Five Dems run for Sen. Tillis seat
The Smoky Mountain News: What do you think the biggest issue is in the primary right now?
Cal Cunningham: Health care. I would second that very closely with the issue of corruption in Washington because I think it's not just an issue in this campaign about replacing a bad U.S. Senator. There's a need for structural reform in Washington dealing with the problem of corporate influence on policy making, dealing with the revolving door and particularly the unlimited money in politics after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. And so there are structural problems and I think they're standing in the way of progress on issues like health care, for instance, bringing down the cost of prescription drugs, the amount of money that the drug industry is spending on campaigns, reforming the Affordable Care Act, strengthening it, extending it to more people and the insurance and other industries that are spending money to chip away at it and the other direction. So, health care is what I'm talking to people about, but I think it's coupled very closely with the need for structural reform.
Trevor Fuller: The thing I hear most from people is the concern about health care and even more than that about whether people have the ability to make ends meet on a consistent basis. A lot of people are suffering economically. We've got an economy that's doing well for some, but for others not so well.
Atul Goel: I understand the health care system inside out as opposed to anyone else because I’ve been a physician in hospitals and nursing homes, a medical director in the Medicare system, I worked for device manufacturers and I've done disability and vocational rehab. I was assigned to a squadron of fighter pilots, and I deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. So, I have been on the front lines of seeing what happens when people don’t have access to access to health care. We've been talking about people that for want of $30 or $40 worth of medications, their diabetes, blood pressure, heart disease just gets worse and worse and worse. So, my single, biggest goal, and this is what propelled me to run is to make sure that they finally have affordable healthcare access for everyone.
SMN: The opioid crisis is ravaging the entire state, and the rural west has been hit a lot harder than some places in North Carolina. Many people think that expanding access to health care will help fight this problem. What's your position on that?
Fuller: One of the chief issues that people find is that they can't get it. There are lots of folks, I think almost a million, if not more than a million people who in North Carolina who are not insured. Health care is a right for every American. That is, in my view, essential to liberty, so I believe in universal health care. I think we have to have a health care system where everybody has access to it. That that's what a right means to me. I'm on the side of a Medicare for all system, one where everybody has access to healthcare, no matter your condition, no matter your financial situation, no matter where you live. I think that’s a promise that we ought to make to every American. So, I think that would do a lot to reduce the situation.
Smith: I was one of the sponsors of the STOP Act and also provided appropriations for the opioid crisis across the state. We need to promote a comprehensive universal health care plan that will provide the opportunities for treatment centers — the compassionate approach. You know, it's one thing to, to say, “OK, we'll make appropriations but unless you have programs in place that provide the public information and the access and open up opportunities for treatment, many residents who struggle with that don't have insurance. And so, and they don't have the money to be able to afford a treatment program.
Cunningham: One of the important tools in the Affordable Care Act toolbox is Medicaid expansion, and if we repeal the Affordable Care Act, which I adamantly disagree with, then we lose the ability to extend Medicaid. And as you may know I've been vice chair of the governor's crime commission for the last two years. And uh, when I talked with law enforcement, when I talk with health care, when I talk to social service providers about the opioid crisis, the number one thing that all of those stakeholders identify that we in North Carolina could do to address that opioid dependency is extend Medicaid coverage to the 600,000 that are currently eligible if we expand that eligibility coverage. In that group, 85,000 is the estimated number of opioid-dependent North Carolinians that would get care that don't have it today.
SMN: A number of local and national groups have been calling for common sense gun reform. Is there such a thing and is there a place for it in America today?
Goel: We must do something with gun violence. I'll tell you, I'm a gun owner. I’ve owned every type of weapon that is out there. I belong to a gun club. I don't want my guns to be taken away, truth be told. At the same time, we can do something to reduce gun violence, which involves not just gun control. That involves having better mental health care access. That's just part of my health care platform and involves giving law enforcement more ability to use their discretion when they suspect something will happen. I think you can pass some reasonable legislation, some responsible legislation to have a greater level of control over people or access to guns that can cause mass killings.
