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Republicans look to thin large field in Lt. Gov. primary

Republicans look to thin large field in Lt. Gov. primary

With the departure of Lt. Gov Dan Forest – running for governor and with a primary contest of his own – comes nine candidates seeking to replace him. The winner of the GOP primary will face one of six Democrats competing against each other for the right to do the same.

Buddy Bengel

The Smoky Mountain News: So what led you to consider running for office?

Buddy Bengel: Really a lot of it was after Hurricane Florence hit my hometown of New Bern and I saw a lot of my friends, family, people that I didn't even know that had lost everything. I got involved a lot more than I usually have with events and during that time there was a conversation with Lt. Gov Dan Forest, talking about obviously what was coming up. I asked him who was running for lieutenant governor and he said, “To be honest with you, I have no idea, but we need somebody young and energetic.” Dan was very encouraging to me to run. The more and more I thought about his comments, the more I thought he was right. We need that next generation of conservative leaders to take action.

SMN: A lot of people don't understand the function of the lieutenant governor in North Carolina government. There's not a lot of powers associated with it, but it has a tremendous bully pulpit potential. How do you plan to use the office if you're elected?

Bengel: First and foremost, you preside over the Senate and we may very well see the lieutenant Governor vote more in the next four years than any lieutenant governor has before, because you're seeing a shift to where it may be close enough to where you may have to break a tie there in the Senate, which is why we need a good conservative as the lieutenant Governor, but beyond that, it's very similar to being an entrepreneur – you make the office what you want of it, and having somebody with that business background who's managed people, managed budgets. I’m that pro-job, pro-business candidate that can say that the government needs to get out of our way. First and foremost, we need less government. I talk about all the time that no one knows how to run my company better than me – certainly not the government.

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I talk about my diverse business background and how it goes from a sports franchise to restaurants. And I use the restaurant example. Really, you work with a lot of different people from the kitchen, from cooks to dishwashers to servers and managers, but you're also having to serve people. We talk about our core values of the restaurant and our top core value is customer service. That's what you have to do as an elected official. You have to serve the public and you have to be able to utilize skills and know how to work with people all across this state, understand their needs and be able to make sure you advocate for policies that are best for those people.

SMN: If you come out of this race as the nominee, how do you make those arguments to Democrats and unaffiliated voters?

Bengel: It's the same message. It's pro-job, pro business, making sure that we make our economy better because at the end of the day, what I believe North Carolinians want is to know that they can put food on the table for their kids, put a roof over their heads and they can make their lives better. People want to know that they're secure in their jobs, that when their kids go to school, that their kids are going to be educated, that they're going to be safe, that they themselves are going to be safe, that their rights are not going to be violated.

As we're seeing unfortunately in Virginia, the Second Amendment rally they're having up there os because their rights are coming under attack. We have a right to bear arms and we should always have that right. We need someone that will stand up for those rights. And I believe a majority of Americans want that.

SMN: How has the opioid crisis affected your business?

Bengel: Unfortunately right now opioids are everywhere affecting families, affecting individuals, and we've talked to so many different law enforcement officers and we need to make sure that our sheriffs and our law enforcement officers have the necessary tools to help combat this crisis that we're going into

We face it in the workforce because we're losing good people every single day and to have to look at that mother whose son or daughter has overdosed because somebody laced something with fentanyl or something. This needs to be something that we take action on immediately or our society, our job market is going to be in trouble. And that goes back to even other issues that we'll talk about in the workforce of making sure that we keep people working and get them back working.

SMN: Do you think healthcare is a factor in solving the opioid crisis? If not, then what do we do?

Bengel: Well, I certainly don't believe we should be expanding Medicaid right now. I think when you look at in New York right now, they’re $6 billion in the hole and that's not a good way to run a government. It took us what, five, almost six years under the McCrory administration to get us out of a $2 billion deficit that we were facing, all the way to a surplus. If that surplus wasn't there and we didn't have that rainy day fund, we'd be in trouble with some of the natural disasters. I mean just recently out west, you've had rock slides, you've had issues out here that if our state didn't have money in reserves, we might be in trouble and say, I'm sorry we can't help you. So to me, I don't believe right now Medicaid expansion is the way to go on that. I think what government can do is when our kids are in school starting maybe in the second grade, we start talking to them about the effects of drugs, the bad things that they cause, what it will lead to.

