Swain County Republican Mike Clampitt first tested the waters back in 2012, when he was unopposed in the Primary Election. He lost that year’s General Election by just over a thousand votes — less than 4 percent — to Queen.
The next go-round, Clampitt faced fellow Republicans Aaron Littlefield and Dodie Allen in the primary, beating both by more than 40 percentage points, but again lost to Queen by just over a thousand votes — this time, about 5 percent.
In 2016, Clampitt was again unopposed in the primary, but the General Election held a different result, with Clampitt besting Queen by a margin of just 277 votes, or less than 1 percent.
Some may chalk that up to an “if at first you don’t succeed …” mentality, but there’s little doubt the substantial surge of support for long-shot presidential candidate Donald Trump had something to do with the 1,500-vote swing to Clampitt between 2014 and 2016.
Last time, in 2018, Trump wasn’t on the ballot per se, and Clampitt — again unopposed in the Primary Election — lost his seat to Queen by about 1,400 votes, or less than 5 percent.
This time, though, there’s a serious challenger to Clampitt in the Republican primary.
“One of the big motivations is that nobody’s really thrown their name in that ring for about 10 years,” said Jackson County Commissioner Ron Mau, a Republican who resides in Cullowhee. “And in going through my process to make my decision, we — and when I say we, there’s a group of us that were working on this — we realized one of the biggest comments was, “it’s time for a new voice in the district, for District 119, in Raleigh. It’s time for something different.”
Different isn’t always better just for the sake of being different, but Mau thinks he has some insight into why voters would choose a name they don’t know as well as Clampitt’s.
“I think my experience as a county commissioner is a big plus,” said Mau. “I don’t believe Mr. Clampitt has been a county commissioner, and I know from talking to former and current members in the General Assembly who had been county commissioners that that has been an invaluable experience to them.”
Mau’s got a point, especially in the deep-red west, where a virtual Republican machine has enjoyed a very orderly and calculated hold on power that has almost without exception flowed through the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
First, it was Franklin Republican Jim Davis, who left the commission to become a state senator. School board member Kevin Corbin was appointed to his commission seat and later ran for state House, winning two terms. When Davis announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to his Senate seat, it was Corbin who declared his intent to follow in Davis’ footsteps. Macon County Commissioner Karl Gillespie, in turn, is now running unopposed for Kevin Corbin’s House seat.
Davis has consistently referred to himself as a misplaced county commissioner and may now take that county-level mentality all the way to Washington, D.C., as a frontrunner in the race to replace Congressman Mark Meadows.
Mau hopes a similar focus will send him to Raleigh.
”You know, I’ve been on the receiving end of the unfunded mandates and have had to deal with those, but that will help me in Raleigh,” he said. “When there’s an unfunded mandate that comes from Raleigh, it’s usually a commissioner that’s figured out how to deal with it.”
Mau said he’s focused on a few main issues.
“One is making sure that North Carolina and the district are competitive from an economic standpoint,” he said. “That could be a whole host of things. We’ve got to make sure we’re competitive in the region to attract businesses and make it easy for entrepreneurs to create jobs, which is good for everybody.”
The other is education. Mau’s background is in education, his wife’s background is in education and both his parents have a background in education, as does his sister.
“I’ve seen what teachers have to deal with, and what we have to do to help make education better,” he said.
Perhaps tying both of those issues together is the subject of high-speed internet access, which is touted as both an economic driver and a boon to students. In rural Western North Carolina, it’s nearly impossible to find affordable broadband and the problem gets worse the further west one travels.
“Right now it’s sort of messed up,” said Clampitt. “It’s messed up in the sense that Frontier is looking at going into bankruptcy in the spring. They’ve been the sole provider here. I don’t know what ‘s going to happen, but we’re going to have to have technology solve that problem with 5G micro towers, because putting stuff in the ground is cost prohibitive.”
Clampitt and other WNC legislators, including Queen and Corbin, have attempted to address the problem and so far haven’t seen much success. But if the issue of high-speed internet access is going to be solved in the legislature, it’s going to be solved by experienced legislators, according to Clampitt.
“Having had the previous experience of being in the House as a legislator and addressing the needs in Swain, Jackson and Haywood County, this race is about having experience over a newcomer,” he said.
That experience has led Clampitt to focus on some of the more theoretical, big-picture issues faced not only in places like Bryson City, but also in Boston, Baltimore and beyond.
“That would be the Second Amendment, freedom of speech, personal property rights and being pro-life,” he said. “The bill that [Gov. Roy Cooper] vetoed on live-birth abortion is a real stigma in a lot of people’s eyes. My competitor that I’ve had in the past [Queen], if I’m facing him in November he’s sided politically with the governor on that, and that’s just not a real mountain cultural value.”
Another issue that Clampitt somewhat unwittingly found himself at the center of a few years back was the debate over cannabis, both medical and recreational. As more and more states — most recently, Illinois — continue the march toward nationwide recreational legalization, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that debate playing out in the North Carolina General Assembly over the next few years.
“I don’t immediately see a trend to legalize recreational marijuana, simply because some say it’s a gateway drug and some say it’s not,” he said. “Now, the CBD and the cannabis that’s used for pain management, you know I do see a use for that medically. Given the group that will hopefully be elected, I don’t see legalization of the intoxicating form of cannabis.”
