Confederate flag overshadows Clampitt town hall
A sparsely attended town hall meeting hosted by Bryson City Republican Rep. Mike Clampitt took an unexpected turn Sept. 5 when a member of the crowd called him a racist.
Just 13 people were in attendance at the meeting in Haywood Community College’s Charles Beall Auditorum, during which Clampitt eschewed the podium and leaned against a row of chairs while facing the audience and engaging in a lively, informal back-and-forth about a variety of issues.
But, after a local activist produced a picture of Clampitt posing alongside men bearing the Stars and Bars, it was clear that the debate over Confederate imagery is far from finished, and may loom large come election time.
The grey ghosts
Explaining that he was still weary from a Washington, D.C., trip where he, along with Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, and N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis were presented with $4 million of the long-outstanding Swain County “Road to Nowhere” settlement, the first-term Rep. Clampitt began his town hall by citing recent legislative accomplishments.
Among them are $1 million in pastureland renewal aid and more than $100,000 in downtown revitalization funds for Swain, Jackson, and Haywood counties.
Given the paltry size of the audience, just four questions were asked of Clampitt, though it would be inaccurate to describe the situation as a simple Q & A.
The more intimate nature of the gathering allowed for a vigorous conversation between Clampitt and the audience, most of whom were Democrats.
Chief among their concerns was Medicaid, especially as the fate of the Affordable Care Act is still unsettled; during his 2016 campaign, Clampitt said he was against N.C. expansion of Medicaid, a position he reiterated that night.
“I would vote against it,” he told the audience. “There are always strings. Nothing is ever free.”
Clampitt admitted that state Medicaid expansion remains the biggest issue the legislature is facing, right ahead of teacher pay, but wasn’t sure the solution was quite so simple.
“There is a problem with the health care system across the board,” he said.
Problems are also apparent in the way the state — and nation — addresses the opioid epidemic; in a semi-related development, Clampitt said he’d introduced a bill increasing penalties for people who assault first responders.
“It bothers me that if someone digs up ginseng in the [Great Smoky Mountains National] park, it’s five years and a $50,000 fine, but someone can assault a firefighter, EMT or police officer and it’s a misdemeanor,” he said.
The bill was passed unanimously in the House, but remains mired in the Senate, to Clampitt’s consternation.
Another frustration Clampitt mentioned was how lottery funds are used for public education; he says the state isn’t realizing all the revenue it should, and hinted that the state was getting the short end of the stick due to excessive management fees charged by the firm that runs the lottery.
The meeting continued in that fashion until the subject of Confederate monuments was broached, at which point all reasonable discourse seemed to evaporate.
Local activist Chuck Zimmerman produced a photo of Clampitt standing amongst several men bearing the Confederate flag, and asked him to explain it.
Clampitt is an avid genealogist, and with a Western North Carolina lineage that predates the United States itself, he’s got plenty to research; he’s also involved with a Confederate history organization.
“I condemn all forms of racism and bigotry,” Clampitt said, adding that the Stars and Bars had of late been “hijacked” by organizations with a racial, rather than historical, agenda.
Clampitt drove his point home by recounting an incident that occurred when he served as a fire captain in Charlotte in years past; when one of his superiors demanded he unfairly discipline a black firefighter under his command, Clampitt refused to do so.
After his superior told him he’d be written up if he refused to discipline the black firefighter, Clampitt offered him his pen.
As his heartfelt story drew to a conclusion, a woman in the crowd said she was deeply offended by his anecdote.
“There’s nothing you can say that would convince me you’re not a racist!” she said.
Clampitt took a deep breath, crossed his arms in front of his chest, bowed his head calmly and appeared to be on the verge of tears.
He appeared taken aback by the statement, and offered little in the way of a defense; after the meeting, the woman, who declined to be identified, said she felt Clampitt’s story was insincere and was instead similar to those who claim they aren’t racist because they have “one black friend.”
“I was very disappointed to hear that,” Clampitt said later. “I was also very disappointed to hear that nothing I could say would convince her otherwise.”
Clampitt said that he has family members who fought for the Confederacy and were likely buried in mass graves somewhere in Tennessee after perishing in Union POW camps.
Another Clampitt relative deserted the South and took up arms for the North; after the war, he returned to Swain County and segregated himself somewhat, so as not to cast aspersions on the pro-Confederacy side of the family.
Haywood County Democratic Party Chair Myrna Campbell was part of that small crowd, and offered her insights on Clampitt and the Confederate flag after the meeting had concluded.
“I have to respect the fact that he has done these town halls [before],” Campbell said. “For the most part he answered the questions, but I think his alignment with the people who display the Confederate flags is going to continue to be troublesome for him.”
Campbell said that earlier that day, she’d spoken to the man Clampitt defeated in 2016 — former Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville — and that Queen would likely run against Clampitt in 2018, which would make it the fourth time the two have competed.
While the issue of Confederate monuments and imagery might not be Queen’s sole reason for running — he lost to Clampitt by less than 300 votes in 2016 — the ghosts of the Confederacy may yet determine the ultimate fate of many legislators in 2018.