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Forum attracts diverse audience, engaged candidates

fr candidatesNearly 200 people came out for a candidate forum in Jackson County Monday (Oct. 15) to listen to a slate of candidates spar over local, state, federal — and sometimes existential — issues facing Western North Carolinians today.

The crowd in the old Sylva courthouse that night was surprisingly cordial, considering the range of beliefs represented at the political forum — from the far right, conservative crowd to the liberal, leftist types.

It’s rare to see, at the same political function where no shouting or name calling is involved, a woman sporting a NORML T-shirt, which stands for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law, sitting in close proximity to another person sporting a shirt reading: “I’m the God-fearing, gun-toting, flag-waving conservative liberals warned you about.”

People no doubt had opinions on the opposing party’s supporters, but they largely kept them to themselves.

One woman in the crowd, Barbara Bell from Sylva, came out to support N.C. House candidate Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, and other Democratic candidates. She said she had her mind made up already for the election, but regardless wanted to hear some of the ridiculous things the Republicans had to say.

“I wouldn’t vote for a Republican even if he kissed my face,” she said. “But we think it’s important to hear both sides.”

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Other people in the crowd seemed equally entrenched and not likely to be swayed. A large contingent wore red shirts to express their conservative affiliation, including a bloc arriving in a caravan from neighboring Macon County to support hometown politician N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. Many in the group were sporting the red, Davis T-shirts with bumper stickers for N.C. House candidate Mike Clampitt stuck on their backs.

“We gotta support Davis,” said Linda Herman, from Franklin. “We know him and know what he stands for — good Christian values.”

Despite promises of hissing and boos from the politically devout before the forum, there were virtually no incidences or heckling during the proceedings. At its worst over the two-hour event, polite groans and laughs sparsely marked the silence. At one point a man from the crowd yelled out “time” when N.C. Senate candidate John Snow, D-Murphy, went over his allotted speaking time.

More so, the attendees appeared interested to hear the reactions from the candidates vying for a range of political posts — from Jackson County commissioner candidates to the N.C. Senate.

And the questions lobbed at the six-member candidate forum kept the proceedings interesting. They ran the gamut — from food labeling requirements for genetically-modified foods to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling to local library funding.

Many elicited interesting and crafted responses from the candidates, but some landed a bit wonky. Especially when Jackson County Commission candidates Marty Jones and Mark Jones had to reply to issues far outside of any local commissioner’s political realm, such as global warming or Obamacare.

But, a question posed by an audience member became one of the few points of agreement between Snow and Davis. The question, specifically targeted for the state senate candidates, asked if they would support labels for food with genetically modified ingredients in North Carolina. California is currently in a statewide debate over such labeling.

“We all eat genetically modified food and I have been for years, and I’m still living,” Davis said. “I think we have so many other things to worry about, that that is way down on my list.”

Snow’s response was quick.

“I agree with him,” he said, pointing to Davis, who sat shoulder to shoulder with him behind the crowded candidates’ table. The crowd followed with laughter.

One attendee from Cashiers, Nick Chambers, a conservative, said he felt the questions were somewhat liberally slanted. Questions included the growing gap in income disparity, Obamacare and global warming.

Two sponsors of the forum were largely from entities considered liberal leaning, including the Western North Carolina Occupy movemen and the clean air advocacy group the Canary Coalition.

The Macon County League of Women Voters and The Smoky Mountain News also sponsored the event.

“The questions were biased toward the liberal persuasion,” Chambers said. “But our guys handled it well.”

According to Carol Adams, communications chair of the Jackson County Republican Party, a conservative organization should have been included in the line-up for fairness.

She offered the Jackson County Patriots, for example, as a nonpartisan yet conservative-minded group that could have offered balance.

However, Adams said the forum, all in all, was well-orchestrated and the Republican candidates managed to get in their talking points on pertinent issues during the two-hour venue.

Both sides of the ballot did little to step beyond party boundaries.

Adams doubted that anyone who attended was surprised by the responses or had their opinion changed by the forum.

“You pretty much knew what the Democrat and Republican answers were going to be,” Adams said. “It didn’t change anybody’s mind.”

That point was apparent at the opening question, when The Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod asked the candidates to give two examples of specific areas where they would be willing to reach across the aisle to support measures their own political party would not traditionally support.

True examples were scarce, and most of the candidates instead mentioned instances in which the other party should compromise.

N.C. Senate candidate John Snow, D-Murphy, cited his views in support of Corridor K as one issue where he might differ with his party. The highway through rural Graham County is needed to bring economic development to the region but is being held up by environmentalists.

“People might say it is those Democrats and those tree huggers causing the problem,” Snow said. “It is time to look at a situation where we can look at common sense rules to allow this road to happen.”

But Snow said he sides with Democrats and environmentalists on other issues, such as his opposition to fracking.

Snow’s opponent, N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, agreed that compromise was needed on environmental regulations, but put the burden back on Democrats to do the compromising. Current environmental regulations are hurting industry, he said.

N.C. House Candidate Mike Clampitt, R-Bryson City, also cited two instances where he would like the opposing party to compromise instead of when he would compromise.

Health care was one, and government regulation was another.

“Our government regulations have gotten out of control in North Carolina. We are stifling businesses,” Clampitt said.

His opponent, Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said he would be willing to compromise with the other party on tax reform.

“It takes both parties to work on tax policy,” Queen said.

Queen’s second example was more dodgy, suggesting compromise was needed on education. But his answer sounded more like the traditional Democratic talking points on strong support for education than anything else.

“North Carolina has a history of innovating in education,” Queen said. “Education is absolutely essential.”

Forum moderator Marsha Crites said the candidates were caught off-guard at times but in general she thought the questions forced answers that formed clear distinctions between the candidates. A goal of the forum was to present a wide spectrum of issues for politicians to weigh in on and none of the questions were given to the politicians ahead of time, she said.

She also remarked on the cordial atmosphere present at the forum, between the candidates and the crowd.

“When it gets this close to election time people get tired of the ugly partisanship,” Crites said. “It was good to see a room of people respectfully listening.”

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