Trump and Hillary are getting all the attention, but a couple of seats are up for grabs in the state General Assembly that affect Surry County.
State Sen. Shirley Randleman and state Rep. Sarah Stevens are both up for reelection. The two Republicans met up with their Democratic challengers at this week’s political forum at North Surry High School.
Randleman and challenger Michael Holleman went first.
In his opening statement, Holleman said he doesn’t feel like the state government as it stands now is representing the entire population of the state. As a career and technical education teacher, he feels he brings an important experience to school-related topics.
Randleman said she wanted to continue the good work the state has done in rebounding since the recession of 2008. She said the state has seen hundreds of thousands of new job, a drop in unemployment and a rebuilding of the “rainy day fund” that was depleted by earlier administrations. She also pointed to the $1.8 billion going to education this year alone.
• John Peters, editor of The Mount Airy News, asked a few question for each candidate. The first concerned their take on HB2, the “bathroom bill.”
Holleman said the state already knows that the bathroom portion of the law has no enforcement parameters. If the bathroom part of the law isn’t enforceable, then why was it passed, he asked. Because it was a smokescreen to push through a regressive agenda with things like stripping workers of certain rights.
Randleman said she did support the bill and still does. The state took action to stop women from sharing bathrooms with men and high school kids showering with members of the opposite sex. As for the other parts of the bill, she said HB2 provided a “consistency of laws” regarding employees.
• For a century, Democrats controlled the state government and redrew voting districts to suit them. In 2011 the Republicans redrew districts in their favor, and the maps were thrown out by the courts. Do the candidates support an independent committee to draw new maps?
Randleman said there have always been disputes on whether district maps are fair. She said the Department of Justice was fine with it, and so were the courts until it was bumped up to a district level. Still, she said she would be OK with an independent committee.
Holleman said that two years ago in the state elections, 51 percent of all votes cast went to Democrats, but only 31 percent of the seats went to the Democratic party because of how district lines were drawn. That shows that these maps were not impartially fair.
• Recent figures from the N.C. Education Association show that a starting teacher can earn $35,000, while a teacher with 25 years of experience can make $51,000. Should teacher pay continue to go up, and how would they fund this?
Holleman pointed out that the state suffered an economic downturn in 2008, which threw off many public funds. Comparing today’s pay with times further back like 15 years ago show more paltry gains. As a teacher, this hits home for him, and he has done significant research. Those at the bottom of the pay scale did see a significant increase, but veterans like him are pretty the same as before.
Randleman said that teachers overall saw a raise of 4.6 percent this year, with teacher between six and 10 years of experience seeing bumps of 6 percent to 17 percent. She said North Carolina is headed toward paying the most in the Southeast. She added that the state also fully funded healthcare and retirement benefits.
• In recent years, North Carolina has lost out to South Carolina on some significant plant openings, like Volvo. Gov. Pat McCrory has sought more incentives to get companies to come here. How do the candidates feel?
Randleman said the state needs to find another way to attract companies, especially in rural areas. She said she was very upset to learn that 87 percent of appropriated funds and incentives were for recruiting businesses to urban counties and not to places like her district. She said the state needs to attract jobs and businesses to places like Surry County, too, and also continue to support small businesses.
Holleman said that South Carolina saw the success of BMW building a plant. It wasn’t just the people BMW employed — businesses grew and new ones opened to support the factory and all the workers. That’s why South Carolina is throwing money toward recruiting. As for where the incentives should be applied, Holleman believes high levels of poverty and unemployment should be a factor.
• In closing, Holleman said he has taken flak for being a moderate, but he sees good ideas on both sides of the aisle. On the other hand, he said the John Locke Foundation, a conservative group, has given Randleman a 100 perent support rating. Who are we representing in Raleigh, he asked.
Randleman said she has served since 2009 and has seen tough economic times. The state had a $2.5 billion deficit. In her time on the board, the deficit has shrunk, and a 1-cent sales tax was allowed to expire. More money has gone to schools. And, she said that she has earned places on some committees and is making Surry’s voice heard.
The next round featured the incumbent Stevens against Vera Smith Reynolds.
Reynolds said she worked 32 years in the city school system. Students are very important to her. Through her job she learned well that every person is very valuable regardless of his or her learning level. She has served on the board of the local museum and considers regional history to be important.
Stevens said she has been an attorney for 30 years. She knows what it is like to run her own business. Through specializing in family law, she well understands the struggles of her fellow man. Like Randleman, she went into the General Assembly in 2009. She felt like the state was going in the wrong direction and wanted to be part of making changes. She said she believes she has really grown into this position.
• These candidates also were asked about HB2.
Stevens said she still supports the law. Charlotte had enacted a broad, overreaching law, and the state had to do something. There are aspects of the bill that could be revisited, but she agrees with most of it. One example given was the the state should set minimum wages that cover all counties to be fair and consistent.
Reynolds said she is against the bill because of its discrimination. The bill was written in a complex, confusing way, so that people have trouble understanding all parts of it. This law isn’t for North Carolina, and its people are better than this. The state needs to let these folks live their lives.
• Next they were asked about district mapping.
Reynolds said mapping needs to be in the hands of an independent, nonpartisan group. It shouldn’t be controlled by the General Assembly because of all the hidden agendas on both sides of the aisle.
Stevens said a redistricting bill put an effective date of 2030 to try to get momentum in the Senate where it had stalled. She said she won an election in a district that was considered gerrymandered, which affected her constituents. One question the state tried to answer in the mapping was: how any counties can we keep whole?
• The candidates were asked about teacher salaries.
Stevens said that the study about salaries has North Carolina ranked too low. The ranking only considered pay and didn’t include which states offer generous retirement and health insurance like this state, which jumps N.C. higher. She said she has a daughter in her fourth year of teaching who complained about pay, and she reminded her that her sister has a four-year degree in another field and is making $8 an hour because she can’t find work in her field. She added that the state has put 58 percent of its entire annual budget in education, so how much more can it afford to spend?
Reynolds said she started teaching at Rockford School in 1971. She didn’t get a raise for years. She had to shell out her own money for pencils and paper because the kids often couldn’t afford their own. She made her own work sheets. Teachers are still spending their own money to fill in gaps, and they need the raises.
• Next was the topic of incentives and economic growth.
Reynolds said an education is important to create a better workforce, but the county also desperately needs employment for people on different levels. Some people might be looking for an office job, while others would be happy on a factory floor, and others could thrive in sales.
Stevens said she does not like incentives, but has come to view them as a necessary evil. She doesn’t like the idea of giving incentives to a new company moving here if it has direct competition with an existing business. She thinks cutting back on all the rules and regulations on companies could be beneficial. She said state money has gone to Surry Community College to help it provide specific training that could help residents land jobs.
• In conclusion, Stevens said it has been an interesting eight years for her since her first campaign. She said she has been given opportunities to chair committees. She read off a series of newspaper headlines that show state improvement like 300,000 more jobs, economic growth, moving from the fifth-highest jobless rate in the country to a nine-year, and big increases in teacher pay.
Reynolds said that voting for her would be a new day, a new time with fresh ideas. The state’s economic problems are bigger than people realize. She has a mother at home dealing with a stroke, and a son who is working hard to find a job, so she knows the struggles firsthand. Through her many years in education, she has seen these struggles throughout the community.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.