Smith: There should be a place for it and as your next U.S. Senator that’s certainly one of my priorities. I am the first one in this race who promoted and released a comprehensive platform that included universal background check checks and banning of assault rifles and rapid fire and bump stocks. As we look at Riley [Howell], we did a Senate resolution for him on the Senate floor and that was brought forward by our colleague, Senator Jim Davis. The sad reality is there have been life loss after life loss, but we have a paralysis among our leadership, and they cannot take a stand when they're owned and operated by the NRA. Senator Tillis is one of the top recipients of donations from the NRA. Cal Cunningham got an A rating from NRA and so the NRA, they get comprehensive gun reform from me and they gave me a letter “F” for that. I wear that with pride.
Cunningham: I think that we need to focus on community safety and one of the ways we can do that is by making sure that all firearm purchases are accompanied by a background check. And so there's legislation pending today that would extend background checks. What these really are is violent history checks to make sure that people that are buying firearms don't have a violent history. I think we should also develop and implement red flag laws that allow law enforcement to take firearms from people that have demonstrated a risk to themselves or others. I'd like to see us, get back to research on the impacts of firearms on a society. It's a public health issue and there's currently a prohibition on doing further gun violence research. We need to. We need to understand the depth of this epidemic.
I take this issue very personally. I grew up in a small town where dads taught their sons and daughters how to safely use firearms. Today, I'm a parent and I'm worried when I do drop off my kids at school that I'm not going to see my kids safe at the end of the day. And I would say too, I'm trained on firearms by the military. I'm a pretty good shot, a sharpshooter and an expert on a rifle and a pistol. I think responsible gun owners can help lead the debate on community safety here.
Fuller: Look, I'm a lawyer and I appreciate the significance and importance of the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The United States Supreme Court has ruled on this issue, that individuals do have a right to bear arms. But I say this about every constitutional right, that there are limits in that one person's constitutional rights should not lead to infringement on another person's constitutional rights. So, we need to deal with gun violence and we need to get to the source of it.
I think we've got to have universal background checks. I think we ought to implement sensible red flag laws that allow us to be able to reduce people who have mental health issues or other issues that are affecting their lives that we have some ability to be able to get firearms out of the hands of those who are dealing with those kinds of mental situations. I think we ought to ban assault weapons. I don't see any reason why, beyond military uses, that people ought to have assault weapons, and I think we ought to, in treating this as a public health concern, fund the Center for Disease Control’s study of gun violence.
SMN: On the same topic of public safety, many Republican and Democratic candidates say illegal immigration is a public safety issue. What can be done to fix an immigration system they say is broken?
Cunningham: I trained as a prosecutor and if a person commits a crime in a community that they ought to be held accountable no matter where they're from. But really what's at issue in this debate is that we have a broken immigration system and it needs to be fixed. We're 20-plus years past the last time we implemented reform and we really need to modernize our immigration system.
I think what the most effective thing that I've seen is that it's going to require a strategic mix of physical barriers, technology and people. I'll tell you what I don't support — taking the $80 million from our military installations that Thom Tillis allowed Donald Trump to take to try to build a wall all the way across the southern border that even the property owners down there have issue with.
We need to be smart about this. Security is real. Having served our nation in the military, having worked as a prosecutor, I recognize that we can both protect our security but also uphold our values as a nation and in doing so, we've got to be serious about security. And that's physical barriers. That’s technology. That’s people. But the underlying issue is that we need to reform that immigration system and modernize it.
Fuller: I'm not sure the president fully knows what he wants other than that he wants to treat people unfairly. Of course we have to have an immigration system where we have controls at our borders, but, it is inconsistent with American values for us to be caging people, particularly children, at our border. It's inhumane. I think what we ought to be doing is shoring up our borders, not with an ineffective, expensive wall but with new technology, with a comprehensive immigration system. We have to deal with the fact that we have 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in our country right now, and we're not going to deport them all. We ought to have a sensible pathway to citizenship. I think we ought to focus on foreign aid to those countries where people are coming to our border, particularly in Central America. We ought to help improve conditions so that people won't have to leave their homes and people won't have to endure hardship and persecution where they live and feel like they have to travel thousands of miles just to get to our border.
