The encounters took place Sept. 4 and 5 at Western Carolina University facilities in Asheville and Cullowhee and were organized by The Smoky Mountain News, Blue Ridge Public Radio and Mountain Xpress. It was the first time the candidates squared off directly heading toward the General Election, when they will compete for the N.C. 11 seat vacated earlier this year by Mark Meadows, who left to become Chief of Staff for President Donald Trump.
SMN Staff Writer Cory Vaillancourt moderated the events, with questions coming from six different panelists: Lenoir-Rhyne University Equity and Diversity Institute developer Aisha Adams; former Asheville Citizen Times political reporter and current Mountain Xpress contributor Mark Barrett; Pete Kaliner, a longtime N.C. political reporter, radio host and podcaster; WCU political science and public affairs department chair Chris Cooper; WCU professor of economics and director of WCU’s Center for the Study of Free Enterprise Edward Lopez; and Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Throughout the debates, Asheville Democrat Davis emphasized his record of experience and service to the country. Davis retired as a colonel after 25 years in the U.S. military, and since then he has been a law professor, judge at the U.S. Department of Labor and head of the Congressional Research Service’s Foreign Affairs Defense and Trade Division.
“You’ve got a clear choice,” he said during his opening statement for the Sept. 5 debate in Cullowhee. “My record’s out there. You can see it. You can send me and 35 years of experience, or you can send my opponent and his three-ring binder.”
At 25, Cawthorn would be the youngest person in Congress if he won as the Republican candidate in November, and the Henderson County native turned Davis’ criticism of his youth and relative inexperience on its head.
“Over 60 percent of the people who make up our Congress are lawyers,” said Cawthorn during the second night of debate. “And I’ll tell you if that’s what we needed to fix our economy, to fix our country, to fix racial tensions, that would have been fixed long ago. We need to send an outsider to Congress.”
Cawthorn attempted to paint Davis as “a member of the D.C. swamp,” who would happily place the gavel back in the hands of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and do all he could to support the “party of AOC and M-O-E.” Davis is a “firm supporter of the Green New Deal” proposed by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cawthorn warned, an expensive plan that would “waterboard our future generations” with debt. Cawthorn further criticized Davis’ actions during his tenure as chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay, during which he testified on behalf of two detainees.
Davis, meanwhile, characterized Cawthorn as a privileged youth with no work experience to speak of but a tendency to “play fast and loose with the truth.” He accused Cawthorn of accepting “stolen valor” by leading the public to believe that he had been accepted to the U.S. Navel Academy prior to the 2014 car accident that left him paralyzed in both legs. His application had in fact been rejected prior to that accident, Cawthorn said in a 2017 deposition, though during the debates he added that while he had received an initial rejection, he was in fact still hoping to ultimately get accepted.
Davis also homed in on Cawthorn’s statement during the second night of debates that prior to his accident he had stood 6 feet, 3 inches tall, when in the deposition he’d said he was 6 feet or 6 feet, 1 inch at the time.
“Every time Mr. Cawthorn tells a story he’s bigger in that story, but they’re not truthful stories,” said Davis.
Cawthorn, meanwhile, made the case that Davis’s stories about himself are not always true either, at least when it comes to his positions on issues. He quoted a February article from The Blue Banner, the student newspaper of UNC Asheville, which reports that during a private event with his supporters, Davis stated that while he does not disagree with banning assault rifles, “he does believe he would lose the election if he made that opinion public.”
“The reason that he is so aggressively attacking is because he knows that he can’t stand on what he truly believes,” Cawthorn said during the first debate in Asheville.
You (Cawthorn) have been accused of both sexual assault and having ties to white nationalism. How do women, black people, LGBTQIA and other marginalized communities know that we can trust you, and what experiences do you have in creating equitable policy?
The very first question of the very first night of debates, presented by Aisha Adams, addressed head-on previous reports in which multiple women accused Cawthorn of sexual assault and reporters questioned various symbols potentially tying the candidate to white nationalism.
Cawthorn replied that “there’s really no basis” for the assertion that he’s a white nationalist and said that his fiancé is biracial. As to the sexual assault allegations, he said that “I kissed many girls in high school and some of my attempts failed, and I believe that there’s a large difference in failed attempts versus sexual assault.”
“If I have a daughter, I want her to grow up in a world where people will have to ask permission to touch her,” said Cawthorn. “I think that would have made my high school experience much less awkward if I knew that was a question that could generally be asked. But also if I have a son, I want him to grow up in a world where he’s not accused of being a sexual predator, just because he wants to kiss a girl.”
