NC-11 Republican candidates debate sans Cawthorn

EMPTY CHAIR: Rep. Madison Cawthorn did not attend the NC-11 Republican primary debate on April 11, but his seven opponents did. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

The elephant has long symbolized the Republican Party. And at Rockin’ the Red, the GOP’s April 11 primary debate for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, there was indeed an elephant in the room: Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s absence.

“That chair’s empty,” said candidate Bruce O’Connell of Candler, gesturing to Cawthorn’s designated place on stage at the WNC Agricultural Center in Fletcher.  Cawthorn was the only one of the eight Republican primary candidates not to participate in the debate.

“Congressman Cawthorn’s team was made aware of the event well in advance and chose not to attend,” Jeff Brewer, Transylvania County GOP vice chair, told Xpress following the debate. (Luke Ball, communications director for Cawthorn for NC, responded to a query from Xpress about his absence with an emailed statement: “Congressman Cawthorn agreed to two GOP primary debates, announced in a press release sent last month. He has participated in those and will review debate requests for the general election after the primary. He did not attend on Monday because it was not one of the two primary debates he agreed to.” Cawthorn did attend the Henderson County Republican debate on March 26 and an NC-11 GOP forum on April 2.)

“Does he not respect y’all enough to be here?” O’Connell asked, to enthusiastic applause from the audience. “I’m telling you, there’s something wrong when your congressman won’t show up.”

Among the seven candidates who did show up to Rockin’ the Red, many repeatedly called the hour-and-a-half-long debate, hosted by Transylvania and Buncombe GOP leadership, a “job interview.” In asking WNC voters to hire them, several drew on business or military experience to explain their fit for the role.

On the resume

“In business, we consider past performance as a predictor of future performance,” said state Sen. Chuck Edwards, who in addition to representing Buncombe, Henderson and Transylvania counties also operates seven McDonald’s franchises. “That is exactly what we need in Washington, D.C.: conservative principles, and with a proven track record.”

Most candidates lauded former President Donald Trump throughout the night, including Edwards, who compared himself favorably to the former president. “Chuck Edwards is a businessman that loves this country, with conservative principles, that has a track record of getting things done,” he said. “That’s exactly why we sent President Trump to the White House in 2016: He’s a businessman with conservative principles that loves this country and has a track record of getting things done.”

Edwards repeatedly cited his three terms serving in the N.C. General Assembly as the experience that made him best suited for Congress. “No one else up here can say that they have actually cut your taxes,” the senator said. “No one else up here can actually say that they have outlawed sanctuary cities or passed legislation to protect the Second Amendment or balanced budgets or passed substantial election reforms.”

Matthew Burril, a financial adviser from Fletcher, also touted his business credentials, along with his faith. “I am your conservative Christian businessman in this race,” he said. “I am 100% pro-life. I am also a 100% defender of the Second Amendment. We will never have a bureaucracy like the [federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], or the socialists in Washington, take away our First Amendment rights ever again. … As a Christian man, my faith guides everything I do.”

O’Connell, who owns the Pisgah Inn on the Blue Ridge Parkway, implored voters not to vote for a politician. “Donald Trump’s policies were spot on,” he said. “He was a businessman; he wasn’t a politician. He went to Washington with a different approach. He didn’t care about politics.”

Meanwhile, two military veterans touted their service. Rod Honeycutt of Alexander, a U.S. Army colonel who retired after 37 years in the military, told the audience, “I have spent my life defending that flag. I’m now home to protect our district, from politicians … and people who don’t respect our children.”

Wendy Nevarez, a Navy veteran from Asheville, emphasized that serving the American people must be a congressperson’s priority. “Yes, running the federal government … is extremely important to run efficiently and effectively,” she said. “However, there’s a double bottom line: We’re not doing it for profit; we’re doing it for people. … If a businessperson only has profit [in mind], they’re not going to be thinking about the American people.”

Bashing Biden

Many of the candidates were vocal in their critique of Democratic President Joe Biden. Michele Woodhouse, the Hendersonville-based former chair of the District 11 GOP, shared her belief that the president had stolen the 2020 election from Trump. “We weren’t paying attention before the 2020 election because they started stealing that election the minute Hillary Clinton conceded that she had lost. They started their plan right then.”

Woodhouse continued, “We know the election was stolen. … Had they needed North Carolina to steal it, I’m sure [Democratic N.C Attorney General] Josh Stein had Rubbermaid tubs in the back of his minivan that were ready to do it.”

