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Rep. West’s retirement leads to Republican primary tussle

fr house120Rep. Roger West’s, R-Marble, announcement that he wouldn’t be running for re-election left a void in N.C. House District 120, and two Republicans are vying to fill it. 

One, Kevin Corbin, is a well-known politician in Franklin with decades of experience on the Macon County school and commissioner boards — who West hand-picked to run for the empty seat — and the other, Elliot Southworth, is a Murphy businessman for whom a win would represent his first experience holding an elected position. 

According to Southworth, Corbin is a “career politician,” whose “uber-progressive agenda” makes it surprising to find a “red R after his name instead of a blue one.”

Corbin, meanwhile, maintains he has “a proven conservative record” — keeping taxes low and paying down debt during his time in county government — and says that through decades of involvement with local politics, he’s developed the relationships he’ll need to find success in Raleigh. 

“Whoever winds up replacing Roger, there’s going to be a loss of seniority for this region, so you need to send the person who is best qualified to hit the ground running,” Corbin said.


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For both Corbin and Southworth, education-related legislation will be at the top of the to-do list if elected. Both have some connection to the school system — Corbin, from his 20 years on the Macon County School Board, Southworth through coaching elementary and middle school shooting club and his wife’s career as a public school speech pathologist — and both see a problem with the way things are being run right now. 

Both Southworth and Corbin want to see teacher pay increase, and both want to see the Common Core State Standards done away with. 

“If I were elected, one of the first things I would do is pull that bill out of the file cabinet, the original language from 2011 and refile it and try to hold everyone’s feet to the fire to repeal Common Core,” Southworth said, referring to a bill that had been filed at one time to repeal Common Core outright. 

The state had created a committee to look at alternatives to Common Core, but this winter the committee came back with a recommendation that the standards stay in place. 

For Corbin, the priority where education is concerned is getting counties out of the business of paying teachers. In North Carolina school systems, state dollars are supposed to cover salaries while county dollars provide facilities. However, many counties are footing the bill for some teaching positions out of local taxes because they don’t think the state-provided positions are sufficient. Locally funded teachers have to be paid the same as state-funded teachers, so state pay raises mean the county’s bill for teaching positions hikes even higher. 

The reason locally funded teachers are so common in rural counties, Corbin said, has to do with the state’s reliance on student-teacher ratios when deciding how many positions each county gets. 

“That works really well in Wake County and Mecklenberg when you have large numbers of people and it’s flat,” Corbin said. “It doesn’t work well in the mountains, because kids don’t come in pockets of 24.” 

Take, for example, Macon County’s K-12 Nantahala School. Maybe the second grade has only 10 kids in it, but those 10 kids still need a teacher — even if state formulas say a class should have 24 kids. 

“The first week I’m there (in Raleigh), I plan to take a topo map into the speaker’s office and show him our communities and where we live and why that system doesn’t work for everybody, and I will introduce legislation to do that,” Corbin said. “I already talked to (Sen.) Jim Davis (R-Franklin), and he’s willing to do the same.”

While the two candidates both have ties to public school, they’re also both in favor of school choice — meaning the array of public, online, charter and scholarships to private schools now available through state dollars. However, they see the matter somewhat differently. 

For Southworth, it’s a proven fact that charter schools are good for students and should invariably be supported. He points to New Orleans and the prevalence of charter schools there after Hurricane Katrina wiped out existing infrastructure. These days, 90 percent of students in the city attend a charter school. The change coincided with a jump in proficient scores on statewide assessments among students in the Recovery School District, from 23 percent in 2007 to 56 percent in 2015, according to a report by Forbes Magazine.  

“The statistics show that charter schools are doing a great job and on average scoring higher than the state-funded schools,” Southworth said. 

For Corbin, it’s not that black and white. He sees charter, public and private schools as complimenting each other rather than competing and says that the dynamic is somewhat different in the mountains than in urban areas.

“The schools here are good,” Corbin said. “That’s not true everywhere in North Carolina. There’s places where if I lived I would look at sending my kid to a private school.” 

“I’m very much a believer in public education because I believe it works, but I do believe in school choice,” he said. 


