“I’ve been privileged and humbled enough to have great assistance from the other legislators in recognizing the needs of my constituents in Swain, Jackson and Haywood counties,” Clampitt said. “We’ve been able to accomplish things that in my competitor’s many years never got done.”
Two years ago, Clampitt ran on that very premise — that Queen had been largely ineffectual.
“I observed in 2013 and 2014 when I was sergeant-at-arms,” Clampitt said. “[Queen] sitting in the back row, having no influence, non-participation on committees and no traction of getting any bills passed or getting anything done for the district. I’ve personally seen his effectiveness for two of his four years in this office.”
He’s continued to harp on Queen’s efficacy, but this time around, has a list of his own accomplishments to share as well.
“It goes back to my first year there, with some discretionary funds that I was offered, which don’t get offered to minority members of the House from the speaker’s office,” he said.
Since then, Clampitt touts his involvement in bringing a $16 million investment in Western Carolina University’s steam plant and $1 million in drought relief for all 20 Western North Carolina counties.
“When I look at legislation, what I try to do is take into account Western North Carolina and the other legislators’ districts and what can benefit them,” he said. “We all have to work together.”
Clampitt also wrangled $15,000 for security cameras in Sylva’s Pinnacle Park, and a badly needed $15,000 for Waynesville’s Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center in addition to $100,000 for the Cullowhee Fire Department.
“It was funding for items that normally wouldn’t have been in the budget, and the money needs to come from somewhere,” he said. “With my background, what I say is that public safety is something that takes care of you from before your born until after you’re dead.”
Perhaps his biggest accomplishment was in helping to end a longstanding dispute with the federal government over Swain County’s so-called “Road to Nowhere” settlement.
“I did introduce a bill to direct the state attorney general to participate in a lawsuit against the feds,” said Clampitt. “Sad to say, I had little traction from the attorney general and from the governor. They more or less told me to back off.”
He said he then wrote letters to President Trump, Congressman Mark Meadows, and N.C. Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr.
“Last year we were able to get $4 million. I was in Washington with [Secretary of the Interior] Ryan Zinke and he assured me it was being brought to the front burner and he would do everything in his power to get it going,” he said. “This year we were able to get the other $35 million, which has been very beneficial for Swain County and will help us in future generations. So I’m appreciative to the president, our congressmen and senators for their assistance on that.”
Like other WNC Democrats this year, Clampitt’s opponent Joe Sam Queen seems to be honing in on one big issue — the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid.
“We’re losing $20 million a year, that’s $40 million Mike Clampitt has thrown away in Medicaid expansion money. Those are taxes we’ve paid,” Queen said. “Every citizen in this district has paid those taxes and they’re not allowed to come back and help our low-wage workers. We’re in an opioid crisis, and we have no health care for 15,000 low-wage workers in and Haywood, Jackson and Swain.”
Queen expanded on what, exactly, it would mean if Clampitt get re-elected to another two-year term.
“There are eight to 10 lives that are lost each year,” he said. “Mike Clampitt is in for 15 or 20 citizens that die for lack of health care. It’s 200 jobs a year. Mike Clampitt has killed 200 jobs a year. Two more years of that is 400 more jobs gone, following the money that we have paid in and got nothing for. No health care, lives lost, jobs lost, that’s what it means, and that’s just one issue.”
The next big issue being pushed by Democrats across the board is education.
“It’s approaching 60 percent of our budget,” said Queen. “It’s been the strategy that has always kept North Carolina moving, through the Greatest Generation of World War II through the Baby Boomers — which is mine — and it will be the strategy that keeps us moving in the 21st Century. We need to get back to a long-term commitment public education at every level.”
That commitment, according to Queen, centers on the quality of instruction in the state’s classrooms.
“We’ve got to recruit them, retain them, train them, develop them, support them and respect them,” he said. “And then, we’ve got to support our community college system. They are very responsive, but they need resources. You can’t starve them to death and expect them to meet the demands of 21st Century workforce development. If you want to help businesses, give them a better employee, give them better customers — customers with little more money in their pockets, not bankrupted by health care. That’s how you help business.”