Questions about the three biggest failures of Biden’s presidency and three biggest successes of Trump’s presidency also gave candidates an opportunity to attack the current administration. Kristie Sluder, a licensed clinical addictions specialist from Weaverville, suggested Trump had focused on problems that Biden has ignored. “[Trump] was right about the wall,” she explained. “He was right about the media. He was right about the Marxist agenda in our country. He was right about the globalists.”

Inflation was a popular response to the question about Biden’s failures. Sluder also mentioned “the border [and] 100,000 overdoses from fentanyl last year [and] children being thrown over the border wall like they’re bags of trash, left in the desert to dehydrate.”

Answering the question about Biden’s failure, Nevarez recalled the 13 U.S. service members who died during an attack outside the Kabul airport in Afghanistan in August.

“I find it a shame that the first thing that the folks announce up here was not the 13 people — my brothers and sisters — who died in Afghanistan when Biden botched our withdrawal,” Nevarez said. “We did not think about the veterans when they came back from Vietnam. We don’t think about the veterans when we’re making policy. … And their lives mean something to me.”

Honeycutt also touched on military matters as he criticized Biden’s response to the Russia-Ukraine war. Noting that he had managed four sites on Ukraine’s border with Russia during his military service, he blasted “weak leadership that started in Afghanistan and rolled over to Ukraine.” He continued, “We could have helped that country. We used to be the country that had the backbone to go help. We watched. I’m embarrassed we did that. … That’s not who we are as Americans.”

Woodhouse concurred with Nevarez that these service member’s deaths would be the current president’s legacy. She also mentioned Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Biden appointee confirmed April 7.

“Joe Biden put forth someone who will spend the rest of her life on the Supreme Court who sympathizes with pedophiles, who supports the grooming of our children,” Woodhouse said, referencing allegations that Jackson had imposed unusually lenient sentences for defendants convicted of possessing child pornography.

Burril contrasted the economic climate under Biden with the “roaring economy, where working families had hope and opportunity,” under Trump. And he compared current cultural trends to the freedom of expression he felt with  the former president in power.

“Donald Trump allowed me to push back against the political correctness that I’ve been dealing with for 30 years of my life,” he said. “Oprah Winfrey started it all wherever she started the hyphenated American.  … Donald Trump gave me my voice back to push back against all those people who tell me that I’m the problem.”

Update, 5/6/2022:  Kristie Sluder is a licensed clinical addictions specialist, per her LinkedIn. According to the North Carolina Social Work Certification and Licensure Board, her clinical social worker license was revoked September 23, 2020.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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7 thoughts on “NC-11 Republican candidates debate sans Cawthorn

  1. AVL Republican

    Having been at this debate,. I find it very interesting that when organizers were approached about if they knew Madison Cawthorn would not be attending to which they replied, no. They were then asked why a chair was placed at his spot knowing full well he could not sit in it. After no response to that statement, the organizers were asked if they truly did not know that he would not be there then why it was that the elevated stage that all the candidates were sitting on did not have a ramp or any ADA accessibility whatsoever.
    For the organizers to say he was going to be there and then not provide the necessary space on stage for Congressman Cawthorn’s wheelchair to move about behind the candidates let alone a ramp to get on seems very misrepresented. It also very misleading that no one is mentioning this.

    • El Gordito

      Awww, that’s cute when Republicans play the ADA card. Cowardly Cawthorne just can’t make coherent arguments. He’s another woke conservative traitor trying his best to tear down our democratic institutions.

      I thought the reason he couldn’t make it was he had a hot coke fueled orgy to attend with Mitch “Big Dog” McConnell. Rawr!

      But you are right, they shouldn’t have left an empty chair. An empty wheelchair would have been more appropriate.

  2. John Smith

    If your candidate can’t show up to a debate, you have no candidate.

    Any T***p supporters who criticize JB’s handling of Ukraine are really unbelievable. If the fat orange man was still in charge, this country would be doing nothing to assist the push back again Putin. The Great Pumpkin still can say nothing negative about the man.

  3. Ray

    Thanks for printing the comments of the candidates; because of this I will never stay at the Pisgah Inn again. I do not support companies who support a twice impeached chief executive.

  4. bsh

    Woodhouse continued, “We know the election was stolen. … Had they needed North Carolina to steal it, I’m sure [Democratic N.C Attorney General] Josh Stein had Rubbermaid tubs in the back of his minivan that were ready to do it.”

    Even though Republicans won the state, this candidate accused the AG of fraud anyway. I look forward to a time when remarks like this are disqualifying, when Americans treat each other as those with different opinions rather than as enemies and as malevolent.

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