SMN: Let's assume that Gov. Cooper wins and let's assume that you win. How do you see that relationship transpiring right now?

Bengel: I look forward to working with a Republican governor because we're going to elect Republicans up and down the slate, starting with our president and U.S. Senate into our gubernatorial election. For me it's being able to sit there and get the job done. I'm there to make sure, as I said, our economy's better, our state is better, we're going to tackle issues and I will be on the forefront every single day to advocate for those issues, whether it's working with our Senate, whether it's working with House members and getting them on board.

SMN: If you’re on the ballot in November, what do you think Trump's role is going to be in your race or in North Carolina?

I think right now the President of the United States is doing such a great job. President Trump I think will be extremely strong. I think the president will win this state. I think you'll see Republicans elected in the same manner because you're going to see the president here a lot in 2020, I think that's going to help every Republican candidate up and down. And I look forward to not only voting for the president and supporting the president, about also being able to win this primary and this general.

Deborah Cochran

The Smoky Mountain News: What do you think the biggest issue is in this race right now?

Deborah Cochran: I served as mayor during a recession. That was one of the most difficult times I've experienced. Now when economic prosperity, but economic growth and development is as core as it gets, so that's always my main focus, making sure people have a paycheck. My brother was impacted when the plants moved offshore. Educational excellence is also something that I'm very passionate about – a sense of hope for the future. Also I'm public safety. Uh, as a woman I have my concealed carry. It’s important that people feel safe in North Carolina.

SMN: If by chance you're elected, how do you see yourself using the office in the general assembly and with the governor?

Cochran: The lieutenant Governor's office, their responsibilities and duties, which everything I've done has lined me up for, is to preside over the Senate meetings or the the board of education and the board of community colleges and also the board of economic development. I have worked extensively in all those areas and I would definitely pursue economic development as mayor. I recruited a California-based industry to occupy vacant a furniture plant without any subsidies for that company. So that would be something that I would definitely focus on, economic development as I stated earlier.

And as far as educational excellence, there is a skills gap now, so I would focus on school choice. Parents know what's best for their children, not the state. trade schools and community colleges, and apprenticeship programs – things that students skills. A lot of them are coming right out of high school and they have credentials and certifications and with mayb additional training, they would be workforce-ready.

SMN: You've got a number of competitors in this Republican primary. Why are you the candidate that people should be voting for on March 3?

Cochran: I’m specifically qualified. I have a proven conservative fiscal record. Anyone can check it. I believe in Christ, the hope of glory. I won the Disabled American Veterans award of merit, also other awards for community service with the Salvation Army. I love North Carolina and I love our country and I'm specifically qualified. If you're looking for someone who's qualified, and experienced matters that’s myself.

SMN: Obviously you'll have a Democratic opponent in November if you're blessed to come out of this primary as the nominee. How do you make these arguments to the North Carolinians who are not Republicans?

Cochran: Actually, the person that suggested that I was on the office with a teacher down the hall and the teachers said, you should run for lieutenant governor, and I asked, “Why do you say that?” And she said, “You have a heart for God and man. And when I served as mayor, you work to help everyone, and I believe people will see my heart for the state and for people.

SMN: You're going to have President Trump on that November ballot as well. How do you think he affects your race specifically?

Cochran: I'm a mega Trump fan. I attended two rallies and stood at the polls for him, he keeps his promises. One thing that's gotten a lot of people's attention is what's happened in Virginia with the Democratic governor and the control there and some of the Second Amendment issues I spoke not too long ago at our county commissioners meeting for the Second Amendment resolution. So North Carolina does not want to follow that, I'm sure. We are so passionate here in out state about our rights and our freedoms and our future.

Mark Johnson

The Smoky Mountain News: How does the office of lieutenant governor affect taxpayers?

Mark Johnson: This office definitely affects taxpayers because while the office does not hold a lot of constitutional power, it absolutely has a bully pulpit. I'm running for Lieutenant Governor because I promised the people of North Carolina when elected State Superintendent that I would actually go into the education bureaucracy and really work hard to make it more efficient, more transparent and more accountable with taxpayer dollars, which is absolutely what we've done. We are a better operating department than ever before, and one example is we have the Read to Achieve program, which is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in K-3 literacy efforts.

