Born and raised in Haywood County, Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, is a sixth-generation Western North Carolinian with roots in the area dating back to the Revolutionary War.
That’s about where the similarity ends between these two candidates for the North Carolina General Assembly’s 119th district, which includes the entirety of Swain and Jackson counties as well as a spear-like strip that protrudes into the heart of Haywood County.
Clampitt is the product of single-parent household; upon graduation from high school in 1973, he went to Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem and embarked on a course of study that would lead him to be a machinist.
But Clampitt didn’t enjoy being “stuck inside” all day, so after completing his studies at Forsyth, he enrolled in the fire science program at Rowan–Cabarrus Community College in Salisbury. He then spent his career in fire service, retiring as a fire captain from the Charlotte Fire Department in 2004.
Bringing things full circle for Clampitt, when he met his father for the first time about 12 years ago, he discovered that his father was a firefighter who had two brothers who were also firefighters.
Queen is a practicing architect and graduate of North Carolina State University’s College of Design. He was, he said, an “unusual student” in that his mother read to him through high school because of his dyslexia. But what was a hindrance in high school became an asset in college; Queen referred to his dyslexia as a good spatial skill for designers, and now reads an hour or two a day.
Bringing things full circle for Queen, his daughter is now a professor of architecture at N.C. State.
Since 2003, Queen has served intermittently in the North Carolina General Assembly, first as a senator from 2003 to 2005 and then again from 2007 to 2009.
Today, Queen is the Democratic incumbent representative for the 119th district and Clampitt his Republican challenger for the third time in as many elections.
In 2012, which was also a presidential election year, when down-ticket Democrats historically perform better than usual — Queen bested Clampitt 51.7 to 48.3 percent.
In 2014, Queen again topped Clampitt, but by a slightly wider margin of 52.6 to 47.4 percent.
Turns out, turnout is the difference there; 32,241 votes were cast in the 2012 race, but just 22,400 were cast in 2014 — a non-presidential year in which Democrats historically perform worse.
So in theory, Queen should have done worse in 2014. Instead, he did better. This could spell trouble for Clampitt.
However, this year’s presidential race is unlike any other. A CBS/New York Times poll in March said that both presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were “viewed more unfavorably than any front-runner for either party since 1984, when CBS began polling voters on the question.”
With a margin of just 1,100 votes in both victories, Queen is far from a shoo-in, especially considering many loyal Democrats and Republicans may not show up to the polls to support such unlikable presidential candidates; conversely, perhaps one party or another shows up in droves.
Uncertainty yet prevails, but one thing is certain — on Tuesday, Nov. 8, voters who do make it to the polls will have to choose between two men whose extended kin have been mingling about this region for the better part of three centuries. Those voters will make their ultimate choice based not on the candidates’ associations with national figures like Clinton and Trump, but instead on the positions of the candidates themselves.
Smoky Mountain News: You ran against Queen in 2012 and he beat you. In 2014, you ran against him again, and the margin widened. You also ran for Swain County Commission twice and lost. There’s an unwritten rule in politics that if you run twice and lose, you shouldn’t run again. Why is 2016 going to be different for you?
Mike Clampitt: I disagree completely. It’s a presidential year and people are tired of politics as usual. I’m not a politician, I’m retired fire service — I’m not going to tell you your house burning down is the best day of your life. I’m committed to being a representative the best I can.
Something different I’m proposing for the district that’s not being done by Queen or anybody else is to have an office in all three counties where people could come to me or a surrogate and be able to communicate, because that’s what representation means to me.
SMN: In 2008 as Obama was on his way in, he dragged lots of people to the polls, and that held an incredible benefit for Democrats on down-ticket races, from Congress on down to the municipal level. Do you think Trump is going to have that much of an effect, especially in your district, to help people like you?
MC: Yes sir, absolutely. The people I’ve talked to — it’s a Trump year. And that being the case sometimes it’s not so much that people are voting for but against someone, and I think this is the year they’re voting for someone — they’re voting for a change that makes a difference and they’re voting for people they think are going to be able to do that very thing. I would like to think that I can coattail with that.
SMN: You’ve listed your top three priorities as education as it relates to trade and vocational schools, health care, and senior workforce re-entry retraining. We’ll get back to healthcare in a moment, but both of those educational priorities are very non-traditional. Why are those important?
