This is not the first time that Hipps has tried to unseat Davis. The two ran against each other in 2014, when Davis earned 53.9 percent of the votes compared to Hipps’ 46.1 percent. That translates to a margin of 4,846 votes out of 62,794 cast.
To oust Davis, Hipps will clearly have to do better this time around, and to look at a map of county outcomes from 2014, the divide between Hipps and Davis voters appears to be pretty clear. Hipps won the three easternmost counties in the district — Haywood, Jackson and Swain — while Davis won the four westernmost — Macon, Cherokee, Clay and Graham.
That makes sense, as the western four counties typically vote Republican and the eastern three typically vote for Democrats. The fact that Davis, a former Macon County commissioner who lives in Franklin, likely has more contacts than Hipps in those far-west areas, helps his cause. And the fact that Hipps, is a longtime Waynesville resident who has been active in Haywood’s schools and community, helps hers.
In 2014 Davis won the counties he carried by a decisive margin, 1,000 votes or more. His most decisive victory came in Cherokee County, where he took 5,975 of the 9,337 votes cast — 64 percent. Hipps, meanwhile, lacked the same degree of victory in the counties she won. Her most decisive victory came in Jackson County, where she took 5,653 of the 10,811 votes cast — 52.3 percent.
However, two years ago Hipps was in her first run and had the gargantuan task of making herself known to an electorate who had become familiar with Davis over the course of his 14 years in local government, including four as an incumbent of the office he still holds. This time around, the electorate is likely more familiar with both candidates and the messages they’re working to spread.
There is another variable in the mix — this year’s presidential election, with a ballot bearing the names of two historically unpopular candidates. Turnout is typically higher in presidential election years, with candidates of the same party as the presidential winner often finding themselves buoyed to office on the coattails of the new chief executive. It’s hard to tell who will win the presidential race, and it’s also hard to tell how many people who would typically vote in that race might stay home, too dismayed by their choices to cast a ballot either way.
The District 50 race has also become heated at times, especially in regard to a series of flyers sent out on Davis’ behalf. Paid for by the North Carolina Republican Party — though not endorsed by Davis — the flyers claim that Hipps will increase taxes on the middle class and restrict Second Amendment gun rights, painting her as a clone of Hillary Clinton. The flyers have led Hipps to accuse Davis of lying.
Davis, meanwhile said that he did not approve the messages on the flyers and that he’s not legally allowed to coordinate with the groups sending them. However, he doesn’t denounce their content.
“She seems to stand for a lot of the things that Hillary stands for,” he said of Hipps. “What’s the problem?”
“I’ve never met Hillary Clinton — we’re two different individuals,” Hipps responded. “And I don’t plan to raise taxes on the middle class.”
Hipps also said that she’s a gun owner and supporter of Second Amendment rights. Davis supporters claim she’s anti-gun because she didn’t fill out a candidate survey from the National Rifle Association. Hipps wouldn’t elaborate on her reasons for opting not to fill out the survey — Davis has the NRA endorsement — but said she has been endorsed by the N.C. Police Benevolent Association, whose president expressed his faith in Hipps’ support of Second Amendment rights.
For Davis, the election boils down to whether voters want to take a chance on someone peddling promises that sound good or to keep someone in office whose record is proven and public.
“I would say my results have been extremely beneficial to North Carolina and especially my district,” he said. “Talk is cheap.”
Hipps, meanwhile, would argue that Davis’ record is not nearly as beneficial has he claims and says she’s the choice that will give voters an advocate who’s committed to governing the state toward a brighter future.
“I’m an independent thinker,” she said. “I’m not beholden to any group. I want to leave a better community for our children and our grandchildren. I want to leave them with clean air and clean water and good opportunities for education here and good opportunities to stay in this region.”
On the issues:
The basics: Since taking the majority in the 2010 elections, the Republican legislature has made myriad — and often controversial — changes to education. The cap on charter schools, formerly set at 100, was lifted and legislation giving kids from low-income families access to scholarships helping defray the cost of private school attendance was passed. Starting pay for teachers increased, but overall the state’s ranking for teacher pay fell from 36 to 42. Per-pupil spending increased, but the proportion going for expenses other than personnel — like textbooks and professional development — fell. And the number of teachers assistants funded by the state dropped from 18,227 to 14,618. However, overall spending on public education rose, increasing from $9.79 billion in the 2010-11 fiscal year to $10.48 in 2015-16.
Davis’ take: Davis takes issue with the Democratic party’s narrative that the Republican legislature is at war with the education system, pointing out that actual spending on education has increased by nearly $700 million. And he stands by the changes the legislature has made to diversify education. North Carolina currently has 167 operating charter schools, including Shining Rock Classical Academy, which became Haywood County’s first charter school in 2015, and the online N.C. Virtual Academy. The Opportunity Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships of up to $4,200 for low-income students to attend private schools, was expanded so that nearly 36,000 students could receive scholarships yearly by 2028-29.