Davis, meanwhile, touted his endorsement from the National Organization of Women and his record of “having fought for equal rights for everyone.”
“I’m proud to say I haven’t had to spend one minute explaining that I’m not a Nazi,” he said.
To what extent do you believe that human activity is causing global warming and climate change? What steps if any do you support to deal with this issue?
When asked his opinion about climate change and the environment, Cawthorn said that climate change “is not a hoax” and called himself a “green conservative.” However, he vehemently denounced the Green New Deal as “a joke” that would “waterboard” future generations with $51 trillion in debt each decade, taking funds that could be used for needs like improved broadband infrastructure and increased Payment In Lieu of Taxes funding. Cawthorn said he supports an “all of the above approach” to environmental solutions that would use wind, solar and nuclear power to bring the United States to energy independence without fossil fuels. Cawthorn also advocated for updating the “outdated” National Environmental Policy Act, which he said delays the deployment of projects that would promote a clean environment.
“Climate alarmism is on the side of the left,” he said. “If they truly wanted to fix the problems that we’re facing, they would embrace nuclear energy.”
Davis took a firm stance as to the reality of climate change and Americans’ duty to do something about it, holding up green technology as “the path forward.” Solar energy, especially on the roof of individual houses, is a safeguard against dependence on foreign oil and a boon to the environment, he said. In Congress, said Davis, he would plan to extend tax credits for alternative energy that “the Trump administration and Republicans are slowly peeling away.” It’s not reasonable to cite dollars as cents as a reason not to act on the environment, he said.
“I don’t believe in putting profit first, whether it’s with COVID-19 or with the environment,” he said. “I believe in being an adult, being responsible. We have a responsibility to take care of the environment in this area that we live in.”
Later in the debates, Davis said that while he did “like the Green New Deal,” he has “refused to commit” to endorsing it and has lost endorsements from some progressive groups as a result. Cawthorn countered by saying that prior to the Primary Election Davis’ website stated that he did “fully support” the Green New Deal.
What is your view of the concerns about law enforcement’s treatment of Blacks and other people of color, including deaths like that of George Floyd that have sparked so many protests around the country this year? What, if anything, do you think we as a nation and in Congress should be doing about these concerns?
Davis said that the “defund the police” tagline has done a “huge disservice” to the movement, and that his background gives him great respect for law enforcement.
“I think issues like mental health and alcoholism and drug addiction should be treated as health issues and not criminal justice issues,” he said. “So I’d love to see us reimagining law enforcement and looking at what our communities want our law enforcement professionals to do. And again, I think the defund the police label was a horrible label, and I certainly don’t support that concept.”
Davis said he would like to see something akin to the GI Bill for first responders and law enforcement to help them further their education and training.
For his part, Cawthorn said that, “of course, I believe that Black lives matter,” and that he was “unhappy” about the “lack of empathy” with which President Donald Trump treated the death of George Floyd. However, Cawthorn said he has a “hard time believing” that Davis stands against defunding the police when Democratic leaders have released press statements advocating for exactly that position. He pointed out that 14 of the district’s 17 sheriffs have endorsed his campaign.
“When you are dealing with your ex-husband, and you dial 911 and he’s pounding at the door, they (Democrats) want on the other end of that phone to be a social workers, not someone who’s put a bulletproof vest on and wants to protect your life,” he said.
Based on your experience, what can you tell us specifically about what needs to be done to ensure all North Carolinians get the health care they deserve?
Cawthorn said that the current system is “antiquated and outdated,” and that he wants to be “the face of health care reform for the Republicans.” For too long, he said, the Republican Party has been the party of “no” on health care without offering any clear strategy of its own. Medicare for all is not the answer, he said, because competition is key in the healthcare sector just as in other sectors of the economy.
“I’ll tell you what I genuinely believe is that the problem with health care is that the free market has never been allowed to actually work in it,” he said. “You know in North Carolina, as many of you know, we have a virtual monopoly from Blue Cross Blue Shield, which inhibits any of us from actually being able to choose our own system. We’re forced into this area where they have a monopoly, which creates artificially high prices.”
Davis took the opposite tack, stating his support for a government-funded public option that would allow “everyone from cradle to grave” to go to the doctor without being bankrupted by an accident or illness.