MC: Being in contact with the communities in Swain and Jackson and Haywood, that is what I’ve seen. We have a lack of tradesmen. These are plumbers, electricians and HVAC. To expound on that, it’s something Gov. McCrory spoke about over a year ago, and I’m on board with that. Our vocations are missing out. They say we’ve got to have a computer-based background, and everybody’s going to be working for a dotcom company or whatever — not everybody wants to do that. People can’t be pigeonholed or boxed in, or pointed in one direction. I don’t think we have enough focus on community colleges and the high schools to where students can have that stair-stepping out of high school into a vocational or community college, and we need to encourage that.
SMN: If Democrats are to be believed, your future colleagues in the House don’t really share your enthusiasm for education. Are the Democrats right about that?
MC: No they’re not. They’re absolutely off base. In the last three years public education funding has gone from $24 million to $72 million. That’s a threefold increase. North Carolina schools have increased form 37th to 17th nationwide. You just had an article saying that Haywood County Schools are up to tenth in the state. Somebody’s doing something right.
SMN: You’re against the expansion of Medicaid in the state.
MC: I am. If you rob Peter, you gotta pay Paul, and Paul’s always got money in his pocket. I know that’s a real euphemism, but the thing about it is, every time you take money from the federal government, there’s a string attached. When those strings are attached, you never get out from under that.
I’m a firm believer in Amendment 10 — states’ rights. At some point we need to tell the feds to step out of our lives and take a hike. Obamacare is the worst thing that has ever happened to our nation.
SMN: Joe Sam Queen said he couldn’t understand how one of your top issues could be health care but you’re against Medicaid expansion. How do we fill that gap? What’s the answer if Medicaid’s not it?
MC: Mr. Queen has the feeling that the money that we pay to the federal government is our money.
SMN: Isn’t it though?
MC: Well, it’s money that’s owed to the federal government. To give you a good example, the money you make that you pay to the bank, is it your money or the bank’s money for a car loan? Whose money is it, your money or the bank’s money? That car loan is something you owe.
SMN: Is he also off base about non-partisan redistricting? He supports it, you do not.
MC: Absolutely. Every 10 years the state is realigned according to the census. It’s been going on forever, but understand that’s the process and it’s a political process. The only reason the Democrats want to see that changed at this point is because they’re in the rear.
SMN: To the victor go the spoils?
MC: Your words are better than mine with that, and that’s very true.
SMN: I can see that – you’ve fought and won and want to exercise some of that privilege. But is it good for North Carolina?
MC: There’s only one caveat to all this, the splitting of a county. And I will say I think that — and Haywood County will be the county I use — we have split Haywood County between the 118th and 119th. We have a set number of representatives, and I think representation should be bound by county lines.
It’s a split on a legislative level, especially when you have a Democrat and a Republican representing two halves of the county. Mr. Queen said repetitively last night in his last two minutes how he would work with anyone. Well, Rep. Presnell is the 118th District representative and he refused to work with her on issues involving Haywood County. So you can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth and say the same thing. I’m not going to tell people what they want to hear to get their vote.
SMN: Nearly every candidate running this year has mentioned high-speed internet as something we really need. You agree with that, right?
MC: I’ll agree with that. It’s sort of a no-brainer. With that, how you going to pay for it?
SMN: Well that’s the question – not one candidate has said how we get it. How do we get it?
MC: I’ll tell you that’s why I didn’t mention it – just because you mention something, yeah you need it, but how do you pay for it? You tell me – do you want another surcharge on your cable bill? A surcharge is just another name for a tax. So do you want another tax just to be able to give that affordability of internet to everyone? You pay for it? I don’t think people want to do that.
So until we can identify a funding mechanism to be able to pay for the high-speed internet everybody keeps talking about — which I’m for — remember, nothing’s free. It’s like that Medicaid expansion — nothing’s free. If the feds come in to give you a grant to do that, watch the strings. Watch those strings. I’d rather own an older car that’s dependable than buy a new car and have payments.
SMN: HB2 – good for N.C. or no?
MC: It is. North Carolina’s financial division did a survey that North Carolinians’ gross annual income was $510 billion dollars, and just based on what they were saying would be a loss for that was $10 billion and figured out as less than .1 percent loss of economic impact in North Carolina.
SMN: Sure, it didn’t have that large of an economic impact, but let’s talk about if it’s good for North Carolina moving forward.