“I’m strongly in favor of charter schools, opportunity scholarships, early college, the North Carolina School of Science and Math,” Davis said. “I think competition is good and a diversity of options for parents and students is good for education.”
While the public schools in Western North Carolina are generally good, he said, that’s not the case everywhere in the state. It’s only fair to give parents and students other options to put their tax dollars to use. True, he said, most charters and private schools don’t provide auxiliary services such as transportation, meals and afterschool care, but the pros of diversifying the education landscape outweigh the cons, especially because nobody forces families to take advantage of those options. Attendance is by choice.
“There are limitations,” he said. “There’s no question about it. But they are minor compared to the opportunity that we give students for options.”
Hipps’ take: Hipps doesn’t buy the storyline that there’s more money for education now than ever. Textbook funding has fallen and since 2010 the state has lost 5,258 teaching assistants. That all needs to be rectified — educational opportunity, Hipps said, is one thing the government just should not mess with.
“I don’t feel like our children now are getting the quality of education that I got or my children got through public school,” she said.
She also believes that much more accountability is needed for charter schools and for private schools receiving state funds through vouchers.
“If we’re giving state money, we need to know how that money’s being used and what kids are getting for their education,” she said.
While charter school students are required to take state achievement tests and private schools must give a nationally normed test to students in third, sixth and ninth grade each year, they are not subject to all the requirements that public schools are. For instance, charter schools aren’t limited to hiring certified teachers only, and they aren’t required to gain accreditation from an organization like the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Hipps also worries about whether diversifying public education could lead to division along lines of economics and ability level. If charter schools — because of issues like lack of busing and after-school care — are less accessible to low-income families, she asked, then will schools tend toward self-segregation?
“What is going to be left in the public school? Is it going to be the kids who have behavioral problems and learning problems?” she asked. “Are we creating a great divide in education over time?”
The basics: Many in the current legislative majority favor transition to a “flat tax” — eliminating income tax and instead instituting greater taxes on purchases and fees for services. To that end, they’ve decreased the income tax rate for corporations from 2013’s level of 6.9 percent to a 3 percent rate effective January 2017 and lowered the rate for individuals from more than 7 percent in 2010 percent to 5.499 percent effective January 2017. Meanwhile, they’ve expanded sales tax to apply to a variety of previously exempt purchases such as automotive repair, concert tickets and mobile homes, also increasing fees for some services.
Hipps’ take: Hipps does not support the flat tax concept, viewing it as a burden on the poor and a gift to the rich. From her perspective, tax policy under the current majority has served only to deepen the divide between the haves and the have-nots.
“When you talk about a flat tax it sounds very fair, but when you implement it it’s a tax that becomes a burden on the middle class and hardworking people,” she said.
Lower-income people spend a greater percentage of their income on necessities like food and clothing, so under a consumption-based tax they’re taxed on a greater percentage of their income than richer folks, Hipps reasons. For instance, she said, this year when she paid her car registration it was about $6 more than the year before.
“It’s not going to matter to someone who is bringing in big earnings that they have to pay six more bucks, but when you add that up to everything that has been affected that you purchase, it’s a big burden to the hardworking people — and everything has gone up,” she said. “It’s a situation where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
Davis’ take: Davis would like to see North Carolina go to a tax system based primarily on a consumption tax. Doing so would allow the state to pull from a broad base of revenue sources while keeping rates low. Sales tax is a more predictable source of revenue than income tax, he said, and it captures more people, such as out-of-state visitors who aren’t paying North Carolina income tax but will pay sales tax on that souvenir T-shirt and fancy dinner out.
He takes issue with the assertion that a consumption-based tax is bad for poor people, pointing to the fact that, when it comes to poverty rankings, states with a consumption-based tax don’t sit at the bottom of the barrel. Of the 10 southeastern states, two operate without an income tax — Tennessee and Florida. Of the 10, Florida has the second-lowest poverty rate and Tennessee is right in the middle, at fifth place, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Davis also defends the recent fee hikes.
“Some of these fees haven’t changed since the ‘90s,” he said. “Our view on fees is to cover the cost of issuing a license plate, a title.”
The basics: The current legislature has made substantial changes to environmental policy and, most notably, set up a framework to allow hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as “fracking” — to take place in the state. Opponents would say that the legislature has gutted environmental legislation, while proponents would say that they’ve decreased regulation to a more reasonable level, encouraging business and commerce.
Davis’ take: Davis said he believes environmental regulations are good and necessary but that the government should be careful to avoid making them onerous. A sponsor of the fracking bill, he’s on board with the changes the current legislature has made.