Goel: It always tickles me when some people suggest that, “Oh, the Democrats just want open borders.” That’s ridiculous. Absurd. I don't want to open borders. I want to control our borders. I want to have legal immigration, but at the same time, we cannot be the country that says, “Oh, the way we will control our borders is let's just separate kids from moms. Then this will deter them from coming.” We can find better solutions than that. That's not America. I'm an immigrant. I came here as an immigrant. I became a nationalized citizen. I enlisted in the Air Force. I know what the immigrant experience is and I differ a little bit with some of the stuff that I'm hearing on the immigrant issue. You keep hearing about people saying, well, let's only let people in that can be significant contributors to our brain pool. Let's not forget, we must stabilize the family. An elderly person may come here if they do some part time work, but they're helping to stabilize the family. That is an important part of the immigrant experience, which I bring to the table and which I understand. So again, humane immigration policies, policy that understand the contributions of immigrants to support and stabilize their situation, that’s an important issue for me.
Smith: I was listening to [President Trump’s] State of the Union address as long as I could stomach it, and I'm like, it is ridiculous to put these billions of dollars into an ornamental border wall that can be burrowed through underground and also is susceptible to be environmental and storm damage. We can use that money for the programs that sustain the life of American citizens.
SMN: One issue that’s not getting a lot of notice is the federal budget deficit, which is approaching a trillion dollars and adding to the nation’s $23 trillion national debt. How would you approach that problem?
Cunningham: The budget is about the priorities of the nation, and I disagree very strongly with the priorities that are being set. I believe that we need to invest in growth, in our people for the future, and the way to do that isn't wholesale tax cuts that pay dividends to CEOs and the wealthy. Instead, it is targeted tax cuts and expanded earned income tax credit, child tax credit, to replace some of those tax cuts. But it also means investing in education, research and development and extension of credit to small business owners, people growing and investing in communities because that's where we get real meaningful, long term growth in an economy, not just the sugar high that we get when we cut taxes. Instead we need to build capacity and invest in our people for long term growth.
Fuller: To me it's a pretty basic question. As a county commissioner I've got to balance our budget every year. I don't have the right to run a deficit at the county level. I think it ought to be that way on the federal level. I hear the arguments that people make about how it's different at the federal level. I get that, but we ought to be concerned about the debt that we are creating for our children who will have to pay this debt back. I think there's a lot of hypocrisy at play here. Those who scream the loudest about it on the other side of the aisle the Republicans, side are also some of the biggest offenders when they get into office and then they combine it with these tax cuts that we as a community getting nothing for.
Goel: The whole thing on the deficit is it is very hard to talk about the deficit if you only talk about the deficit. It's kinda like in a family — “Hey, you know what? We're too much in debt.” The question is really about the sources of income. What are the proper and best ways to get income in a predictable way? And what is the best way to spend that money? What are our policies to money in and to what extent are they harming this process and where are we spending the money? Of course the Democrats have a different philosophical perspective on how to manage revenues, and how money should be spent. I really feel this issue can be addressed if we just send people to Washington to not attack. If there's one method I can give people is that is why I moved the effective in all my promises that I make with the health care and so on, because I am going in being able to work with anybody not having attacked them and therefore naturally expecting them to shut me out.
Smith: President Trump hasn't delivered on a lot and the interesting thing is that Republicans were complaining a whole lot in the previous administration with the bailout of the automotive industry and the bailout out of the banks. But under the previous administration, that bailout was $8 billion and the farm bailout was $22 billion. And as we look at approaching a trillion-dollar deficit there was the sequestration, there was the demand that we not exceed a certain amount of debt, but all of that had gone to the wind with President Trump’s administration.
SMN: Sen. Tillis played a pivotal role during the impeachment proceedings, voting against calling witnesses. Are you OK with that?
Cunningham: North Carolinians know what a fair trial looks like and that's not what we just saw in the U.S. Senate. I've been a strong proponent for witnesses. I've been a strong proponent for documents. I commend the 17 brave Americans that came forward in the House and told a pretty strong story about the president, who I think got caught, trying to cheat in the election by using the tools of office for personal gain, for political gain and I think that we have not heard the whole story yet. I’m disappointed, really, that they did not call witnesses in the U.S. Senate.
Fuller: I can think of many criminal defendants who would love to be treated like the president is being treated in the Senate — that the defendant would be able to collaborate with the jury to get a result. That's a fantastic situation [laughing]. Look, I think this is this is a threat to our very democracy. I don't care whether the president is Republican or Democrat, you're creating this imperial presidency and that's dangerous for all of us.