Although there’s support for legalization in the agricultural community, there’s also plenty of opposition from law enforcement and other constituencies that don’t want recreational cannabis in their communities. Mau, like Rep. Queen has said in the past, is adopting a wait-and-see attitude.
“I would probably tend to let the CBD part of that mature, but monitor and see what happens,” said Mau. “We have some natural experiments going on, so we can see what’s happening — what are the issues, what are the problems. I have heard about the law enforcement issues. I’ve seen some articles that state that. And then there’s also, I believe in Colorado and Oregon, they’ve had a drop in overdoses from opioids and a lot of that is credited to the legalization of marijuana, so you’re talking about saving people’s lives.”
The legalization of recreational cannabis is an especially hard ask, given how the opioid crisis has ravaged Western North Carolina; right or wrong, many people have been reluctant to add another intoxicating substance to the mix while still dealing with a supposedly safe drug that has clearly and severely decimated an entire generation.
“We’ve got to address the opioid issue,” said Clampitt. “Incarceration is not always the answer. We’ve got to get these people some help and it’s not just the Narcan, it’s about achieving recovery after the identification of what their problem is.”
Clampitt was an ardent supporter of Sen. Davis’ STOP Act, as well as several subsequent pieces of legislation designed to stem the diversion of legal opioids to illegal street-level distributors. He’s also been a proponent of needle exchange programs.
“I supported all of those efforts in the sense that they are protection for the public and first responders,” he said. “I advocated for getting something that would do away with the stigma of ‘needle exchange’ programs I call the mobile infectious disease unit and will continue to do that.”
Mau says those measures have put North Carolina ahead of the curve and earned national notice.
“I have a son who worked on Capitol Hill and his experience up there was that, after all those bills were passed, North Carolina was kind of looked at as the model, so we’re making progress and we’ve just got to make sure that it stays in the forefront,” said Mau. “I think there’s still people maybe not fully aware of just how much of a problem it is in the region. North Carolina has made some great progress, and we’ve got to keep that moving forward.”
The recognition that the opioid crisis is not simply a law enforcement issue is an important one, but as it transitions from a problem for cops to a problem for docs, another contentious and as yet unresolved issue is the debate over access to health care.
“There are some potential issues with Medicaid expansion,” Mau said. “Estimates are over the next 10 years it will cost the state $6 billion. So, where does that money come from? That is a big thing. And so we have to figure that out. How are you going to pay for it? Is there a way to pay for it? Is that more taxes? Do you take money from other programs?”
Mau also cited a frequent argument made by Rep. Queen in favor of expansion, namely that it would also create lots of jobs and economic activity. Mau’s not buying those claims.
“That’s happening in urban areas, but the research says that has not been the result in rural areas,” said Mau. “If your hospitals and other medical institutions are not improving financially, it is hard to expand your workforce. That’s what the research has indicated, and that was done by the University of North Carolina. So right now I’m not proponent of Medicaid expansion because of the cost.”
Clampitt, in this case at least, agrees with Mau.
“The thing about it is, we got the state back on track economically with jobs, curbing debt to the feds and stabilizing the state’s retirement system, which does need a little more work,” Clampitt said. “We took ourselves out of the hole, but expansion to Medicaid has to be paid somehow, so if we can come up a way for financing it, I’m all for it, but to just arbitrarily say ‘We’re going to do it,’ and then the feds leave us holding the bag, I’m not for that.”
Mau said he’s aware of the alternative proposal backed by Rep. Corbin — called Carolina Cares — but hasn’t yet formulated an opinion on it. Clampitt said he’s open to the idea.
“I could go with what Kevin is saying on that,” Clampitt said. “It’s one of those things where they’ve researched it, looked at it and seen the cost value of that expense so if it’s a workable solution that doesn’t increase the tax burden on everybody, then I can go that route.”
Just as in the 2016 General Election, the issues mentioned by Clampitt and Mau may end up taking a back seat to the candidates at the top of the ticket; Clampitt was one of the few candidates at that time to declare that Republicans were united behind then-candidate Trump, and one of even fewer candidates to predict Trump’s victory and the effect he would have on down-ballot Republican races across the country, including his own.
Two weeks ago, Clampitt told The Smoky Mountain News that he believes Republicans will take back the District 119 House seat, whether it’s him or Mau who gets to face Queen.
Last week, Clampitt doubled down on his prediction.
“He’s going to win again, regardless of what the left spins. Their selling out of America to socialism has turned people off. Let’s look what Trump’s done in his four years being in office — I never thought I’d see the stock market go to almost 30,000. I never thought I would see so many businesses have help wanted signs up,” he said. “Trump will win by a landslide. And all Republicans that will be on the ballot, unless there’s some major blow up between now and November, I’ll think all the Republicans on the ballot will do well because of good business sense, commitment to the Second Amendment, free speech and pro-life values.”
N.C. House District 119
• Age: 64
• Residence: Swain County
• Occupation: Retired fire captain
• Political experience: One-term N.C. House representative, three-time unsuccessful House candidate
• Age: 55
• Residence: Cullowhee
• Occupation: Finance and economics professor, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
• Political experience: Former board member, Forest Hills, first-term Jackson County commissioner, unsuccessful candidate for chairman of Jackson County Commission