Dems came out swinging in 2018, flipping enough seats to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives and breaking the veto-proof supermajority in the North Carolina General Assembly, but one seat they just couldn’t flip was that of N.C.’s 11th Congressional District Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville.
Three Democrats — Hendersonville physician Scott Donaldson, Pisgah Forest college professor Steve Woodsmall and McDowell County small business owner Phillip Price — competed fiercely for the Democratic nomination, which ultimately went to Price.
Price proved the strongest competitor to Meadows since he first ran in 2012, but Price still lost in 2018 by more than 20 points during an election where Dems made gains across the board, across the country.
As the 2020 campaign began in earnest, Woodsmall again took up the fight, starting his campaign in March 2019. For a long time, he was the only candidate, until Mills River music producer Michael O’Shea joined him in October.
A few days later, courts demanded a re-map of the district, drawing retired Air Force attorney and administrative law judge Moe Davis into the district and into the race on Dec. 2, the first day of the candidate filing period.
Davis, who’d just returned to his native state after a career spent elsewhere, served for a time as the chief prosecutor in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, until his concerns over the torture of suspects at CIA “black sites” led him to resign.
Price had hemmed and hawed over whether to give it another go, and on the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 18, endorsed O’Shea.
Hours later, Meadows stunned the political establishment by announcing he wouldn’t seek reelection to his seat.
The next day — the last day of the candidate filing period — Price jumped back into the race, joining Davis, O’Shea and Woodsmall.
Since then, the four have been hitting the road across this expansive 17-county district in pursuit of the 11th District Democratic nomination that will give one of them the best chance to flip the seat — which still holds a 5 to 7 point Republican lean — in nearly a decade.
As with the serious Republicans in the race there are but minor differences in policy positions among the Democrats, who’ve been listening to each other speak several times a week for several weeks now and are even starting to parrot each other on some issues.
They’re also well aware of the differences among themselves; those differences are nuanced but significant and will ultimately decide who gets to face the Republican nominee in November.
The top five or six issues among Democrats in this race are largely the same, but as a retired Brevard College professor with master’s degree in business administration and a Ph.D. in organization and management, it’s no surprise that Woodsmall takes a 30,000-foot view of all of them.
“The polls show that the top issues are jobs and the economy, but when I go out and talk to people, they’re really concerned about health care,” Woodsmall said. “My personal number one issue, as it has always been, is passing a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. The money issue really is the root cause of basically all the problems we have now.”
Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission was a watershed 2010 Supreme Court ruling that effectively neutered the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act by allowing corporations, labor unions and nonprofits to make independent expenditures on behalf of or in opposition to political candidates.
In 2002, before the Act was passed, Big Pharma made more than $19.3 million in those so-called “soft money” contributions according to OpenSecrets.org, but during the next cycle, that dropped to just $2,250. After Citizens United, that number has ranged from $2.9 million to more than $20 million over a 10-year period during which an opioid crisis has ravaged the nation.
“We can pass federal legislation to hold the drug companies accountable because they’re part of that problem. They never really disclosed the fact that they knew how it addictive those drugs were and they continue to really misrepresent that,” he said.
Transitioning people suffering from addiction to rehab and drug courts instead of incarceration has been slow in coming. Much of rural North Carolina lacks the resources to address the issue in that way.
“We don’t do enough in terms of helping people that have those addiction issues and we’re locking them up when we should be giving them medical attention,” said Woodsmall. “We could always, from the federal level, provide funding to support those kinds of programs.”
Access to health care is also an obstacle to recovery for many as well as a general quality of life issue that’s been debated since long before the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
“I’m absolutely the only one for universal health care, single payer. Not everybody in the race is on that page,” he said. “A couple of folks support the public option, but I’ve done a lot of research on this personally. I’ve gone to numerous presentations by health care professionals and the resounding opinion of the majority is that the dual track system, or the hybrid system as some people call it, will not work for a couple of reasons.”
The first, said Woodsmall, is that preserving the private insurance system maintains the profit motive in health care, which hearkens back to his feelings about Citizens United.
“The second, just from a purely business standpoint, is that if you have a dual track system, the private insurers are going to be very, very selective as to who they will accept, both in terms of for existing conditions and high risk and high cost patients,” he said. “They will only take on people if they know they can make money from them, which is going to overburden the government system with all the high risk and high cost people.”
