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Republican reboot on tap for House 119 primary

fr house119The March ballot might feel a bit like déjà vu for Republican voters in N.C. House District 119, as Aaron Littlefield and Mike Clampitt once again face off for the chance to run against incumbent Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, in November.

The two men are both Republicans who favor eliminating the personal income tax, voter ID laws and school choice. But beyond that, the similarities dry up. 

Littlefield is a 23-year-old graduate of Western Carolina University who calls Jackson County home, substitute teaching in its public schools, but grew up in Concord. Clampitt is a 61-year-old Bryson City native and sixth-generation mountaineer who retired 11 years ago from a career with Charlotte’s fire department. It’s Clampitt’s third time running for the House seat, and Littlefield’s second. 



Start talking policy, and the differences become even starker. 

Education, for instance. 

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“I think the leadership of the legislature has been phenomenal for maintaining, increasing education for every year they’ve been in office,” Clampitt said. 

Littlefield disagrees. If it had been up to him, he said, quite a few decisions regarding education funding would have turned out differently. 

“I am the only candidate in the race willing to criticize members of my own party,” Littlefield said. “Many Republicans have dropped the ball and they want to use recession-level spending by Democrats as a standard for success.”

For Littlefield, teacher salaries are at the forefront of the debate. Salaries have gone up in recent years, with the starting salary now sitting at $35,000, but North Carolina is still at the bottom of the barrel for teacher compensation. Someone who has gone to college for teaching, Littlefield said, should expect at least $40,000 as a starting salary, and people with master’s degrees should receive more. Teachers in North Carolina no longer get a salary bump for holding a master’s degree, but Littlefield would want to reinstate it. 

“As a conservative, I find it fiscally irresponsible for us to be spending money training some of the best educators in the state here at Western Carolina University and then not have the appropriate policies and infrastructure in place to make sure we can retain that talent here,” he said. 

Littlefield also said that issues with education funding go beyond teacher salaries. Many school districts — especially Jackson County — are in dire need of capital repairs, for instance. Many counties fund teaching positions outside of what the state provides from their local dollars, meaning that teacher salary increases can be hard for local budgets to absorb. Littlefield said he’d be entirely for increasing the percentage of the state budget that goes to education if that’s what’s necessary to meet educational needs in the state. 

“We need to make sure we’re providing the best opportunities, and as far as what percentage that looks like in the budget, I’m not sure,” Littlefield said. 

Clampitt sees things a little differently. Education is just one of many responsibilities given the state government in its constitution, he said, and the school system is not the only entity in need of tax dollars.

“Fifty-seven percent of the budget is currently spent for K-12 to start with,” he said. “At what point do we say enough is enough?” 

The legislature has increased overall allocations to public education over the last four years, Clampitt contended, so there’s no need for the state to look at upping its contribution. 

Since 2008, state education funding has jumped by $60 million, but much of that increase has gone toward teacher salaries, and the statewide student population has jumped by 44,000, according to a report from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Funding for classroom activities has dropped by $1 billion. 

Clampitt does believe that the state should take a hard look at the N.C. Education Lottery, a moniker that he sees as a misnomer. 

“I say if we’re not going to use the money for the education as originally designated to fill in the gap that the state and counties can’t afford, change it to the N.C. State Lottery,” Clampitt said.

When instituted, the lottery was presented as a mechanism to provide supplemental education funding, but the proportion of lottery revenues actually going to education has dropped dramatically from its original levels. While Clampitt said he would greatly prefer that the education contribution ratchet back up to its promised amount, if that’s not going to happen he believes the name should change. 

Littlefield said that he supports the lottery and would want to take a look at where fat can be cut in its operation. However, he said, it pays to remember that having a healthy pot of winnings — which comes from the lottery revenue — is important if people are to keep playing. 



The candidates also diverge in their stances on the western counties’ infrastructure needs. Specifically, Corridor K. 

Corridor K refers to a nonexistent road that was originally proposed in the 1960s as part of a new highway system through the Appalachian Mountains. The four-lane road would connect Bryson City to Andrews, a route now traversed only by a narrow-two lane road through the Nantahala Gorge. The road would be expensive, estimated at $800 million, and cross environmentally sensitive habitats. But it would also provide better access to education and health care for residents of North Carolina’s most remote mountain counties. 

For Clampitt, the question — to build, or not to build — is a no-brainer. If companies are to ever create significant job opportunities in the far west counties, they’ll need better access to make it happen. 

“That access would be very much considered positive when it comes to commercialization of businesses who locate and have nonsmokestack industries,” Clampitt said. 

Littlefield, meanwhile, sees Corridor K as an expensive and antiquated answer to the region’s struggles. 

“Corridor K is a 1960s solution to a 1960s issue,” he said. “I think we need to look at 21st-century solutions to current issues. The issue is they don’t have access to state-of-the-art medical facilities, they don’t have access to higher education.” 

For $800 million, he said, you could build a hospital or a community college satellite campus. Meanwhile, the road-widening and tunnel drilling required to build the road would ruin tourism dollars, Littlefield said, in “a county renowned for its pristine streams.” And who’s to say the $800 million figure would hold steady? Littlefield points to the R-5000 project connecting N.C. 116 and N.C. 107, whose price tag has exploded from conception to execution. 

“If it’s starting out at $800 million, I don’t want to even think what it would look like,” he said. 

However, both candidates agreed that Western North Carolina’s infrastructure issues extend beyond roads. The region needs better cell service and high-speed Internet if it is to thrive in the 21st century. 

“In this day and age you wouldn’t move to a house that doesn’t have cell phone service or high-speed Internet,” Littlefield said. 