When I got to this department, we discovered that $15 million could have been sent out to districts. It wasn't, it just wasn't being utilized and nobody could give us a good answer why. So what did we do? We sent it out to districts. This year we actually, just sent that money out to school districts to use as they see fit to support literacy efforts.

The reason my candidacy for lieutenant governor impacts taxpayers is because I want to do that same work for other bureaucracies in our state government. One example is the department of transportation. While lieutenant Governor is not in charge of the Department of Transportation, I would work very closely with the General Assembly, who I’ve already been working closely with, to really help understand why the Department of Transportation is falling into all the pitfalls it's falling into. It just needed a $200 million bailout that's at cost to taxpayers.

SMN: Several other candidates have used the same exact words, bully pulpit. What's the biggest issue that you plan to go in there and address, from a reform standpoint?

Johnson: The best example right now is we don't have a state budget. We do not have a state budget. That means teacher pay raises are held captive. I worked with the General Assembly to get additional funding for teacher school supplies, millions of dollars in additional funding that would have gone directly to teachers, that's held up by the budget.

There's a lot of other things that are being held up by the state budget, but it's a perfect example of people sending elected representatives to Raleigh to get the work done for the people of North Carolina and right now it looks like people in Raleigh are looking out more for themselves and for the bureaucracies and for the government’s political system than they are for the working families in North Carolina.

I also have a very good relationship with the General Assembly that I've already created over the past three years. I wouldn't need any on the job training. I could go in on day one and get to work there.

SMN: You've got a whole bunch of primary opponents. Why are you the person in this race to vote for?

Johnson: I'm the Republican that's going to get the job done. There are a lot of strong candidates running for this office, and we agree on a lot of issues. When you stack up who has been willing to fight for the people of North Carolina and not just go along to get along that has consistently been me over the past three years.

When I won my election, it surprised and shocked the political system in Raleigh, first Republican in over a hundred years. I was 33 when I won the election. I campaigned on change. I said, “We're testing too much. We’ve got to stop.” I said, “Common Core is a mess. We’ve got to do something to fix it.” Oh, and guess what? Our education bureaucracy is not responding to the needs of local districts. The first thing I got when I got to Raleigh, it was a lawsuit by the State Board of Education, who instead of trying to help me fix these things, decided they were going to try to stop me from making any changes.

Now I could've gone along to get along. I didn't. I said “I was sent here by the people of North Carolina to make changes. I was sent here to eliminate testing. I was sent here to make sure money was getting out to local school districts. And so I fought and it's been a fight every step of the way. I won that lawsuit, and then I had people in my own department trying to stop me from making changes. But I've also gone up against that and consistently I've shown the people in North Carolina that I am willing to fight for them. That is ultimately what makes me the most qualified candidate for this office.

SMN: If you win this primary, how do you explain to Democrats and everyone else that you’re the best candidate in November?

Johnson: That will be something we have to find out when we know how everything shakes out after the primary. I think you just have some philosophical differences that will probably show themselves no matter who the Republican and Democrat candidates are, and I think that will come out.

Also when you're talking about after the primary, you're also talking about who North Carolina wants as that person who's number two. I mean, if something, heaven forbid, happens to a governor who is that person who's ready to step and lead the state? I think that becomes very important in this primary.

I obviously have the experience of running one of the largest bureaucracies in Raleigh and by dollars I run one of the largest spending programs in our state, $16 billion. When you add it all up 67% of the, of the state budget. And when you add up all of the state dollars, federal dollars and local dollars, we're talking about $16 billion that is spent every year on the education of 1.5 million students.

SMN: And on that same note, let's just say everything is status quo, except you win and you're the lieutenant governor. How can you work with a guy like Gov. Cooper?

Johnson: One of my other government reforms is that the lieutenant governor and the governor should be elected as a ticket. We should not elect these officers separately because when you have a Democratic governor and a Republican lieutenant governor or vice versa, they naturally are not going to agree on everything and it actually is less efficient for the people in North Carolina. Those two should be a team.