Candidates on both sides of the aisle agree that the nation’s immigration system is badly broken, including the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Act, which deferred deportation for children unlawfully in the United States; the Trump-ordered cessation of the program is currently on hold in courts.
Perhaps the most insulting failure of the current immigration system has led to the deportation of illegal immigrants who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States; like Moe Davis, Woodsmall is also retired Air Force.
But by far the most visible failure is the separation of children from parents who are apprehended during unlawful border crossings.
“We’ve got to give everybody who wants it a pathway to citizenship. There’s a right way to do that, but we’re treating people who cross the border illegally as felons and we’re putting them in cages and that’s just not the way to do it,” he said. “That’s not the America I think we want. We fail to remember that this country was founded by dreamers, for dreamers. Now that the old white people have gotten theirs, they want to keep the brown people out, which is absolutely ridiculous. That’s not what America’s all about.”
One thing America is all about, is guns — enshrined in the Second Amendment, the creator-endowed right to bear arms has led to the United States having both the highest per-capita gun ownership rate in the world (120 firearms per 100 residents) and the greatest number of firearms in the world, almost 400 million or more than the next 42 nations combined.
“One of my mantras on the gun issue in this country is, it’s not a Second Amendment issue, it is absolutely a public safety issue,” he said. “Other than the money from the NRA and gun manufacturers, one of the reasons we can’t address that problem is because the people on the right are framing it from the fear perspective that everybody’s going to take away your guns.”
Woodsmall favors reasonable, responsible gun ownership and approves of restrictions on certain weapons, magazines and ammunition as well as an assault weapons ban, like the one that expired in 2004.
“We have kids doing active shooter drills in kindergarten on the first day of school with Walmart selling bulletproof backpacks,” he said. “You know, 97 percent of gun owners want more restrictions on guns. It’s not the gun owners that are the problem. Going back to my experience as a management expert, a huge part of being able to solve a problem effectively is how you frame that problem. And we’ve got to do a better job of framing that problem for what it is, which is a public safety issue.”
Bringing Woodsmall’s management and money-focused platform full circle is the issue of the federal deficit, which has counterintuitively increased during a purportedly fiscally conservative Republican administration to levels not seen since the outset of the Great Recession in 2008.
“The deficit has been run up by the Trump administration at the expense of the working people,” said Woodsmall. “Immediately after he got elected, they added $1 trillion to the deficit right out of the gate and passed that tax cut for the top 1 percent.”
The deficit is the difference between the amount of revenue the federal government collects and spends. When it spends more than it collects, it incurs a deficit and has to borrow to make up the difference. That adds to the national debt, which as of press time was more than $23 trillion.
“We need to level out the tax base. We need to look at where we’re spending our money,” he said. “I’ll say this as a veteran and people raise their eyebrows when I do, but we’ve got to look at the defense budget, which is roughly $750 billion.”
The real war, Woodsmall said, is a cyber war, and the U.S. isn’t spending nearly enough money on it.
“I tell people all the time, I took the oath of office numerous times in the military, very similar to the oath that people take in Congress and that is to support and defend the Constitution and represent the people that you’re elected to represent,” he said. “It’s not to represent big money, it’s not to be loyal to the occupant of the White House or the Freedom Caucus or the party or the big donors. It’s about representing people here, and I think I can make a really good case to do that.”
As the field’s only millennial, O’Shea has maintained a message grounded in that identity and in the fact that he and his cohorts will be the ones to experience the greatest effects of contemporary policymaking for the greatest amount of time.
“My top issues are economic inequality and climate change,” said O’Shea. “I have a hard time prioritizing which one is first, because I think they’re both super pressing and right now we need to be addressing things on multiple fronts.”
Most people in the 17-county 11th District are focused on the immediacies of poverty and health care access, he said, and those are largely issues of economic inequality. The way they all intertwine helps sustain the opioid crisis.
Although opioid addiction transcends geography and demographics, O’Shea’s fellow millennials were the first to bear witness to heretofore unthinkable levels of supply.
“One of my best childhood friends actually went through opioid addiction after he graduated with a 4.0 [gpa] from Western Carolina University. He couldn’t find a job in the Great Recession and I think that became a barrier for him in finding mental health counseling,” O’Shea said. “I think addiction directly stems from that, as well as economic prospects. When people are desperate, they turn to drugs. I think that’s obvious.”