The Republican approach has been slightly different since they took control of the legislature in 2010; North Carolina is consistently rated as one of the top five or six states in which to do business, due to a decidedly deregulatory, anti-tax legislative bent.
“We have been in the top five for 30 years,” Queen said. “They have inherited something, and they’re not making it better. When you limit 200,000 healthcare jobs, you’re not being business friendly.”
Clampitt says if he’s re-elected he looks forward to continuing the work Republicans have been doing getting the state’s financial house in order.
“Financial stability would improve the quality of life for all North Carolinians,” he said. “We have a very diverse landscape. We’ve got to maintain a balance across the state with population growth and economic growth.”
To that end, one of the six constitutional amendments on the ballot this year caps the state’s income tax at 7.5 percent, but that’s still not enough for Clampitt.
“I had wanted a 5.5 percent cap, and that would have been a march to doing away with the state income tax altogether,” he said. “Currently, 99 percent of North Carolinians do not pay income tax. That being the case, it’s a very burdensome program to administer in terms of cost, so by eliminating that it would reduce the expenditure to the state’s budget, and also increase the state’s population and bring in individuals who live out of state like in Tennessee and Florida where they don’t have income tax.”
Queen, however, disagrees with that sentiment and accuses Republicans of being born on third base, claiming they’d hit a triple.
“They’re putting on a big show. They have given a $2 billion tax cut, I will give them credit for that, but 99.5 percent of it went to the top half percent. It is skewed incredibly toward the high-end wealthy,” he said. “Citizens in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Tax Policy Council, 85 percent of us are paying more taxes than we were four years ago because they lowered the rate, but broadened the base.”
As in 2016, the race promises to be close, and will certainly be influenced by voters’ opinions of President Donald Trump.
“Trump did carry Western North Carolina in the 2016 election, and I think that the people in Western North Carolina recognized that the same old, same old was not getting it done for the state and the nation,” Clampitt said. “They wanted to have a change, a positive change. And I think that was true in my race as well.”
Queen, like other Democrats this year, brushes the Trump factor off to the side.
“It’s hard to say,” he said of a possible surge of Democrats — or Republicans — to the polls hoping to weigh in on the controversial president’s first two years. “If there ever was a wild card in American politics, it’s President Trump. You don’t know what he is going to say tomorrow, and you don’t know if you can believe what he said yesterday. He’s just a wild card, that’s all I can say.”
Clampitt, though, says the race is more about his opponent than the man in the White House.
“It’s real simple. I won’t take anything for granted and won’t know until Nov. 7 what people’s votes are going to be, but looking to my competitor’s past record, he had a 23 percent rate of movement of bills between the House or the Senate that became law,” Clampitt said. “In my two years, I’ve had a 53 percent movement of bills out of the House into the Senate that have become law. With all that being said, all I bring forth to my constituents is a simple question — if you were an employer hiring a potential employee, which employee would you want? One with a track record of getting things done, or one that is just going to show up for work?”
Meet the candidates
Rep. Mike Clampitt, 63, likes to tell people he’s from L.A., but in Western North Carolina, that doesn’t mean Los Angeles — it means the Lower Alarka community in Swain County. “When I graduated high school at 18 I left home, like every young person has to do in the mountains, to get an education and a job.” After a move to Winston-Salem, Clampitt joined the Charlotte Fire Department, from which he retired as a captain after 27 years’ service. Clampitt ran twice for Swain County commission seats, losing both times, and ran then twice for the district 119 seat, losing twice. The third time was the charm, though, as Clampitt narrowly unseated Democratic Rep. Joe Sam Queen in 2016 by just 277 votes.
Joe Sam Queen
Former member of both the Senate and the House Joe Sam Queen, 68, was born and raised in Waynesville and has been a practicing architect since earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from North Carolina State University. Queen successfully defended his district 119 House seat twice against Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, but was defeated in the second-closest House race in the state in 2016. He’s running to reclaim that seat because “it really matters, what’s happening in our state right now — our institutions, our courts, our voting rights, our public education system, the very foundations of our democracy are really being challenged by this [Republican] supermajority down there.”