The lieutenant governor, who doesn't have a lot of constitutional duties, should be out across the country selling North Carolina to businesses, come here and then have the governor go in and close the deal working together. We now are in a situation where the governor doesn't even want to tell the lieutenant governor when he's leaving the state, because when he leaves the state, technically the lieutenant governor is acting as the governor, so that's something we need to talk about fixing. If I'm a Republican lieutenant governor, I fully expect Dan Forest to be a Republican governor as well.

SMN: You have some experience with this from you 2016 campaign – what kind of effect do you think President Trump will have on this race?

Johnson: I think it will be the same as in 2016, it's just that in 2016 a lot of people didn't see it coming. I saw, as a school board member, a lot of anger out in North Carolina, a lot of people ready for change, ready for someone to just come in and as he says, drain the swamp. Basically, people just wanted to take a wrecking ball to government cause they felt like government really wasn't working for them and people came out and they responded to that message. I think you're also going to see energy from the Democrats that you didn't see in 2016 because Trump is just a figure that gets everybody excited. You're either excited with him or you're excited against him, and I do think both of those factions are going to come out and North Carolina is probably going to be a razor thin margin again, like it was in 2016.

John Ritter

The Smoky Mountain News: this office doesn't have a lot of formal responsibility, but it does have a tremendous bully pulpit. If you happen to be elected in November, what would you use that bully pulpit to push?

John Ritter: So my primary platform is promoting trade education because over the next 20 years, I don't know what the North Carolina economy is going to suffer if we don't have young people learning these skills and going into trades, for instance, electricians, the average age – and I had to think of that one mostly because my dad's a licensed electrician, retired now –is 55 years old. So, you know, and that's across the board with so many other areas of the trades. There's great careers available, our economy demands it, and there's a limited supply. So there's a lot of room for solid growth and for solid economic standing for young people who would choose to go into these areas.

I'm a conservative person, politically conservative, fiscally conservative. So this platform, it is a very conservative platform because we already have the resources to do this and we actually already have the interconnections between our public high schools and our community college system to make a big impact on this. Currently young people in high school can take college classes through their community college system at no charge. I think they have to pay for books, but there's a way to reduce student debt, get people in good careers, and I would like to promote from that bully pulpit, to let people know what's out there and what's available and try to direct that traffic into areas that would be meaningful and helpful to, to them and to the economy.

SMN: In such a crowded primary field, how are you going around telling voters that you're the candidate they need to pick on March 3?

Ritter: I'll tell you, I've been all across North Carolina and not too long ago as you know I was wandering in your area, in the mountains and went to two or three counties there and ended up in Murphy. But I'm going to every possible opportunity that I'm able to, to meet with small groups, to meet with Republican groups, to meet with people and engage with the people in North Carolina to share my message with them, let them learn about me, but also learn about them, learn about the issues they're concerned about. That's something that when I'm elected, I would continue to do because I think it's vitally important for our leaders to be engaged and to understand the viewpoint of the citizens and, and exactly what's needed and how to go about it. So I think that my main factor has just been getting out there, hitting the road, meeting people.

SMN: If you’re successful, how do you make these arguments to the two-thirds of North Carolinians who are not Republicans?

Ritter: I think that while my platform is fiscally conservative and is a very good Republican platform, I also believe that it is an issue that crosses party lines. And I believe that I will be able to convey that message, that I'm there to work for all North Carolinians.

SMN: And then if you are on the ballot in November, you're going to share that ballot with President Donald Trump. What sort of effect do you think he's going to have on your race specifically?

Ritter: North Carolina, as you probably very well know, doesn't follow or fit any particular mold. My personal opinion is that President Trump will go in for another term. I believe that wholeheartedly. He won North Carolina in 2016 and at the same time, we elected a Democratic governor and a Republican lieutenant governor, so the citizens of North Carolina look at the candidate and they choose who they want to be in that role. So I really could not tell you any prediction on how that whole thing.

Mark Keith Robinson

The Smoky Mountain News: You're obviously a very well-known Second Amendment speaker and advocate. What can a lieutenant governor do in that realm?

Mark Keith Robinson: I think more than anything I think I can help to spread the message why the Second Amendment is so important, not just in North Carolina but to Americans in general. I'll try to help turn the narrative around on that issue and to really highlight the need to preserve the second amendment. A lieutenant governor position in North Carolina, save for a few specific duties as really a position that you can kind of make into your own to highlight issues that are near and dear to you and that you believe are important.