“Here in North Carolina there are over a million North Carolinians that don’t have health care coverage today,” said Davis. “That’s up over 250,000 since COVID-19 hit. So we’ve got to decouple health care from employment, and we can do it at a much lower cost and cover everyone and have better outcomes than we’re currently doing right now.”
What are your positions on gun control, and why?
Davis said that he supports Second Amendment rights — within reason. He owns multiple guns, grew up hunting and carried a gun on the job while working as a bail bondsman, not to mention his 25 years in the military.
“I’m not gonna take your guns. I’ve got my own,” he said. “What I do support is guns and sense. So I do support strict background checks and red flag laws.”
The Second Amendment is something “I’m very passionate about,” said Cawthorn, and his passion stems not from a love of guns but from a love of freedom.
“The Second Amendment was not written so that we could go hunting or have a sporting rifle,” he said. “It was so that we could be able to defend our families and defend ourselves from a tyrannical government. And that’s something that the founders were very wise to include.”
It might be reasonable to have a debate about the legality of automatic weapons, but removing silencers from the market “just makes people lose their hearing more often.”
First, do you plan to support the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act when it comes before Congress again and secondly, how does the protection of missing and murdered indigenous women fit into your police reform agenda?
Cawthorn said that he would be “more than willing” to reauthorize VAWA because it is the duty of the government to protect the weak. In general, he’d like to see local sheriff’s departments make wellness checks a higher priority.
“If there is a woman, or a man for that matter, who is facing a situation when they’re facing domestic abuse or violence of any kind, I believe it’s the role of the government to step in and protect them,” he said. “When it comes to police reform, I would like to see a higher level of intervention when it comes to these domestic violence issues.”
Davis questioned Cawthorn’s level of concern for women in light of the sexual misconduct allegations against him but said that for his part he supports the Violence Against Women Act. Davis pointed out that Republicans had previously been opposed to the Obama-era legislation.
“Unlike my opponent, I lived, and I’ve got a record. You can look at it,” said Davis. “I was a judge at the Department of Labor, and I’ve got a record of standing up for people and for their rights and making sure that they’re treated fairly. And I’m proud.”
What will you do for college students, and how do you plan to assist them with the burden of paying off their student loans, especially in the middle of a global pandemic?
Davis said that, because “most folks aren’t multimillionaires like my opponent who can pay for college and buy a house to live in while he’s there,” student debt is a big problem that is holding young people back. If elected, he would support the U.S. Department of Education buying up all $1.6 trillion in existing student loan debt, taking it on as a government debt and charging 0 percent interest — with an option for debtors to pay it back through military or public service.
“I think that’s a fair compromise,” he said. “Some have proposed eliminating student debt, and I think that’s a slap in the face to those that work hard to make sure they didn’t have student loan debt.”
Cawthorn criticized this plan, saying that it would do nothing but add significantly to an already record-high national debt with the 0 percent interest rate encouraging people to default on their loans. Instead, he would focus on creating a better job market hinging on lower taxes and less regulation so that people can find good jobs right out of college.
“I do believe it’s imperative that we make the cost of college tuition cheaper, though,” he said. “That is something that absolutely has to be accomplished because right now it’s unattainable for the vast majority of Americans, and one reason is because the job market is so poor, and that’s because of democratic policies, which I will fight to reverse.”
How would both of you go about protecting the federal lands in Western North Carolina while in Washington?
Cawthorn said he would focus on increasing funding for Payment in Lieu of Taxes, monies that are dispersed to counties that contain federal lands not subject to property tax. It’s a big issue in Western North Carolina — for example, in Swain County only 13 percent of the land base is taxable, largely due to the presence of federal lands.
“We know that when places have financial burdens, they tend to be less clean environmentally,” said Cawthorn. “And so that’s something that I would like to have happen where we can bring more PILT money back into Western North Carolina so we can pay for these public lands that make our areas so unique and so beautiful.”
Davis criticized Trump administration funding cuts to the national parks and national forests and said he was “really proud of” the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act that passed recently to address deferred maintenance needs on federal lands. If elected, he said, he’d want to sit on the Natural Resources Committee so as to have continued input on those issues.
“I’d like to be on the National (sic) Resource Committee, because they’re responsible for our national parks and national forests, which are so important to our economy here in Western North Carolina,” he said. “It’s the lifeblood of our economy. It’s what brings people here.”
Watch the debates
This story contains just a portion of the lively back-and-forth featured in the livestreamed debates. Watch the whole thing at www.facebook.com/blueridgepublic.