Unwinding the opioid crisis, according to O’Shea, is about treating opioids as a health care issue and getting the money out of medicine.
“We have for-profit insurance companies, and a for-profit health care industry,” he said. “I think that one of the reasons why we need to get profit out of health care is so there’s no profit motive to push pills, the same way we need to get profit out of the prison system, so there’s no profit motive to lock people up for their addiction problems.”
Profit motive is also partly at play in the nation’s immigration debate; employers can exploit undocumented workers with fewer repercussions than they can citizens, and for-profit prisons have been cashing in on the commodification of illegal immigrants, housing up to 73 percent of detainees according to a 2018 New York Times report.
“Yeah, we absolutely need to create a real, sensible path to citizenship,” said O’Shea, recalling an acquaintance’s reckoning with an extended, aggravating process. “There really isn’t one right now that doesn’t take extraordinarily long. It’s no wonder a lot of people end up here illegally. We can’t really stop the fact that they’re seeking asylum from their own countries, but we can make there be a path where they can come and pay taxes and contribute to our society instead of simply being in a position where they can’t pay taxes and they’re exploited by their employers.”
O’Shea’s generation has also been among the first to grow up with mass shootings as a regular occurrence.
“I was 12 years old when Columbine happened. Since then, the only major change to gun legislation that we’ve seen is they’ve let the federal ban on assault style weapons expire,” he said.
“Nothing me or anyone else on this slate are proposing [in terms of gun reform] are things that are wanted by less than half of America,” he said. “And most of these proposals are wanted by far more than that.”
O’Shea sees the trade off between losing some of his own rights and reducing some deaths as being a fair one.
“My wife teaches first grade, they have to do drills for this,” he said. “No one is getting out of elementary school without knowing exactly why they’re selling bulletproof backpacks at Walmart.”
Deficit spending is another one of those long-term issues that concern millennials like O’Shea, who’ll be making the interest payments on the nation’s growing $23 trillion debt for a lot longer than his competitors.
No single generation’s going to pay that off, but as Baby Boomers exit prime earning years and the much smaller Generation X steps up to service that debt, it’s millennials that will eventually end up on the hook.
“Yes. Literally. I mean, this is, this is something I like to joke about, that I’m 20 years younger than the next person on this slate and I don’t want to be living with it in my sixties,” he said.
The answer isn’t in spending less, said O’Shea, it’s in spending smart, on things like Medicare for All.
“I’m not willing to spend $600 billion extra in order to keep private insurance companies profitable,” said O’Shea of the potential savings he thinks implementation could provide. “Right now you have one in five children living in food insecure homes and childhood poverty is socially costing us over $1 trillion a year. The universal basic income proposal that I back would cost about $539 billion and take a huge dent out of the long term ramifications of poverty.”
Other proposals O’Shea says foster economic equality include an end to incarceration for minor drug crimes, closing corporate tax loopholes, fairer taxes for the middle class, lower spending on defense and the abolishment of student loan debt.
“A lot of my platform really is about spending more efficiently and getting that under control,” he said. “The things that differentiate me I think from everyone else are things like universal basic income. I’m the only candidate who’s been talking about things like Cambridge Analytica and the effects of social media companies on election process and how to address the oncoming changes in our modern economy because of automation and artificial intelligence.”
While O’Shea’s millennial generation will have to live through the consequences of those decisions for longer than most, but thanks to the proliferation of mass shootings, the scourge of opioids and the effects of global warming, they’ve already lived through more than most.
Like Woodsmall, Price ran in 2018 and as such came into this race with a cross-district network of supporters and a familiarity with the issues that affect residents of the 11th Congressional District, from Murphy to Montford.
“I’ve lived in six counties of the district for over 36 years and owned a small business for over 20 years, as well as been married for 23 years into a family that has deep roots throughout this district,” Price said.
As his campaign has evolved, so have his positions; while he still thinks that health care is the top issue, it’s rooted in the generational poverty that makes the 11th District the second-poorest congressional district in North Carolina and 393rd out of 436 congressional districts in terms of median household income.