SMN: So is the Second Amendment the biggest issue in this race for you at this time?

Robinson: Certainly at this time it is. The Second Amendment has not been completely destroyed of course, but there are those who would love to see it happen. And if that happens, I think the American people will find themselves in a position that they don't want be in, which is exactly why our founding fathers put the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights, in our Constitution.

But for me, socially, the biggest issue I really believe is being pro-life, standing up for the lives of the unborn. I think there are far too many people who don't take the cause and effect of abortion serious enough. I think that those unborn children really need advocates in this country to make a strong stand for them. That's one of the things also as lieutenant governor, I would really like to stand up for and push.

SMN: And what do you think about the opioid crisis? it's hard to legislate something like this out of existence, so what can a lieutenant governor do?

Robinson: One of the things that goes hand-in-hand with my platform is trying to make sure our border is secure, because I think one of the things that's happening with having the border unsecured is a lot of those drugs are moving in through that area.

Then of course there's another layer of this also, another layer that has to deal with healthcare and it also has to deal with education. There may be some, some things that healthcare providers may need to do differently to keep people from becoming opioid-dependent. I've heard so many stories. I had a neighbor, his daughter passed away because she was on heroin and the heroin addiction had come from an injury that she had from high school and college.

as [inaudible] every month. And so I think it's really going to take the thing off of the private healthcare industry to take a hard look at themselves and ask themselves what can they do to prevent these, those types of things from happening. But as far the legislature goes, I really think that the biggest way we can help in that is trying to provide law enforcement with the tools to try to stop the proliferation of illegal opioids on the streets.

That thing, that's where we can really make our biggest impact is by backing up law enforcement and not just giving them the tools and equipment to be able to go out and stop so-called drug dealers, but really go out and understand, help law enforcement to understand and be proactive instead of reactive, uh, to help stuff shore up these sub things. I remember when my kids were little, they had a program called dare and those things were somewhat effective. Uh, many people say they were very effective, but we need proactive approaches to this like that. And I think it starts with, uh, law enforcement and, uh, it starts with, uh, private healthcare industry. Uh, and you touched on this earlier,

SMN: It’s been mentioned that a lot of people think one of the solutions to the opioid crisis is better availability of mental health services. A lot of people also say that something like Medicare for all or Obamacare would give people more access to those systems.

Robinson: I don't think that Medicare for all would do it. I don't think that, if we buy expanded Medicare, I don't think it's going to improve my health care at all. We've already seen how the federal government has a hard time administering the VA. I think that really what we need to be doing is we really need to be working with the private sector to fulfill these needs that we have, particularly with mental health. I remember when I was a kid, there were mental health facilities everywhere for people and these mental health facilities, I think back then, a lot of them were substandard. But I think with today's of medical care, I think that we can reopen those places if we partner with private industry to make sure that we have proper facilities to take care of those who are mentally ill, because there is a big correlation between the opioid crisis and mental health, just like there's a correlation between mental health and crime and homelessness.

SMN: You have quite a few Primary Election competitors from your own party. Why are you the one to choose?

Robinson: I believe our message, hands down, beats every other candidate’s message. That's number one. Number two, I really believe I offer this party, offer this state an opportunity, not just to make history or to really make an impact for what the Republican party really stands for – which is freedom and equality for everybody and not just the rich – but we've been labeled as the party of old rich white men. That's certainly not what we are. We are the party that has traditionally stood up for everybody in this country and we continue to be that.

Scott Stone

SMN: So getting into the specifics of this race, what do you see as the biggest issue in this lieutenant governor primary?

Scott Stone: There's different ways to answer that. One is, what are the issues? But from a perspective of the primary, the differentiator that I bring is that I'm ready today to be lieutenant governor and don't need any on the job training, don't need to learn my way around state government. I can hit the ground running, having served in the legislature and be impactful for the state on day one. And also in addition to my legislative experience, having run a company that I run now plus other ones that I've had executive roles in, bringing that to the table helps prepare me for the being lieutenant governor.

SMN: The lieutenant governor has a lot of informal legislative clout. What do you intend to use that for if you're elected?

