Senate District 49

For voters in state Senate District 49, the names R L Clark and Steve Metcalf are all too familiar: The Nov. 5 general election will mark the third time these two have squared off.

In the past, the district was represented by two senators, but the recent redistricting cut that number to one. Clark held one of the two seats from 1995 to 1998, but he and fellow Republican Jess Ledbetter were ousted in ’98 by Democrats Charles Carter and Metcalf. After redistricting, Carter announced that he would not seek re-election, leaving Metcalf to fend off Clark. Like Ali and Frasier, these two know each other’s feints and jabs. The question is: Will the defending champ keep his title, or will the challenger regain the belt?

To help you make your wager, Xpress interviewed both candidates.

R L Clark

Age: 71

Home: Asheville

Party: Republican

Occupation: Small-business owner

Political history: Two terms as state senator

Steve Metcalf

Age: 52

Home: Weaverville

Party: Democratic

Occupation: Administrator and teacher, Western Carolina University

Political history: Two terms as State Senator

Questions and answers

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

R L Clark: “No, I don’t support a state lottery. I don’t feel the state government should be in the business of promoting gambling.”

Steve Metcalf: “I think the people should decide in a referendum. But I’m not sure it’s the panacea that some people make it out to be, and I’m not sure it’s the evil that some would make it out to be, too. I don’t have a great deal of passion about the issue. I do feel very strongly that we have to look for more creative ways to fund the programs like education, and the lottery could be one of those ways. The issue is not going to go away, and I’ll support a referendum if it comes up again.”

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 that 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 N.C. Senate bill that would increase North Carolina’s cigarette tax by 50 cents?

RLC: “No, I do not support a tax increase on cigarettes. North Carolina has enough revenue already — spending is our problem. Are we going to put a sin tax on hamburgers? Are we going to put a sin tax on a chocolate bar or a soft drink? Government is getting too involved in our personal choices. Government is taking away our individual ability to make choices for ourselves. Pretty soon, we’ll be taxing a Twinkie.”

SM: “I do. It’s one of those creative ways we need to look at in terms of raising revenues. It’s a win-win situation for the state. It should bring us up to the national average, or at least close to it. We need to be consistent with the other states. The obvious benefit is that it will reduce the number of children smoking. Folks who begin smoking in their teens generally are lifetime smokers; they fight that addiction the rest of their life.”

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?

RLC: “Let’s be specific: I live seven miles from the Smokey Park Bridge. In four years, I-26 is going to be completed from the Tennessee line to downtown Asheville. … Can you imagine what we’re going to be faced with, trying to get to north Buncombe County or trying to get to downtown Asheville or to south Asheville with all this tremendous influx of vehicular traffic?

“I’m one of the very few people in the political arena that doesn’t agree with the direction the Department of Transportation is now taking in the area of the Smokey Park Bridge. First of all, I don’t think it’s common sense to put all of this traffic into downtown Asheville. You mentioned Boston; it is going to be an absolute nightmare for two reasons. First, with all of this traffic, you’re going to increase pollution from vehicles; it’s going to create terrific traffic jams. I think, yes, we’ve got to do some streamlining in that area. But I have spoken publicly — and it has been ignored by the major media — that I think, simultaneously, we have to do a northwest outer loop around Asheville so that the through traffic can get around Asheville and bypass it, while at the same time providing a way for those who want to access downtown and the river area to be able to do so. We can efficiently and safely do this.

“What is being proposed doesn’t make sense. We should learn from Boston. Four or five years ago, I heard a DOT engineer publicly state at a meeting in West Asheville that what is proposed to cross the French Broad River in the area of the Smokey Park Bridge will be outdated before construction is even started. And it puzzles me that the political powers refuse to even acknowledge that we’ve got to do something else.”

[Follow-up question for Clark]

MX: But in supporting an outer loop, don’t you fear alienating some of your supporters who are property-rights advocates? I mean, wouldn’t an outer loop involve a massive land grab in the county through eminent domain?

RLC: Well, they’re going to use eminent domain either way, regardless of the plan they choose. Let’s just choose the right plan.”

SM: “Well, I think that we’d all like to see it spent on alternative transportation plans — where it’s feasible and where you can. I think we have to look for a balance; we cannot solve our transportation problems simply by paving roads and building more roads. I’ve been very supportive of the passenger-train service from Asheville to Raleigh, and I’m going to continue to be. I am proud to have been a sponsor of the Clean Smokestacks Act, but that only addresses stationary sources of air pollution. We need to look next at the mobile sources of air pollution and see what we can do to encourage and make it profitable for automobiles to convert to alternative fuels.”

[Follow-up question for Metcalf]

MX: But specifically, we could be looking at eight lanes blasted through West Asheville. Are you willing to stake out a position on the highway widening through Asheville?

SM: “I don’t know. I’ll tell you what my inclination is: It seems that Asheville is going to do nothing but grow. The last thing that I think we want to do is to have the type of congestion that … you have if you don’t adequately plan and adequately build. It’s not only going to lead to congestion but more air pollution as well. You look at the eight lanes as strong as you can and make the burden of proof to be otherwise relative to our growth. It’s much easier to meet the needs of the future now than it is to come back and try to deal with it sometime in the future.”

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