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Clampitt, Queen face off for fifth time

Rep. Joe Sam Queen (left) is seeking his fourth term in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Mike Clampitt defeated Joe Sam Queen in 2016, but lost to him in 2018. Cory Vaillancourt photos Rep. Joe Sam Queen (left) is seeking his fourth term in the North Carolina House of Representatives. Mike Clampitt defeated Joe Sam Queen in 2016, but lost to him in 2018. Cory Vaillancourt photos

They’ve now run against each other five times in 10 years so there’s not much voters don’t know about them already, but the first question of the Blue Ridge Public Radio/Smoky Mountain News forum Sept. 24 between Democratic Rep. Joe Sam Queen and his Republican challenger Mike Clampitt took a more substantial purview of their decade-long feud.

“It’s been a fun 10 years,” said Clampitt, when asked how he’d changed in the 10 years since he first ran against Queen for the District 119 House seat. Priorities, he said, are the same, with a few modifications — business difficulties blamed on Gov. Roy Cooper’s decisions about COVID-19, and public safety issues raised by civil unrest across the country. 

Queen, for his part, framed his answer in terms of the pandemic, which has lain bare gross inequalities in high-speed internet access, a gutted state unemployment system and, most importantly, health care coverage that could be provided through Medicaid expansion. 

“It has really risen in my priorities,” Queen said of Medicaid, something he’s championed for several years now. 

That question set the tone for a debate that was anything but ordinary, due to a number of topics Queen and Clampitt have never had to campaign on until now – the Coronavirus Pandemic, and an American reckoning with race not seen since the 1960s, if ever. 

“History is history,” Clampitt said, when asked about a state law that takes the power to remove or relocate monuments out of the hands of local governments and consolidates it in Raleigh. 

The Confederate monument in Jackson County has been a flashpoint for the community all summer long, with some demanding removal or revision. Clampitt decried the violence sometimes associated with protests demanding the removal of such monuments, and said he supports the law. 

“The bottom line is, we’re not teaching the real history. We’ve done away with U.S. history, we’ve taken discipline out of the schools, we’ve taken the pledge out of schools and we’re taking prayer out of schools. I’m a traditionalist,” he said. “I think we need to go back to those things and keep doing those things, and those things are very important for our society, our morality and our youth. And no, I’m not going to take and go for any statues being taken down.”

If a small-government conservative arguing for big-government regulations on statues isn’t an odd enough juxtaposition, Queen said he’s in favor of local control of such issues. 

“I like statues. I’m an architect. I think they’re part of the civic fabric, but I think you have to let your community have the discussions around these,” he said. “When it comes to the Confederacy there is a lot of different opinions and all of those opinions need to be heard in a community, so I would be interested in letting the locals put together any review program that they feel is appropriate and continue to maintain their statues and their monuments as they see fit.”

Affordable housing has also been a major issue in Western North Carolina, due to the lack of developable land, the expensive logistics of site preparation work and red-hot real estate markets that have defied the depressive economic effects of the pandemic. It’s been a tough nut to crack, and government intervention isn’t usually welcomed in one of the most capitalist economic sectors of the U.S. economy. 

“When we grow out of this recession, housing needs to be part of the plan,” said Queen. “Affordable housing — it’s two words there. One of them is ‘affordable.’ I’m really working hard for better wages, higher wages, living wages, that is a big priority of mine. And then, equity-building housing is a big priority of mine because if you want to enter the middle class, one of the best ways is to get a good education, a good job and buy a house that builds equity.”

While Queen advocated for a wage-based solution to the crisis, Clampitt accused Queen of doing little during his terms in the House and the Senate to combat the problem and proposed letting the market solve the issue on its own – something that hasn’t yet happened. 

“We need to have a job market that has affordable housing so that they can go to their employers. We will be coming out of this,” Clampitt said. “This pandemic will not last forever, when it does end, we’ll see a greater better North Carolina and Western North Carolina. I can guarantee it.”

While the first three questions were presented by moderators, the rest were crowdsourced — either from members of the community or from Facebook during the live stream of the debate. The first community question came from Patsy Davis, executive director of social service agency Mountain Projects, which is active in Haywood and Jackson counties. 

What, she asked, are some ways taxpayer money can be spent more wisely to help more people out of poverty?

The lack of public transportation and the opioid crisis are major factors, according to Clampitt, who continued to tie Queen to Cooper with gripes about COVID-related business closures. 