“That is a very important thing that we need to establish to get the businesses into Western North Carolina is having good Internet capacity,” Clampitt agreed. 

To get there, Clampitt said, the state should perhaps take a more active role in developing Internet infrastructure. The state could “have a vested interest” in expanding Internet service, he said, and things could also be moved along by “stepping away from some of the restrictive boundaries” and permit requirements he sees as hampering improvement to phone and Internet access.

Littlefield suggested that state leaders think creatively to find solutions. For instance, some parts of Africa are now getting 4G cell service via balloons in the atmosphere. In the mountains, where peaks and valleys make quality coverage difficult to achieve, perhaps that could be a solution. 


Connect N.C. bond referendum

One issue where Littlefield and Clampitt find common ground is that they’re both opposed to the state bond referendum that will join them on the ballot — but for different reasons. 

If passed, the state would take out a $2 billion bond to provide for capital projects including colleges, universities, water and sewer systems and state parks throughout North Carolina. The biggest project in the package would be a $110 million science building at WCU, with WNC’s community colleges to get a hefty chunk of funding as well. 

“I love barbecue, but I would hate getting a big box of barbeque with a bunch of sardines packed in it,” said Littlefield, by way of explaining his opposition. The bond package has a lot of good projects in it, he said, but also its fair share of pet projects — “sardines.” He believes each project should have been debated and voted on its own merits. 

To Clampitt, the bond package is mostly sardines, with very little barbecue involved. 

“This bond package is just a Pandora’s box of spending that’s not needed,” Clampitt said. He called it a “Christmas present to the UNC and college system” and contended that school chancellors should have been ensuring their buildings were properly maintained all along so they wouldn’t need new ones now. 

“I think the expenditures should have been (voted on) line by line,” he said. 

Littlefield agrees with that, calling out the legislature’s decision to put responsibility for the decision on voters’ backs. But he disagreed with Clampitt’s assessment that the package is full of extraneous spending. In particular, he voiced strong support for the WCU science building. The aging building now in place simply not capable of training the science, technology, math and engineering grads needed to make WNC successful, he said. 

“If the bond fails, I would definitely push to make sure Western can get their science building,” he said. “They need it.”


Tax system 

Both candidates voiced support for shifting from a state budget based on personal income tax revenues to one based on sales tax revenues. But they don’t see eye-to-eye on how it should be done. 

“I would love a simpler tax code, but things aren’t quite that simple and I think as a representative you have to be able to weigh the consequences of your actions,” Littlefield said. 

On paper, said Littlefield, it would work to get rid of the personal income tax altogether and replace it with a 8.5 percent sales tax. But when you change one thing, invariably something else shifts as a result, so numbers don’t always work out as neatly as you’d plan. He also acknowledged that a tax based completely on consumption has the potential to hurt people living on low or fixed incomes. 

“I would be in favor of a flat tax, but it’s going to take piecing apart all the sources of revenue and income that we have in North Carolina and seeing what we need and making the adjustments there,” he said. 

Littlefield also pointed to North Carolina as having the highest gas tax in the Southeast. It would only benefit the state to push it down, he said. 

“You’ve got to be able to bring people in,” Littlefield said. “The way to bring people in is to have cheaper gas. People look for an excuse to go to South Carolina because their gas is cheap.”

Clampitt is not shy about declaring himself in favor of eliminating personal income taxes and relying instead on sales tax revenue. 

“We have a lot of folks that would be year-round residents,” Clampitt said, who lives here only part-time due to North Carolina’s higher tax rates. Florida, for example, doesn’t have a personal income tax at all. 

“I would be a proponent to do away with the state income tax to entice those people to come here and live here year-round,” he said. 

Clampitt also supports doing away with emissions standards, which currently apply to only 48 of the state’s 100 counties. He called the standards and “enormous burden for the businesses” that’s “a cash cow for the state.” 

“I think we ought to make it uniform or do away with it,” he said. 


Summarizing the choice

When Republican voters face the ballot on March, they’ll have a choice. Clampitt and Littlefield, define that choice differently. 

According to Clampitt, a vote for him is a vote for a born-and-raised mountaineer with a “lifelong resume” of public service. 

Clampitt is “committed to doing public service and being the best representative I can for the counties of Swain, Jackson and Haywood,” he said. 

Littlefield sees the dichotomy a bit differently, emphasizing that his willingness to criticize his own party when necessary sets him apart from Clampitt. He believes voters should judge him on the strength of his policies rather than on “the day that God chose I should be born or where my mother chose to live when I was born.”

“I’m offering people a choice between career politicians and politics as usual versus someone who is willing to go against my party,” he said.



Meet the candidates

Aaron Littlefield

• Residence: Cullowhee

• Age: 23

• Professional background: Currently a substitute teacher for Jackson County Schools, Littlefield graduated from Western Carolina University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.  

• Political experience: Littlefield ran for N.C. House in 2014 and has been active in the local Republican party. 

• Reason to run: “I’m offering people a choice between bold, fresh leadership or business as usual with Raleigh insiders and career politicians, and that’s the same message in March as it is in November. People are ready for a change.”

Mike Clampitt 

• Residence: Bryson City

• Age: 61

• Professional background: Clampitt retired 11 years ago from a career as a firefighter. His last position was fire captain for the Charlotte Fire Department. 

• Political experience: This is the third time Clampitt has run for N.C. House, progressing to the General Election in 2012 and 2014.

• Reason to run: “I feel like I am the best qualified candidate to represent Swain, Jackson and Haywood counties since I am an original mountaineer from the area and my life has been committed to public service.” 

The winner of the March 15 primary will face incumbent Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, in November. District 119 includes Swain, Jackson and most of Haywood County.

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