“I’m supporting Medicare for all,” he said. “It would increase funding for mental health and I think that’s a big part of combating the opioid problem. The health care system could have a positive effect on that problem. My whole four-legged platform is about improving the economic situation in Western North Carolina. That would help with the opioid problem because I think that a lot of cases where people get hooked on opioids, it’s just out of desperation and depression due to their economic position. When you’re poor, when you don’t have a job, you don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”
Admitting that there are other factors at play, Price said that the opioid crisis isn’t strictly confined to the poor, although WNC skirts the underbelly of the opioid belt, a massive piece of real estate that stretches from central West Virginia down through eastern Kentucky and neighboring East Tennessee.
“That can be because of different reasons like over-prescribing of opioids and not understanding the power of the drugs and being misled by the pharmaceutical industry itself,” he said. “I think that they are guilty of pushing the drugs on the country and being misleading about their addictiveness.”
Streamlining the immigration system is another priority among both Democrats and Republicans, but the Dems at least agree on one tactic that won’t fix the problem.
“I don’t believe it involves a wall,” said Price. “I believe that we need to employ more asylum judges and case workers that can handle the flow of asylum seekers at the border so that we don’t have to turn them away and I believe that we need to address the people in the United States that employ undocumented immigrants and penalize them. We’ve got to provide an easier path to citizenship that doesn’t take years and years.”
On gun reform, Price maintains a position that implementing stricter controls shouldn’t upset adherents to the “shall not infringe” mantra.
“It is not an infringement on the Second Amendment to require universal background checks, to require registering a weapon as you would an automobile,” he said.
That includes re-registration when firearms are sold so that if crimes are committed, responsible parties can be located and held accountable.
“It wouldn’t be as easy for a child to get a hold of a weapon or a neighbor or friend or a spouse or somebody because people would be more conscious about where that weapon is at all times,” Price said.
The nation’s growing budget deficit results from two components — income, and expenditure. Price has ideas about both.
“The first thing I would do is rework the tax code. We have to get the 1 percent, the wealthiest at the top, to pay their fair share, and we must get corporations to actually pay taxes,” he said. “Many, many corporations pay zero percent. That ain’t right.”
On the spending side, Price notes that taxpayers pay approximately $300 billion a year for “bodyguards” [U.S. military personnel] whose mission is essentially to protect the interests of oil companies overseas. According to Reagan-era Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, that’s almost half of all military spending.
“We, the taxpayers, are paying basically mercenaries to protect a private industry’s product overseas,” he said. “That ties into my environmental policy. We’ve got to get off of fossil fuel immediately and as soon as we have no more interest in fossil fuels, there’s $300 billion-plus in our budget that could be reallocated somewhere else, like health care.”
If he again receives the Democratic nomination in the 11th District, Price will draw on a life lived in the Western North Carolina mountains as inspiration for his campaign against whomever emerges from the Republican side.
“I aspire to not just represent my party. I am running for this office to represent every single person in the 11th District. The reason that I believe that I’m the best choice for that job is that I have the most comprehensive understanding of who the people are, how they live and where they live. I am a product of Western North Carolina. I have friends who live in single-wide trailers and some who live in million-dollar homes. I get along with all of them. To represent a group of people, you must be one of them, and I am one of us.”
A bit of a celebrity before he even entered the race, Shelby native Col. Morris Davis is a familiar face to regular viewers of ABC, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, NPR and Fox News, and has a social media presence that ranges far and wide. But still, he admits he’s a bit behind in his efforts.
“The biggest challenge right now is just time, as I was the last one to start running after it became apparent that they were going to un-gerrymander the district,” said Davis. “I think we’ve had a fundraising advantage over the other candidates so we’re able to do advertising and that kind of outreach that they can’t afford to do.”
From a legal or law-enforcement perspective, Davis says that the opioid crisis is a multifaceted problem, but there are steps that can be taken on a federal level.
“There’s not a whole lot of difference between what’s happened with opioids and your regular drug cartel selling other drugs,” he said. “It was apparent that the company knew the addictive properties. They knew they were marketing to people that in many cases didn’t need the product. You had doctors that were willing to violate their oath in order to profit off of it and I think if we had a robust criminal prosecution of the enablers it would be a real deterrent because something else will come along behind this as the next drug crisis.”
