For roughly 80 attendees Feb. 12, the Ferguson Auditorium at A-B Tech was the place to be on a chilly Friday night. Five Democratic candidates, aiming to represent Buncombe County as part of North Carolina’s 14th Congressional District, had gathered in the local party’s first public forum of 2022.
The two-hour event was hosted by the Buncombe County Democratic Party and moderated by Chair Jeff Rose. The forum featured Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners member and executive director of the nonprofit Campaign for Southern Equality; Jay Carey, retired Army combat veteran; Katie Dean, small-business owner and environmental engineer; Eric Gash, pastor and former principal at Bruce Drysdale Elementary in Hendersonville; and Bo Hess, licensed clinical social worker and addiction specialist.
The district for which the candidates are vying is currently held by Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn. However, Cawthorn announced in November that he instead planned to run in the neighboring 13th District, which at the time of his announcement covered counties to Buncombe’s south and east such as McDowell, Polk and Rutherford.
(Congressional district lines in North Carolina are likely to shift after a Feb. 4 ruling by the N.C. Supreme Court, which struck down the state’s new maps as partisan gerrymanders. Candidate filing is still scheduled to resume Thursday, Feb. 24, and end at noon Friday, March 4, with the primary election scheduled for Tuesday, May 17.)
Rose pressed each of the candidates on everything from police reform and LGBTQ rights to environmental policy and the COVID-19 pandemic. Xpress rounded up a few highlights from the event. (a full video recording is available at avl.mx/b8v.)
What is a living wage?
A living wage is defined as the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs. Rose asked the candidates how they defined the term; while Asheville-based advocacy organization Just Economics has calculated the full-time living wage for Buncombe County workers at $17.70 an hour, some of the congressional hopefuls had a different view.
“I’m proud, as a Buncombe County commissioner, to have been part of the team that ensured that every single county employee was being paid at least $15 an hour, and that’s something we’ll continue to reassess as we move forward,” Beach-Ferrara said. She said she supported that wage as a general floor for workers but acknowledged that $15 “doesn’t always cut it.”
Carey said that the average cost for a one-bedroom apartment in Asheville is roughly $1,400 per month, meaning that people earning as much as $20 per hour are still paying more than 40% of their income on housing costs alone. “The guideline is no more than 30%,” he maintained. Between rising housing costs and stagnant wages, he argued, “A living wage of $24 an hour is where we need to begin.”
And Gash, who also volunteers as a police chaplain with the Hendersonville City Police Department, added that starting pay for local police is often lower than that of some fast-food restaurants.
“A starting police officer in his first year, a rookie police officer, he or she can make more going and working at Chick-fil-A than standing that thin blue line. Something is really wrong with that,” Gash said. “We’ve got to do a better job than that.”
Climate change and environmental policy
Rose noted that North Carolina is currently a leading state in renewable energy and asked the candidates what they would do at the federal level to address climate change.
Dean, whose background is in environmental engineering, said that climate change was an existential crisis that required a multifaceted approach. “I think we need to bring the climate crisis into the fold of every single major decision that we make. I do not think that there’s one single unilateral piece of legislation that is going to solve this crisis. Nor is there one single country that is going to solve this crisis,” she said. “If the U.S. cut our carbon use down to zero tomorrow, we would still have a global climate crisis to deal with.”
Hess explained that volunteering in the aftermath of devastating floods in Cruso, a Haywood County community that saw six deaths and the loss of over 450 homes and businesses in August, had caused him to prioritize environmental issues.
“As a social worker and therapist, processing the trauma of that event, it changed me,” he said. In addition to developing a regional lithium-ion battery market, Hess said, his priorities would center on sustainable farming, research and development for lab-grown meats, increasing access to organic and plant-based foods and campaigns to encourage plant-based diets and local recycling programs.
While police appear to be leaving the profession in droves nationally, the Asheville Police Department’s staffing shortage is among the worst in the country. The exodus coincides with local and national protests and calls for police reform.
Reflecting on the murder of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd in 2020, Gash said, “I could have done two things: I could have gotten bitter or better. I chose to get better.” The Hendersonville resident, who is Black, explained that communities and local governments need to reach out to their local police departments and find commonalities and solutions.
“Change moves at the speed of trust. Trust moves at the speed of relationships. We have to reach out,” he added.
Hess said that he had been “beat down and tasered by law enforcement officers” while exercising his First Amendment rights, although he did not go into detail regarding the incident. Nevertheless, Hess said did not support local and national movements that call for a defunding of police departments.
“I don’t think defunding the police in any way is making our community safer. In fact, we need more resources for law enforcement,” he maintained. Hess talked about the need to increase officer pay and opportunities for combat and deescalation training.
Carey agreed with the need to reform police, adding that local departments need to do a better job of recruiting, training and ensuring that officers have mental health evaluations at least once a year. He also said more attention needs to be paid to the causes of crime rather than the symptoms. “Reduce poverty,” he said. “The less crime, the less interaction with the police, the less chance of being shot.”
LGBTQ rights and protections
Both Asheville and Buncombe County passed nondiscrimination ordinances last year, which prohibit discriminatory practices in private employment and public accommodations based on 16 personal characteristics and lifestyles, including sexual orientation and gender identity. Given that local movement, Rose wanted to clarify where the five candidates stood on the issue of LGBTQ rights.
“Will everyone on the stage commit to publicly supporting the rights of queer, transgender and nonbinary people?” Rose asked. “And what will you do to support those rights in office?”
All five of the candidates subsequently committed to the supporting members of the LGBTQ community. “I live by the saying that love is love and y’all means all. I mean it sincerely and unapologetically,” said Dean. “I’m a strong, strong believer, and fierce advocate for all of our constitutional rights and all of our civil liberties. We cannot give an inch on this topic.”
Hess identified himself as a member of the LGBTQ community, saying that “we always have the threat of violence hanging over our heads,” while Beach-Ferrara, who is a married lesbian and mother of three children, said that she was proud of her work “on the front lines of achieving LGBTQ equality in the South.”
“Let me be clear right now: The battle is in the states, and transgender youth are under attack. And each and every one of us, putting aside this race for a second, needs to find a way in our lives, to tell the story and make clear that trans kids know, they are beautiful, they belong, they are loved, and there is a community that will welcome them.”
Lessons from the pandemic
The pandemic may not be over, but signs that its visible presence in public life may be waning are beginning to appear. Buncombe County’s indoor mask mandate, which had been extended three times after going into effect Aug. 18, was allowed to expire Feb. 16 by the Board of Commissioners. For the final question of the night, Rose asked candidates to share what their biggest takeaways were from the last two years of the pandemic.
“We need to have clear communication. We need to be communicating in a way to the American public that they can understand and through different modalities,” said Hess. “I think the lack of communication from the top in the beginning, and also now, continues to hamper the way that we respond to this pandemic.”
For Gash, disparities such as access to high-speed internet, food and transportation became glaring. “I shepherded 463 kids, little babies, through this pandemic,” he said. “We had parents that would drive the kids to our school and sit in a parking lot just so they could jump on our Wi-Fi or we would take a bus drive a bus in these neighborhoods to have Wi-Fi on the bus.”
“I don’t know about you, but no more Republican presidents,” added Carey, eliciting a laugh and applause from forum attendees. “Unfortunately, there were quite a few things in place prior to Trump becoming president that would have mitigated these circumstances greatly. But unfortunately, our Republican leadership destroyed it. Put those things back in place and get ready for the next one. We all know another one’s coming.”