Connect N.C. bond referendum

Corbin extends his support of public education to the bond referendum that will be included on the March 15 ballot. Voters will have the chance to approve or deny the state government’s desire to take out a $2 billion bond to support a variety of capital projects, including state universities, community colleges and state parks. 

The biggest single project in the bill is a $110 million science building for Western Carolina University, and the bond would also include millions in funding for Haywood Community College, Southwestern Community College and Tri-County Community College — leaders of those schools have thrown their support behind the bill. 

“Because they are (for it), I would say I was for it,” Corbin said. 

Western North Carolina will get “our share, maybe more than our share” of funding from the bill, and the resulting improvements to higher education in the region would result in increased job opportunities and indirect economic benefit to the area, Corbin said. 

Southworth sees it differently. 

The bond represents an unjustifiable increase in debt, he said, that is tantamount to encumbering the state’s children with debt for their future. Furthermore, he believes the bill that wound up being passed is a large departure from the document that was originally filed, not capable of achieving the goal that it was designed to address. He also sees the bond’s placement on the March 15 ballot as an act of cowardice, charging that the legislature should have voted it up and down or at least placed it on the November ballot, when voter turnout is higher. 

“There’s a lot of kicking the can down the road and passing the buck to the voters,” he said. 


Tax issues

Both Corbin and Southworth have promised that, if elected, they’d work to lower taxes. However, they each have different plans for how to do so. 

“Having a progressive rate tax favors some groups and not others,” Southworth said. “I prefer tax neutrality.”

Southworth would like to see North Carolina adopt a flat tax, getting rid of the personal income tax and instead funding its government primarily through sales tax income. That’s the fairest way to go, Southworth said, because that way everybody pays the same rate — no favoritism. 

“Sure, low-income people are going to pay something, those on welfare and food stamps are going to pay something for the first time perhaps, but they can’t keep sucking our system dry and lobbyists can’t keep having legislators pass bills that favor a particular industry and have the system succeed,” Southworth said. 

Corbin also believes that economies do best when people pay fewer taxes and said he’d be willing to support a flat tax. However, he’s running on the idea that the state should lower its personal and corporate tax rates. 

“We have people who live — especially in our region — who live her year-round and they claim to live in Florida or they claim to live in another state, and they do it because we have an income tax. That hurts us,” Corbin said. 

The state is predicting a $900 million budget surplus for this year, which to Corbin shows that there’s room to look at lowering taxes. 

Corbin points to his record in Macon County to show that he’s the man for the job. Macon County has the fourth-lowest property tax rate in the state, but in his six years on the county commission its debt load has plummeted from $60 million to $39 million. 



Along with lower taxes, Corbin is for less regulation. 

“Government tends to make too many rules and regulations,” Corbin said. “When you have rules and regulations, they need to be for when you’re protecting people from danger or loss of some kind.” 

However, he said, he’s committed to looking at things on a case-by-case basis rather than espousing a blanket no-regulations philosophy. 

For example, Corbin can’t say for sure he would have voted to allow hydraulic fracturing in the state. Because it has been deemed unlikely that the western counties contain enough deposits to ever interest an energy company, he hasn’t studied up on the issue as much as on some others, but says he doesn’t think he “really like(s) the idea (of fracking) because there’s some danger of contaminating groundwater.” 

On the other hand, Corbin stands by the Macon County Commissioner’ resolution opposing additional wilderness on the national forest lands in its boundaries, saying that while he’s a fan of all the government-owned green space in the county — “this place being a beautiful place is the reason people come here” — he wouldn’t want to see all the use restrictions accompanying wilderness designation come into play. 

Southworth also opposes additional wilderness — though that’s not an issue a state legislator would likely be asked to weigh in on — and generally believes that regulations should be kept as minimal as possible. 

“I think environmental protection is important and the existing laws are ample,” he said. “I think that the federal mandates that are unfunded, that have been thrown on every state, should be resisted. We don’t need the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) telling North Carolina what to do with water.”

Along with federal regulation, Southworth opposes federal “middleman” organizations like the Southwestern Commission, a regional agency that dispenses federal funds locally through grants. The organization covers the seven western counties, providing technical assistance for local governments to work toward regional goals. 