“So it’s hard to get people out to work because [businesses are] not there, thanks to the governor. A lot of businesses closed thanks to Mr. Queen siding with the governor on not opening gyms and businesses and outdoor eating at restaurants,” Clampitt said. “So thank you, Mr. Queen, for adding to our joblessness in North Carolina, because that’s where it’s at. Right now, we have people that could be hired, could be working a job, but because of the closure and shutdowns with the state, they can’t go to work.”

Firing back, Queen suggested economic recovery was predicated upon emerging from the pandemic safely, and that resources were best spent on early childhood education, higher education and housing. 

“I was a great believer in the G.I. Bill that it got my father out of poverty and got my family on a good track to a middle-class lifestyle, a rising lifestyle,” he said. 

Nate Hadley, a senior at Western Carolina University and editor-in-chief of the school’s paper The Western Carolina Journalist, wanted to know more about what, exactly, being “pro-education” really means. 

Queen reiterated support for early childhood education but blamed Republicans’ 10-year grip on legislative power in Raleigh for undermining community colleges and the state’s university system. 

“The universities have been cut 25 percent in this decade by the Republican majority, the great university system of North Carolina that drives our economy. It’s really a key to North Carolina’s success … You have to fund them. You have to give them the budget,” he said. “You cannot cut their budget. You cannot cut their support. You have to support them, and universities, I’ve said the same thing, it’s very important to fund them, and that’s what I have done.”

A product of the community college system himself, Clampitt said he was the poster child for vocational education and called for such coursework to be implemented at the high school freshman level. He also touted his advocacy on behalf of WCU during his lone House term that resulted in funding for the school’s aging steam plant, while Queen pointed out that he’d helped fund the building in which the forum was being held. 

The final community question, from Katherine Gantt, a school psychologist and Swain County resident, addressed North Carolina’s potential appetite for the legalization of medicinal or medical cannabis, and the resultant benefits to the state’s agricultural sector. 

“As far as recreational marijuana, the answer is no,” Clampitt said. “We have enough issues on the roads and highways with accidents involving people with number one, prescription drugs, number two, legal alcohol and also with these other drugs that people are abusing out there. So, no, I will not support any kind of legislation at all, now, in the future or ever for recreational marijuana.”

He did, however, express support for strictly-monitored hemp farming of the sort that had been implemented in a Haywood County pilot program implemented a few years ago. 

Both candidates acknowledged the crop’s affinity for the sun and soils of Western North Carolina, and the possibility it could help fill the hole left by the decimation of the state’s tobacco industry; Queen remains open to the idea of recreational marijuana and supports medicinal use. 

“I have been very cautious about legalizing recreational marijuana in North Carolina. I am waiting for results from the dozen or so states that have already done it and how they’re doing,” he said. “I have a lot of folks that certainly think medical marijuana would be very helpful and I definitely think it should be decriminalized as a product. So, I am not for it at the present time, but I am open to the research and the follow-through for the conversation in the future.”

The first of the Facebook live questions came from Haywood County resident Christian Burnett, who asked about the candidates’ respective stances on the defund the police movement and how they planned to support law enforcement. 

The issue is a contentious one, and on the minds of many voters especially as House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, recently accused Democratic legislative candidates — including Queen — of pledging to defund police in North Carolina. The so-called “pledge” Moore refers to contains no mention of defunding police. Democrats called Moore’s efforts to tar them a distortion. 

“It’s annoying when Speaker Moore has a press conference and says that a number of us are for defunding the police and then they create — with professional liars — a website to send you to, to believe that,” said Queen. “I have supported my local law enforcement. I have never said one word, done one deed, to indicate I am defunding the police. I support local law enforcement. I support their need for resources.”

But Queen said he recognized the need for law enforcement accountability, as well as law enforcement’s role as a larger part of the community. 

“We’re in an era where law enforcement has had some real issues,” he said. “This Black Lives Matter and the conversation that America is having about race and justice is a very real one, but the police and our law enforcement are a real important part of that discussion.”

Rattling off a list of endorsements, including many by law enforcement organizations, Clampitt said he wasn’t aware of any such law enforcement endorsements for Queen, and resorted to using a visual aid to claim Queen was anti-law enforcement. 

“I’m holding in my hand an item that came in the mail and it says, ‘Joe Sam Queen, defund the police, put our families in danger,’” Clampitt said. “He says he supports police. He voted four times on roll call votes in 2019. I can give you the dates. 5-2, 5-3, 6-26, 6-27, and the roll call votes on those, those numbers don’t lie, ladies and gentlemen. It’s in print.”