Stone: Yeah the role is does not have a lot of authority but it can have a lot of impact if you build those relationships in the legislature and use that bully pulpit. The fact that I've got a lot of relationships already in the legislature is a, is a big, big help. But I would say beyond that though, about the issues that I would advocate on, number one is bringing a business approach to state government. We don't have enough transparency in our state government. We don't have a set of metrics that on what is success, whether it's the DMV or any other state agency that deals with the public.

SMN: You talked a little bit about why or how you differentiate yourself in the primary. If you come out of this huge field of candidates and earn your party's nomination, how do you make these arguments to unaffiliateds and Democrats that make up two thirds of the electorate?

Stone: I think these issues are the same for anybody. They're not specific to Republicans. I would say one of the issues that I talked a lot about in this campaign has been that the lieutenant governor is one of the key leaders on delivering our message all across the state. The General Assembly under Republican control has done some fantastic things to move our state forward, but we don't tell our story very well. A lot of people don't know the policy successes we've had, and it's in part because we don't tell our story very well. So that's something I would try to take a lead role in across the state.

One other element that I would advocate for that I think is a big issue across the state is making sure these rogue sheriffs in the bigger cities and bigger counties are actually cooperating with federal law enforcement and honoring ICE detainers, because that is something that doesn't just impact their county, but it impacts the entire state when you have illegal immigrants who had been already arrested on, quite often, very violent crimes and they're being released instead of being held, on the ICE detainer.

SMN: So what’s the difference between sanctuaries for illegal immigrants and sanctuaries for the Second Amendment?

Stone: I've got no problem with that. Those resolutions I think as much as anything, they're sending a message to Gov. Cooper that our Second Amendment rights are important to the citizens of the all those counties. It's basically sending a message to them that they better not do anything that is overreaching, that would try to infringe on those rights. So I have no problem with them passing that. I don't see Mecklenburg and some of the other bigger counties doing it, but there's nothing wrong with it. The Second Amendment is part of our Constitution that should protect us. Certainly there's many states that have been taking liberties with that and trying to push the envelope on that. We've seen it in Virginia probably most recently, and I think it's probably a reaction to some of that as well.

SMN: Like it or not, President Trump is going to be at the top of this ballot in November. If you're there too, how do you feel he's going to influence your race and all of the down ballot races like governor and U.S. Senator?

Stone: I think he's going to impact it in a positive way because he's going to drive voter turnout for the Republican base. There is a lot of enthusiasm with the rank-and-file Republicans right now that does not exist with Democrats. If Bernie Sanders is at the top of the ticket for Democrats, it's going to suppress voter turnout for Democrats. So that's the trade off for the Democrats, that they could really be aiding Republican landslide victories based on who they choose.

I do think president Trump is helping get people motivated. I will say that North Carolina though does have a history of, in presidential years, voting for the person, not just a sweep of the party. Now there are some years where close votes might go lean Republican or Democrat depending on the situation.

But we've had many years including 2016 where you had a Democratic governor but a Republican lieutenant governor, you had a Democratic attorney general but several other Republicans on the council of state and then a Democratic secretary of state. So voters were splitting their ticket quite a bit. In 2016 I won by over 10 points in my legislative district, in a district that Hillary Clinton won.



Buddy Bengel

Age: 37

Residence: New Bern

Occupation: Restaurateur

Political experience: First campaign

Deborah Cochran

Age: 57

Residence: Mt. Airy

Occupation: Educator

Political experience: Former Mt. Airy city commissioner, two-term mayor

Renee Elmers

Ms. Elmers did not respond to an email request for an interview.

Greg Gebhart

Mr. Gebhart did not respond an email request for an interview.

Mark Johnson

Age: 36

Residence: Raleigh

Occupation: Former educator, attorney

Political experience: Former Wake County School Board member, current State Superintendent of Schools

John Ritter

Age: 38

Residence: Seagrove

Occupation: Attorney, real estate, wills, estate administration

Political experience: First campaign

Mark Keith Robinson

Age: 51

Residence: Colfax

Occupation: Manufacturing

Political experience: First campaign

Scott Stone

Age: 51

Residence: Charlotte

Occupation: Civil engineer

Political experience: Three-year N.C. House rep from Mecklenburg County

Andy Wells

Mr. Wells was unavailable for an interview.



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