According to Southworth, the Southwestern Commission “promulgated regulations similar to Agenda 21” and the money it dispenses is “big money out of Washington, D.C.” with “strings attached.” Agenda 21 is a 1992 United Nations action plan promoting sustainable development that some conservative groups oppose as the epitome of big government overreach. 

Corbin calls that summary of the Southwestern Commission “ludicrous” and added that “nobody in the four-county region agrees with that, and all the counties and the towns are members of the Southwestern Commission.”

One of Southworth’s regulation-related campaign platforms has to do with professional licensure. He believes that the state has its fingers in the licensure of professions it has no business regulating and that the licensure requirements are often nonsensical. If elected, he’d work to reduce those regulations. 

“I don’t think it’s right that a barber has to spend 1,528 hours to be a barber while an EMT that has a right to stick a needle in my arm or cut me open in a crisis only requires 150 hours,” Southworth said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Corbin said he wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to legislation consolidating or reducing licensure requirements but doesn’t see it as an issue he’d take up personally. 



In the mountain counties, infrastructure is always high in the list of priorities. 

For Corbin, achieving universal high-speed Internet for the western region is the priority in that category. Macon County is right now working on a map to show which parts of the county have high-speed Internet and cell service and which don’t. 

“Then we’re going to go to the surrounding companies and try and find private solutions out there,” Corbin said. “Our goal is to have 100 percent of Macon County with high-speed Internet and cell phone service.”

He’d like to take the same concept to the state as a whole. 

“I think that the number one infrastructure thing we can do is help facilitate 100 percent high-speed Internet and cell phone service,” Corbin said.  

For Southworth, the main infrastructure issue is the lack of a four-lane highway anywhere west of Swain County. He’d push to get Corridor K — a four-lane highway that’s been under discussion since the 1960s to stretch from Stecoah to Andrews — completed and connecting Graham County to the rest of the state. 

“It’s been a great idea for years, and they just never get the money to get it done,” Southworth said. “I think somebody has to go to Raleigh and stand up and say that it’s wrong. We pay our taxes but we get next to nothing in return for services as compared to more densely populated parts of central or eastern North Carolina.”

Corbin said he’s also in favor of Corridor K. 

“I think it’s important, especially for Graham County,” he said.  


Long live the Possum Drop

One, thing, however, Corbin and Southworth can agree on: the Possum Drop should live on. 

The two-decade-old New Year’s celebration in Brasstown has come under fire over the last few years from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which contends that the slow lowering of a possum in a Plexiglas container at midnight amounts to animal cruelty. The outgoing Rep. West led the charge to preserve the Possum Drop with bills to exempt first Clay County — where the drop takes place — and then the entire state from laws pertaining to possums around New Year’s Eve. The issue is still playing out in the courts. 

The possums are impeccably cared for and the event a community cornerstone, Corbin and Southworth agreed. 

“If the possum knew what was going on, they’d probably volunteer for it,” Corbin said.



Meet the candidates

Kevin Corbin

• Residence: Franklin

• Age: 54

• Professional background: Owns Corbin Insurance Agency, which employs eight people full-time. 

• Political experience: Corbin has served as chairman of the Macon County Commissioners since 2012 after being appointed to now-Senator Jim Davis’ empty seat in 2010. He sat on the Macon County Board of Education from 1985-2005, serving as chairman for 16 of those years. Rep. Roger West, District Attorney Ashley Welch and 17 of the district’s 20 county commissioners have endorsed him. 

• Reason to run: “I really do enjoy being a county commissioner, but I have a reputation for getting things done and I think there’s a lot of things that can be done at the state level that I’ll have the skill set to do.”

Elliott Southworth

• Residence: Murphy

• Age: 63

• Professional background: Southworth is an entrepreneur, originally from Massachusetts, who has launched seven different businesses, including Green Sheets coupon magazine. 

• Political experience: While living in Massachusetts, Southworth served as member and chairman of the finance committee to review and oversee town department budgets. He is a self-described conservative activist. 

• Reason to run: “There are big issues that need to be addressed and aren’t being paid attention to the right way. They’re given lip service instead of support, and they kick the can down the road or pass the buck to voters.”  

The winner of the March primary will face Democrat Randy Hogsed of Andrews. N.C. House District 120 includes Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties. 

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