The health care industry is a cause of, and perhaps a solution to, the negative impact of opioids; Davis’ position on health care differs from his opponents — most notably, Woodsmall — in that he thinks there’s still a place for a private option.
“My position is that health care is a fundamental human right. Everyone should have the ability to get treatment, whether it’s mental health or the flu,” he said. “I would support making a government-funded healthcare program available to everyone.”
What he wouldn’t do is advocate for that to be the only option.
“Many of the labor unions have negotiated good health care for their members and there’s some people that have health care that they like,” Davis said. “The bottom line is we’ve got to have some of those Republican votes and if you say we’re going to force you onto a government plan and you have no choice, we’ll be sitting around two years from now trying to figure out how we can flip this district.”
Immigration reform, for Davis, means holding employers who hire illegal immigrants accountable.
“Like our president, who’s hired dozens of undocumented workers because they’re easy to exploit,” he said. “Right now, the system focuses on the powerless rather than the powerful. So if you put Trump in prison for a couple of weeks, I imagine that employers would take their obligation more seriously than they do.”
Davis also decries the elimination of DACA deferrals, the deportation of veterans and the scarcity of resources needed to process immigration requests.
“I retired as an administrative law judge for the Department of Labor and I’ve got friends that are immigration judges,” he said. “They’re just overwhelmed with cases. A lot of the folks coming to the border are legitimate asylum seekers that are fleeing poverty and persecution, and we need to have more judges in place so they get a prompt hearing on their asylum claims rather than being turned away.”
As a hunter who grew up in rural Cleveland County as well as a career military veteran, Davis holds strong feelings on the Second Amendment.
“If you’ve seen the Jim Davis ad, him standing there with a pistol and a pile of cheeseburgers, he said the liberal Democrats are going to come take your guns and your cheeseburgers,” he said. “He says he’s going to go to Washington and stand up and fight to save your guns and your cheeseburgers. Well, I’ve got guns, and a grill, so his argument is what I would call fake news.”
In a perfect world, only military personnel have assault weapons, according to Davis. He supports a constitutional right to own pistols, rifles and shotguns, as well as stricter background checks and red flag laws. He also supports a national policy that would allow for more than just those three firearms, but only after extensive training, testing and licensing.
Finally, in reference to the deficit, Davis blames the Trump tax cuts and a bloated military budget.
“I would begin by repealing the Trump tax cuts and that would essentially put us back to zero,” he said. “I taught fiscal law at the Air Force JAG school. In my view, our fiscal policy is upside down and top-driven rather than bottom-lifting. We have a system where at the end of the fiscal year in September, you’re encouraged to go out and spend every penny you’ve got because if you don’t spend it this year, you obviously don’t need it next year.”
As to the effect Trump will have on the race for the 11th Congressional District seat currently held by one of his biggest supporters, Davis believes that Trump has done himself and his party few favors over the past few years.
“Clearly, Democrats are energized and they’re going to turn out and they’re going to vote,” he said. “I think there are enough of those old traditional Reagan Republicans out there that are offended by Trump’s conduct and offended by those that enable it. They’re offended by the debt and the deficit. I think that I can win over those disaffected Republicans that believe in sanity, so I’m as optimistic I can win in March as I can win in November.”
North Carolina House District 11 Democrats
• Age: 61
• Residence: Asheville
• Occupation: retired Air Force attorney, judge
• Political experience: First campaign
• Age: 32
• Residence: Mills River
• Occupation: Music producer
• Political experience: First campaign
• Age: 53
• Residence: Dysartsville, McDowell County
• Occupation: Antique wood recycling business owner
• Political experience: Successful 2018 bid for 11th Congressional District Democratic nomination, lost to Rep. Mark Meadows in the General Election
• Age: 64
• Residence: Pisgah Forest
• Occupation: Retired college professor, retired Air Force
• Political experience: Unsuccessful 2018 bid for 11th Congressional District Democratic nomination
Candidates that do not live in a particular congressional district are still eligible to run in that district. At the close of the filing period, the following candidates had also declared their intent to run but with addresses outside the 11th Congressional District.
• Gina Collias, Kings Mountain
• Dan Driscoll, Winston-Salem
• Steven Fekete, Jr., Lenoir
• Dillon S. Gentry, Banner Elk
• Wayne King, Kings Mountain
• Joey Osborne, Hickory
• Vance Patterson, Morganton