MC: HB2 is very misunderstood; for one, HB2 is only five pages long. Nowhere in HB2 does it mention the word “transgender.” HB2 simply says that persons use the restroom according to the sex of their birth certificate. What’s wrong with that? Men are men and women are women.
It’s a safety issue and a property rights issue. The safety issue is, in high schools with the raging hormones of young teenagers, and we both are older males now but we probably remember those days in high school, if a young person wanted to take and capitalize on saying “I feel more of a female inclination today,” and go change clothes in the girls locker room or shower room, they have the opportunity to do that — before HB2.
So with colleges, and universities and schools and any public domain, it’s a safety issue for men and women. Thing about it is, would you want your wife, or your high school child to be sharing the restroom with a male, or a person who says they have tendencies to feel like a woman that day? Majority of the time it is that, rather than a female saying that they feel like a male. And we’re also speaking about a percentage of less than one percent – one half of one percent statewide. The property rights issue is, you have a business that has restrooms, and they’re available, and I’m having the government tell me you can’t have your restroom unless a male and female can use the same restroom. HB2’s good for that.
SMN: At the Mountaineer forum when you closed, you said you were a bible-thumping, gun-toting, adorable intolerable but what I think you were trying to say was ‘deplorable.’ What’s curious to me is that Michelle Presnell said the exact same thing when she closed her debate right after yours. Was that something you two worked out together or is that…
MC: [laughing] I gotta laugh, that is very funny. I did hear that. We did not script that.
SMN: That’s understandable – it’s Trump language, you know, so it’s not surprising.
MC: Well it was no coincidence that Michelle Presnell was at the Trump rally [in Asheville Sept. 12] and was a speaker, and there was no surprise that I was at the Trump rally behind the scenes, and behind him in the stands. That being said, a lot of that came from being at the Trump rally, simply because Hillary Clinton has made it a point to talk about the blue collar people. I’m retired fire service, we’re talking about farmers and nurses and police officers, all your tradespeople are all blue collar. There’s no disrespect in that. She was disrespectful in calling them deplorables. I may have gotten tongue-tangled there but I think people understood what I was trying to say.
SMN: You and Presnell are on the same page with your language by coincidence. That indicates that a lot of the things Trump is saying are filtering down to and starting to get instilled in people’s heads. So would you say that the Republican Party in North Carolina is unified behind him?
MC: Yes sir, absolutely. Regardless about what people say about any kind of division or turmoil or whatever, we are unified as a party in North Carolina, especially in the western districts – Michelle Presnell, myself and [House District 120 candidate] Kevin Corbin, we are all on the same page and just by relating or passing on that Trump has passed down with his verbage, we’re recognizing that people relate to that and I am capitalizing on that when I can to let people know that I‘m on board with Trump. That’s my president. I’m good with that. No problems, so hopefully that coattail effect will carry on with me for this third time.
SMN: Last question and it’s either the easiest or hardest, depending on how you look at it. Tell me the nicest thing about Joe Sam Queen.
MC: [long pause] His absence.
Smoky Mountain News: The 2010 census says that almost 20 percent of this county is made up of people aged 18 years or less. What do we do to keep those people here or draw them back once they’ve earned their degrees?
Joe Sam Queen: The absolute key is jobs. They would love to stay if they could find work here. By not expanding Medicaid we lose 400 healthcare jobs. By not keeping our commitment to higher ed, we’ve lost 130-some teachers and teaching assistants. Those are primary jobs in rural Haywood County – that’s over 500 that the legislature and the governor have cut from us. And every primary job you lose loses a secondary job, so we’ve lost a thousand jobs. If you lose a thousand jobs, you lose a thousand families and a thousand breadwinners because of the governor’s and the legislature’s job policies.
SMN: Let’s talk about high-speed internet. It seems every single candidate running for office agrees on the need for high-speed internet, but not one has talked about how we get it.
JSQ: I was chairman, when I was in the majority in the Senate, of science and technology, our subcommittee. We had sessions on it for a full year. We worked up every aspect that we could. There is a good route to universal broadband this year – any time the General Assembly and the governor want to do it.
