This year, two Democrats are vying for the opportunity to challenge Davis. Both cite a calling to correct what they see as a wrong-headed legislative culture in Raleigh.
“I’ve compared it to a group of adolescents without chaperones,” said candidate Jane Hipps.
Hipps will be facing Ron Robinson in the primary.
“The more you think about it, the more reasons there are to run,” said Robinson. “I’ve watched North Carolina just be taken into the doldrums by what’s going on.”
Each candidate laments actions taken by the current body of lawmakers. Both the state Senate and House are controlled by Republican majorities. Each Democratic hopeful cries foul over cuts to education funding and new voting legislation.
“We’ve become a concern for the nation,” Hipps said. “They’re afraid this is going to happen to them.”
Hipps is a retired public educator and health care professional. Robinson is a retired business consultant.
Knowledge, health and the bottom line
During a former lifetime, Hipps had a career in public education. She raised her children and was married to the late Charlie Hipps, a former district attorney and state senator.
Then, shortly before the candidate’s husband passed away, he encouraged his wife to get involved.
“He just said to me one morning, ‘Jane, it’s time for you to get into politics,’” Hipps recalled. “I was just speechless. I said, ‘I think one person in a family in politics is insanity enough.’”
For years, she was content to enjoy her life. Hipps went back to school and got her master’s in nursing. She worked for a while in pediatric office.
Then Hipps started noticing a change in the state legislature around 2010. More recently, people began approaching her about a possible run for office.
“I just couldn’t stay on the couch when I saw what was happening to our state,” the candidate explained.
Robinson has enjoyed a career across the southeast as a management consultant, advising businesses and nonprofits as they grow and evolve. After moving back to Western North Carolina, the candidate became active in local politics, working on Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothell’s failed 2012 campaign for Congress and also unsuccessfully running for Jackson County School Board.
Both Hipps and Robinson are sticking to the modern Democratic staples of education, healthcare and the economy. They both feel they have a ripe target to campaign against in the current legislature.
“There’s such a laundry list, it’s hard to know where to start,” Robinson said.
Hipps considers education her wheelhouse. She cringes when she talks about per-pupil spending and teacher-student ratios.
“Our children are not getting the education that I got, or that my children got,” Hipps said.
She relays a recent visit to Franklin High School, describing how students looked on together as they shared the same textbook.
“That textbook was 17 years old,” Hipps said.
Robinson has also been making the rounds to schools in the district. He too has noticed the need for updated and adequate textbooks.
“Imagine a business running that way. Imagine an IT worker without the technical manuals. The teachers are coding our children — they’re software — but they don’t have the tools that they need,” he said. “It’s insane.”
Robinson described teachers as the “bedrock of our communities.” Hipps called the lack of pay raises for teachers in recent years “just crazy.”
Healthcare needs in the state, particularly those that relate to the state legislature’s failure to expand Medicaid in connection with the Affordable Health Care Act, also rankle both Democratic candidates.
Hipps described her travels around the region during her campaign and how people have expressed their needs when it comes to improvements on the healthcare front.
“If they’re sick they go to the emergency room — someone’s got to pay for that,” she said. “If we had healthcare access we could look at providing preventative medicine.”
Growing the area’s economy also figures prominently into each candidate’s plank. Hipps hopes to assemble regional economic experts in an effort to ascertain the area’s needs. Robinson envisions replicating the area’s manufacturing-era prosperity with new, environmentally-clean jobs in fields like hi-tech, biotech, call centers and tourism.
“You’ve got virtually a turnkey situation in many areas,” he said of the business possibilities within the district.
Hipps stressed the importance of fostering an environment that gives the youth of the region a reason to remain in the western portion of the state. She complained about what she described as the “brain drain” from the region.
“The young people who have grown up here have a love for this region and an understanding of this region and can help make this area better than it is,” the candidate said.
Hipps connected the need for creating more jobs to the issue of access. She said that access was a common denominator across most issues facing her district and the state.
“I think a lot of it goes back to access,” she said. “Access to healthcare, access to education, access to vote — a lot of barriers have been put up there — it’s access to childcare.”