“I don’t think that we should leave it up to private business or corporations or individuals to set their own environmental regulations,” he said. “I think the government has a responsibility to protect the environment. But I also think they have a responsibility to do it in a responsible manner — not with unreasonable regulations or with regulations that don’t make sense or are not scientifically valid.”
He believes the fracking bill accomplishes that. Fracking is an “energy revolution” that has “contributed to America becoming energy independent,” he said — even California has legislation allowing the practice. Davis said that, to his knowledge, there’s been no evidence of fracking harming an aquifer and lauds North Carolina’s fracking legislation as the strictest in the country.
Hipps’ take: When Hipps looks at the current legislature’s record on environmental policy, she sees a legacy of weakened protections. In particular, she and Davis differ acutely on the risk-benefit of fracking.
“It’s not the panacea that we expected it to be when you look at water being polluted, when you look at earthquakes taking place,” she said.
In general, she said, the legislature has shown itself to be on the side of the polluters, referencing a provision of the multi-faceted Regulatory Reform Act of 2015. The provision grants immunity from civil penalties for some environmental law violations, provided the violater meets criteria such as initiating action to resolve the violation and reporting the violation within two weeks of its discovery.
“You can now pollute and just come back and say, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve created this problem,’ and you don’t have to go through civil prosecution for that,” she said. “It makes it too easy.”
The basics: Economic development can be tricky in the mountains, where resources are fewer and topography makes basic infrastructure such as internet, roads and water/sewer connections more expensive. Young people, in particular, can have a hard time finding careers in their fields without leaving home.
Hipps’ take: Education should sit on the front lines of the crusade to improve economic opportunity in the mountains, Hipps said. Strengthening already strong vocational and entrepreneurship programs is key.
“Right now in this region our greatest export is our children, and I want our children to be able to stay here,” she said.
Infrastructure development is also key to bolstering the Western North Carolina economy. Hipps supports Corridor K, for instance, a road project that, if built, would result in a four-lane road stretching from Stecoah to Andrews.
“We need Corridor K,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair to isolate Graham County as we have. There’s an environmental issue there, but there are also economic issues.”
But for Hipps, the most important aspect of insfrastructure development is improved broadband internet. It’s hard to get in the mountains, and lack of it keeps people from moving here and starting businesses. Expanding broadband tends to be cost-prohibitive for private businesses because there are too few customers to make the investment worthwhile.
“It doesn’t look economically feasible, so we need to either get grants or government assistance to have that in the far reaches,” she said.
Davis’ take: Davis believes the current legislature has made “tremendous strides” in spurring economic development, including lowering the corporate tax rate and reducing “burdensome, unnecessary regulations.”
He’s also proud of bills he’s sponsored, including securing $12 million in grant funding to help Evergreen Packaging’s Canton paper mill comply with new Environmental Protection Agency regulations and another bill allowing live dealers at Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians casinos. Together, he said, those two measures kept or created 3,000 jobs.
On the infrastructure side, Davis concurs that Corridor K is needed and noted that in this year’s budget the General Assembly stopped the transfer of Highway Trust Fund money into the general revenue account, which will leave more money for road projects.
Broadband is the other big issue, but fixing it could be next to impossible. Significant grant funding will be needed to address the problem.
“I’m hopeful that technology is going to save us from that one,” Davis said. “Maybe before too many years we’ll be able to have a satellite dish with sufficient power to satisfy a lot of these.”
The basics: In 2013, North Carolina enacted a voter identification law that would have required voters to display ID at the polls beginning in 2016. It also disallowed same-day registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-old high schools students, and it decreased the number of early voting days while keeping the number of hours the same. In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down the law, writing that it targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.” General Assembly leadership has announced that it will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Hipps’ take: Hipps says voter fraud hasn’t been proven to be an issue and that the law does more to restrict voting rights than to guarantee their integrity. She agrees with the Fourth Circuit ruling.
“Our democracy is based on the access to the ballot box. I think when you restrict that you’re diminishing a democracy,” she said. “I was very concerned when the voter ID law came into North Carolina.”
Davis’ take: In Davis’ view, an ID is necessary for basic day-to-day life anyway, so requiring people to have one isn’t imposing a hardship on them. And he questions the view that voter fraud wasn’t a problem in the first place — if nobody’s looking, he said, how do you know?
He strongly disagrees with the Fourth Circuit ruling.
“How racist a statement could you have? He’s presuming that African Americans don’t have the ability to get a photo ID. I do not accept that,” Davis said. “I think they’re just as capable as anybody else.”
