettes — and I feel it’s a fairness [issue] and an equitable thing to do. And anything that would decrease the number of youths taking up the habit, I would support.”

RP: No, on three counts. “I don’t feel it’s government’s responsibility to legislate away a habit like that,” he declares. Also, he sees such a tax as the government’s way of raising taxes without justifying where it will be spent. Plus, it’s not the government’s role to both subsidize tobacco farmers and persuade people not to smoke.

MX: Boston is spending more than $1 billion to undo the mistakes they’ve made in recent decades running wider and wider roads through the middle of the city. Can we learn from their mistakes? Would you prefer to see transportation funds spent on widening highways or on alternative-transportation plans?

MC: “I’m willing to look at any option to help [alleviate pollution from vehicles stuck in stalled traffic] — whether it’s alternative, whether it’s widening, whatever it takes,” he says.

BG: “I think all the studies that I’ve read [say] the highway system is by far the best and the cheapest transportation plan.” Goforth adds that he can’t address Boston’s transportation system because he doesn’t know its background.

RP: “Alternative transportation is great if people use it. If not, buses are not all that fuel-efficient. … I see it being very difficult to implement in this part of the country at this point.” Parker adds that while some of the state’s highways may need to be widened, he opposes any unnecessary highway projects.

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