During a recent Democratic candidate forum in Sylva, Hipps and Robinson weighed in on a number of issues. They spoke about everything from food stamps to fracking.
“I share the same values as you share,” Hipps told the forum audience.
She also shares a number of similar views with her primary opponent.
“Jane and I agree on a lot of issues,” Robinson said at the forum.
Dirty money and a purple primary
The District 50 Senate race is not for the squeamish. It is no stranger to negative campaign ads and floods of outside money. Davis’ 2012 victory is often attributed to an officially unconnected war chest, much of which was spent on negative ads, courtesy of GOP bankroller and N.C. Budget Director Art Pope.
“I got those things in my mailbox,” Hipps recalled. “They came mainly at John Snow.”
The candidate said that she expects more of the same this time around. She doesn’t view such a prospect as a “deterrent.”
“That’s somewhat of a concern,” Hipps said. “I know I will have my picture put on mailers with people I don’t even know and who don’t know me. I think that’s a tactic of intimidation.”
Hipps points to the influence afforded by outside funding as part of what is wrong in North Carolina politics, and also as fuel for her candidacy.
“I think our state has been bought and I think we need to take it back,” she said, “and I’ve got the time to do it.”
Robinson said that the likelihood of negative campaigning directed at the District 50 Democratic candidate shouldn’t be too great of a concern. He’s expecting voters to vote on the issues, not the ads.
“Jim Davis has shot himself in the foot so many times with the legislation that he’s supported,” the candidate said. “They can have pictures of me with whoever they want, and it’s not going to matter once people know what Jim Davis has done.”
Both candidates also appear to want voters to look past traditional red-blue narratives. Each stressed they were multi-dimensional and able to think beyond partisan boundaries.
“I’m liberal on some issues, I’m conservative on some issues,” Hipps explained, “but I think how you vote and react on things should be based on the needs of people.”
Robinson described putting political labels on candidates as “dangerous,” said he felt voters were “tired” and “fed up” with such labels.
“When we start labeling ourselves — as a social conservative, or progressive or the Tea Party — when we start doing that we limit the options we have for solutions,” the candidate said. “If I hear someone from the Tea Party, or a Libertarian, come up with a good idea, I’m going to listen to it.”
Prior to announcing his candidacy, Robinson listened to some ideas from elsewhere on the political spectrum during a sitdown with Sen. Davis.
“I called his office and said, “I’d like to have a meeting to understand why you voted the way you did,’” he recalled. “My first question was, ‘what do you take the most pride in?’”
The senator reportedly replied that he was most proud of his efforts on the state’s new voting legislation, as well as legislation requiring welfare recipients to submit to drug tests.
“We agreed to disagree on just about everything,” Robinson said. ““He has no idea about how he has hurt people in North Carolina. Or he doesn’t care, and I can’t believe a person wouldn’t care about hurting people.”
Meet the Democratic candidates
A Democratic candidate forum is slated for 6:30 p.m. April 17 at the Jackson County Library Community Room. Democratic candidates invited to the forum include Jane Hipps and Ron Robinson, N.C. Senate 50; Rep. Joe Sam Queen, N.C. House 119; U.S. congressional candidates Tom Hill and Keith Ruehl; Jackson County Democratic commissioner and sheriff candidates.
The forum will be hosted by the Jackson County Democratic Men’s Club. Each candidate will be given a limited amount of time to speak.
Jane Hipps, 69 • Retired educator and nurse
Why she is seeking office: “I’ve always thought that democracy would be lost by wars and arms, and I’m realizing democracy can be lost through laws.”
Dog or cat? Dog
Last movie watched: “12 Years a Slave”
Advice she would give her younger self: “To be fully involved with your community and family helping to build a better community.”
Ron Robinson, 68 • Retired business consultant
Why he is seeking office: “To bring prosperity back to North Carolina using a common sense approach.”
Dog or cat? Dog
Last movie watched: “Gravity”
Advice he would give his younger self: “The same advice I gave my son: prepare yourself to have your own business. Because in today’s world things change so fast, you’ve got to have marketing and business skills.”