The basics: On Feb. 22, the city of Charlotte passed an ordinance that, among other provisions, allowed transgender people to use whichever bathroom aligned with their gender identity while in the city. One month later, the N.C. General Assembly passed House Bill 2 in a one-day special session. The new law effectively repealed Charlotte’s ordinance. It requires people to use the bathroom corresponding with the sex noted on their birth certificate and also nullifies any local ordinances around the state that would have expanded protections for the LGBT community. HB2 elicited a strong public reaction and caused a variety of businesses to drop plans to locate in the state and prompted many sports and entertainment events to cancel their plans to hold events in North Carolina. The law is currently the subject of a lawsuit.
Davis’ take: Davis stands by the legislature’s decision. He sees it not as an argument about transgender rights but rather as a discussion about constitutional limits of power. Charlotte stepped outside its bounds of authority when it passed the ordinance, he said.
“They don’t have the authority to tell private businesses what they can do regarding bathrooms,” Davis said. “They don’t have the authority and our attorney general did not strike (the Charlotte oridnance) down, which he should have done.”
Hipps’ take: Hipps believes that the bill was passed too quickly and without any of the careful consideration of impact that it deserved. Moreover, she said, it was unnecessarily distracting from the real issues facing North Carolina.
“It was not a law that we needed,” she said. “There are already laws on the books to protect women and children from predators in the bathroom. That bill is a bill of power and it’s a bill of fear.”
The basics: The Affordable Care Act allows states to expand Medicaid to insure people making less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level, but North Carolina is one of 19 states that has not expaned, leaving a group of people who are not covered by the existing program but also don’t qualify for a subsidy on the insurance marketplace. The federal government would pay 100 percent of expansion costs for the first three years and 90 percent after that until 2022.
Hipps’ take: Hipps believes the legislature should have expanded the program. It would have extended health care to those who have none, but it also would have created jobs at local hospitals and boosted the economy.
Davis’ take: The existing Medicaid program is already experiencing cost overruns, and the state needs to get a handle on those before it can think about expanding, Davis said. The 10 percent of the cost that North Carolina would be required to cover would still amount to about $1 billion.
“If you believe the government is always going to honor its promises, I would point you to the Road to Nowhere in Swain County,” he said.
The basics: Davis, a former county commissioner, prides himself on being an advocate of local government. However, the current legislature has been criticized as undermining the authority of local governments, including attempts to redraw voting districts in some cities against the wishes of local elected officials. Davis was among those who supported a state bill that would have changed Asheville city council elections from at-large to districts, but the bill was eventually defeated.
Davis’ take: Davis says that one of the “saddest days” of his time in government was when he arrived in Raleigh and learned about Dillon’s Rule. North Carolina is a “Dillon’s Rule state,” he said, which basically means that local governments can do only what the state has expressly authorized them to do.
“I believe that strongly stifles innovation and creativity, but that’s the Constitution we have,” he said.
When it comes to fracking and the provision of that law that prevents local governments from restricting the industry, he says the restriction was necessary because oil fields “don’t know county boundaries.”
“We thought it was extremely important that businesses had a standardized regulation in which to operate so they didn’t have to go from one county, one municipality to another and wonder what regulations they were going to be subject to,” he said.
Hipps’ take: Hipps believes that the current legislature has overstepped its boundaries when it comes to interfering with local decisions, referencing instances such as HB2, redistricting the Greensboro City Council and abolishing municipalities’ ability to charge business license fees — and especially in regard to fracking.
“I think local governments have lost their power and authority,” she said.
Background: A practicing orthodontist, Davis has lived in Franklin for 42 years and been married for 44. He has two sons and two granddaughters.
Political experience: Prior to being elected as District 50 Senator, Davis served on the Macon County Board of Commissioners for 10 years. He’s been a senator since 2011, ousting Democratic incumbent John Snow in the 2010 elections.
Reason to run: “We’ve been involved in some historic tax and regulation reform, and it’s paying off big-time in the Carolina comeback, and I want to continue that work. I’m very interested in drug abuse, both legal and illegal, and working on the controlled substance reporting system, just another tool to help us combat the abuse of drugs in our state.”
Background: Hipps spent her career in education, working in a variety of positions in Haywood County Schools including school psychology and developing the program for Haywood’s gifted and talented students. She spent 14 years working for the State Department of Public Instruction as a science coordinator and afterward ran her own consulting business in science and math that took her to 38 states. In her 60s, she earned a master’s degree and passed boards to be a nurse practioner. She is currently retired.
Political experience: Hipps ran against Davis in the 2014 Senate race and has seen the political system at work through the eyes of her late husband Charlie Hipps, who was a District 50 Senator, a Waynesville alderman and the district attorney during his career.
Reason to run: “I look at politics as a way you can help people and make their lives better, to build a better Western North Carolina in terms of the economy, in terms of better educational opportunities for our children, from pre-K to the university level.”