They don’t lie, but they do get distorted — the four votes listed on the mailer were procedural votes that didn’t factor in to the passage of any bill; legislators will often oppose early versions of a bill or budget that they actually support, in hopes of forcing changes. 

“That couldn’t be any further from the truth. That’s a straight-up lie,” Queen said of Clampitt’s prop. “That document he showed is a straight-up lie. The four things that they quote there is voting on the budget bill. Voting on it twice. We voted on it twice, a first reading and second reading. So that’s four votes. It doesn’t have a thing to do with defunding the police.”

Instead, Queen said that law enforcement got raises while more than 70 percent of other state employees did not. 

“This is just a part of President Trump and part of Speaker Moore’s effort to change the conversation from their pandemic responses,” Queen said. “They’re defunding education. They’re defunding healthcare. They’re defunding environmental protection. They are the defunders.”

Elaine Slocum, a Bryson City resident, commented during the live stream that $7.25 was not a living wage, and asked about a $15 minimum wage; advocates of the so-called “living wage” calculate the value by factoring in the costs housing, energy and consumables, which in Western North Carolina is suggested to be usually around $15-16 an hour. 

“If you are a business and you’ve got 10 employees and you’re going to give all of them a $15 raise and you may have to lay five of them off, so the other five can have $15, is that equitable? I don’t think so,” Clampitt said. “I don’t think it’s the government’s job and I will not enter into telling businesses what their pay rates and rates of hour or salary should be. That should be left up to the business owner and based on the business owner’s practices. If they’re good practices, he’ll turn a profit. When they turn a profit, they usually pass that on to the employees.”

Queen, however, supports the idea of raising the federal minimum wage, which hasn’t changed since June, 2009. 

“You cannot live on $7.35, so I am in favor of raising the minimum wage and I would aim for $15 because I think that’s about where it ought to be myself,” he said.

The final question, from Chris Taber of Sylva, was about candidate support for mandatory mask mandates and the enforcement thereof, especially in local businesses that flaunt guidelines issued by public health officials — another contentious topic in which Republicans have tried to tie Democratic opponents to Gov. Cooper’s series of executive orders on the pandemic. 

“I would like to see that enforced appropriately. We know that in this pandemic, social distancing and masks will keep all of us safe. I want everybody to live their full, productive life and be safe,” Queen said. “So, I support masks and I support the governor’s authority to mandate them. If you’re walking out in open air, you don’t have to wear one, but if you’re going to go into a shop, into a store, into an enclosed environment, it’s my opinion in this pandemic from the research I’ve seen [that] it’s in all of our public health interest to wear a mask.”

Queen doubled down on his opinion that economic recovery could only occur once the pandemic had been safely neutralized. 

“If you see the scientific studies that we’ve been presented at the legislature on how important it is, then you would know you will do this,” he said. “You will do it for your family. You’ll do it for your neighbor’s family. You’ll do it for your community. We’re in this together.”

Clampitt called Queen a “parrot” for Cooper, who’s been maligned by the right — including his General Election opponent, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest — for his handling of the pandemic. 

“I believe in vaccine and mask choice, that should be left up to an individual. With that being said, no one has the right to close, or say that our churches need be closed because of the pandemic,” said Clampitt. “Nothing trumps our state and federal constitutions. Our state constitution has been trampled as well as the federal Constitution has been trampled by our current sitting governor, Cooper. That being said he is not to have control over any church on freedom of religion. We can worship and pray where we please. Mr. Queen says he would like to see it mandated.”

Clampitt also questioned the logistics of enforcing the mandate. 

“Are we going to have the mask police out there? We already have enough issues with the police department and him wanting to defund them,” said Clampitt, again citing the deceptive mailer. “I don’t think that’s going to work right off hand. I think we’re infringing on personal liberties. I think we’re infringing on our personal freedoms. At some point this has got to stop. There is no such thing as a king in North Carolina. We have a governor, which needs to be replaced as well as his puppets like Mr. Queen need to be replaced. That’s why I’m asking for your vote.”

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3, but mail-in voting is already underway. The deadline to register to vote is Friday, Oct. 9. In-person early voting begins on Oct. 15 and runs through Oct. 31. For more voting information, contact your county board of elections, or visit www.ncsbe.gov.

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