Smith: Yeah, let's talk about that trumped-up trial in Washington. I mean, how incredible is it that the average everyday American, and for many Americans who've been greatly impacted by a discriminatory criminal justice system, they've not had the benefit of being able to go to trial and get an acquittal based on the fact that no evidence was put in to submission, no witnesses were called. I mean it was just incredible. It was unfair. It's just promoted so much injustice as it relates to who we are as Americans and as citizens who are bound by United States constitution and no one is above the law except for the president.
SMN: Why are you the Democrat people should vote for on March 3?
Cunningham: A combination of reasons. First and foremost, having grown up in the small town of Lexington, having been educated at UNC, I've served with the airborne special operations troops at Fort Bragg and I built a business that puts people to work, in Raleigh, North Carolina. So I am telling a North Carolina story. It's a state that I love. It's made me who I am. Of course, I love this country as well. I’ve served my state and my nation and I'd like to do so again in the U.S. Senate, but I would say as well, I'm building a campaign that is bringing people together up, traveling North Carolina. I'm listening, really listening to people, at a time when a lot of voices aren't being heard in Washington. I'm not checking voter registration cards before I'm listening either. I'm having conversations with people across the political spectrum. I think North Carolinians are being left out, left behind. As I travel, we're picking up a lot of support across the party spectrum, a lot of leading voices lending their names to this campaign. We're building the kind of campaign that people are proud to be a part of, a broad-based coalition. It's a campaign that will go the distance, as I said, not just to replace a bad U.S. Senator, but to really put service back in the heart of why we're doing what we're doing in Washington.
Fuller: Because we've got to win this election, not on hatred of Trump, not on how many millions of dollars we're talking about in our campaigns, but about what we are going to do to help people, ordinary Americans, advance. I think the case that I've been making is the best case that we can make as Democrats to defeat Thom Tillis. It's not going to be sort of a milquetoast centrist kind of message. Nobody gets excited about that. Nobody believes that. It's got to be bold. This is a time in history when we have a really a reckless and lawless president. We have got to be bold in response to this kind of political messaging and we're not going to beat, Thom Tillis with a mealy-mouth message. I've been doing that for the whole time I've been a County commissioner and I'm directly accountable to more than a million people.
Goel: In terms of running for this, I'll tell you, there are many people who have come to me and said, “Hey Atul, why would you do such a big thing? Why don't you start small, run for the county, run for state legislature and then work up to it?” What they wanted me to do is become a career politician. They wanted me to go up the corporate ladder of politics, start slow and build up. And I didn't want to do that. I don't want to be a career politician. I want to solve the problems where they’re needed.
Smith: I'm the candidate who can close the rural and urban divide, growing up on a farm in Eastern North Carolina and working my way up from picking cucumbers to corporate engineer. I'm the candidate who is well abreast of the issues facing millennials. Through my work as a three-term rural North Carolina State Senator, my platform includes improved Medicare for all as well as the Green New Deal, job creation and a sustainable climate. But more than that, it’s about promoting equity and environmental justice for black and brown people who have been majorly impacted by corporate polluters in our state.
As a woman of faith, I'm an ordained clergywoman who can get people of faith voting with Democrats again. I have a very strong social justice and environmental justice platform that includes women’s reproductive health care, which is extremely important to me. Equal pay for equal work. So I think it is my progressive platform that is convincing voters that I am the right one to send to Washington because I am the candidate who not only took the pledge for no corporate money and my U.S. Senate race, but I'm actually following that pledge to a cream. And the third reason is because this 20, 20 November election is about getting the candidate who can increase voter turnout with our loyal block of the Democratic party, with our largest block, the millennials, and with our faithful and loyal block, the tried and true boomers and busters.
U.S. Senate candidates
Residence: Wake County
Occupation: Attorney, VP and general counsel of a recycling company
Political experience: Former State Senator, unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate in 2010
Occupation: Attorney, business and commercial litigation
Political experience: Four two-year terms as Mecklenburg County commissioner
Occupation: Retired physician
Political experience: First campaign
Political experience: Three-term State Senator, six years Northampton County Board of Education
Mr. Swenson did not respond to multiple emails requesting an interview.