It basically is high-speed smart meters on the back of every home brought to you by your utility company. Then you have a customer interface with their utility company so they can save energy, so the energy savings pays for the investment of high-speed internet to every meter. The utility company saves lots of money on their side of the meter by having this high-speed connection to their customer, and the customer saves energy. It saves the customer energy, lowers their utility bill, saves the utility company energy, makes them much more efficient on their side of the meter, and the energy saved can be sold in the market which we’ve already paid for, because our utility bills are not — we’re really not paying for kilowatts. We’re being billed by kilowatts, but the utility commission sets the rates based on capacity. What is the capacity you need — we ask the utility companies to provide the capacity and that cost is subdivided down to a kilowatt amount.
So if you can keep people out of peak power and save power, a kilowatt saved is a kilowatt earned. You can sell it on the market. Duke Energy can sell it on the market to their neighboring states. It’s a commodity that moves on the wires. So all of it pays for itself – we’d have universal broadband.
Now there’s some nuances, because technology allows really smart things to happen. You put chips in these smart meters, because I’m not saying we’re going to buy internet for everybody – everybody’s going to have to buy their internet, but in half of my district, my citizens can’t buy high-speed internet at their house at any price. They can get it from satellite and things like that like you do in Africa, but it’s wildly expensive relative to what it should be.
So you put a chip in the meter so little boys and girls can get a laptop for school, and the department of public instruction would pay a fee so that every one of these laptops would have, basically, Wi-Fi. So we would have every kid connected. That would mean so much to education.
SMN: Jobs was another of your big priorities, and we’ve talked about the technology economy creating jobs. We’ve also talked about the health care industry creating jobs. There’s a school of thought that says that if you cut taxes on the rich, that money will overflow and that will trickle down and that will create jobs. Do you believe that?
JSQ: No. It is voodoo economics. It’s been voodoo economics but the likes of Mike Clampitt haven’t got the message yet. They’ve drank the Kool-Aid. Bull.
Rich people don’t make jobs. Innovators make jobs. Small businesses make jobs. Not big business. We’ve given the top 200 corporations and average of a million dollars each in tax cuts in this last legislature. Did they invest that million dollars or did they give their CEO a bonus? You check the CEO compensation. It is an embarrassment. It is ridiculous. They cut jobs when they can.
I sympathize with many of the Trump voters that think somebody stole their job. The global economy has definitely changed — there’s a global labor market, and we compete in it. Now I can tell you, you shouldn’t be competing for low-wage labor. A low-wage labor market does not make you a great state. What you want is a high value employee, not cheap labor. You can let China and Mexico have their cheap labor market, if you’re adding value to the product.
SMN: HB2 — good for N.C. or no?
JSQ: There wasn’t one, not a single, never, not the first transgender abuse in North Carolina. They’ve started this big firestorm, it’s cost us a billion dollars. The law protects no one. It legalizes discrimination. It is bad for business and business has said so.
SMN: But you were absent on that vote, weren’t you?
JSQ: I was. They called a special session for something that had no merit, it was Holy Week, and I had some obligations in my community.
SMN: But if you had made it to the session, you would have voted against it.
JSQ: I would assume so. Nobody saw it. The didn’t see it until up in the night. So it’s hard to know what you would have done. I just knew it was arbitrary and capricious, and political theater.
SMN: So you get back to the legislature and HB2 comes back around.
JSQ: I would vote to repeal it in a heartbeat.
SMN: It’s clear that mistakes have been made in the legislature. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made since you’ve been a legislator?
JSQ: I can tell you one that I learned on the job. I went down when I was first elected to promote wind energy for the mountains. This was in 2002. And I’m an architect, and I hadn’t done my proper site work on the issue. So I was promoting smart energy and big wind for the mountains. Then I got to realizing how big these windmills were. And I went to Mount Mitchell, which was in my district, and there was a company wanting to put like 20 of these giant industrial windmills up there. And if you‘ve ever been to Winston-Salem, they’re about as large as the tallest skyscraper in Winston-Salem. And that’s on flat land. We’re going to put them on top of the mountains. So our beautiful mountains would have been a Christmas tree light, and I said, “Oh my God, I’m promoting the wrong idea here.”
SMN: Last question — tell me something nice about Mike Clampitt.
JSQ: Well, he is a reenactor, Civil War buff. The Civil War is an important little slice of history, and I give him credit for adding a little historical pizazz to the community. I have always liked my firefighters, he’s a retired firefighter. I give him credit for his fire service, and we share that interest in history.