The four Democratic candidates — including Canton Mayor Pat Smathers — attempted to differentiate themselves to Western North Carolina voters.
The debate, held at Lipinski Auditorium on the University of North Carolina-Asheville campus on Jan. 19, was the first in a series called for by Smathers that will be held across the state.
Attorney Hampton Dellinger, who is attempting to portray himself as the most environmentally progressive candidate, wasted no time in bringing up the issue of a coal-fired power plant that Duke Energy plans to build in Rutherford County. In his opening statement, Dellinger explicitly called out rival candidate and state Sen. Walter Dalton, telling the audience that he and Dalton differ on fundamental issues.
Dellinger specifically said that Dalton wants a coal-fired power plant and is pro-life, while Dellinger is not.
Dalton rebutted, saying, “It’s easy for someone to comb through thousands of votes and distort them.”
“What’s not being said about the coal-fired plant in Cliffside is that it will shut down four dirty plants,” he continued.
Dellinger again seized the chance to bring up the coal-fired plant later in the first round of questions, explaining to the crowd that the coal-fired plant Dalton was talking about would double the amount of CO2 emissions in the state.
According to the debate rules, Dalton was given a chance to respond since Dellinger pointedly used his name.
“Reducing our carbon footprint is critical, but let us not lose sight that we will need generating capacity and we will be shutting down four dirty plants. The other pollutants do decrease under this,” he said.
Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse chimed in during the squabble, taking the opportunity to cast doubt on Dellinger’s commitment to the environmental causes he touts.
“I would have welcomed (Dellinger’s) help last summer,” said Besse, when he appeared before the legislature in an attempt to remove flaws in comprehensive energy legislation that passed this summer.
“Unfortunately, he was not to be seen.”
Smathers refrained from adding his two cents on Dellinger’s stance or personally attacking any of the candidates. He instead stuck to his mantra of “local leadership, statewide,” emphasizing the importance of giving power back to communities.
Smathers took the opportunity to repeat this slogan when he was asked if North Carolina should take the lead on alternative energy sources or trust power companies to make the decisions.
“Think about what effect that would have if the state would assist local governments in equipping them with cleaner vehicles,” he said. He added that a demand for alternative fuels could be created at a local level.
The Canton mayor spoke out against nuclear power, citing a lack of adequate storage solutions. He reminded the audience that at one time, Beaverdam Valley in Haywood County and Leicester in west Buncombe County were studied as potential nuclear dump sites.
Besse also spoke about alternative energy sources. He said the state has enormous potential for wind energy and biofuels, which would serve as economic development opportunities for rural areas.
Another line of questioning for the candidates was on expanding the role of lieutenant governor and what changes they would make to the office.
“(It’s) an opportunity to have the bully pulpit ... to be the voice of the people, and let people know we have to move forward with health care, education and creating jobs,” said Dalton.
Smathers seized on a question about addressing the needs of returning military veterans as a chance to tout himself as the only candidate with military experience.
“We need somebody on the Council of State that will stand up and say we know what the vets are going through.”
“In the communities, local leaders, business people, school people ... take care of their families. Make sure their jobs are protected. When they’re down and out, we need to give them a hand. It’s not going to come from Raleigh — that’s going to come from the local people,” Smathers said.
Smathers moves ahead
Though it’s still very early in the race, Smathers’ message of empowering communities on a local level may be resonating with voters. In a Jan. 9 survey of voter preference by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, Smathers has moved up to first place with 9 percent of the votes. Dalton and Besse are tied in second with 8 percent, and Dellinger dropped to last with 7 percent.
More than two-thirds of voters remain undecided, however.
Smathers also got kudos for his debate performance. BlueNC, a Web site that follows Democrats in the state, posted a review of the debate written by political blogger Gordon Smith of the Web site scrutinyhooligans.us.
“From where I was sitting, local boy Pat Smathers won the first debate. Without pretense, attack, or obfuscation, Smathers laid out a vision for leadership that empowers local leaders to solve problems at the local level through proper support from Raleigh. He stayed out of the Delllinger-Dalton sniping and connected with the audience,” Smith wrote.
The candidates will continue to woo voters at five more debates scheduled around the state in the coming months.