The race for North Carolina governor is one of the most-watched gubernatorial races in the country this fall. For many voters, it’ll be a referendum on the state’s handling of the coronavirus response.
Democrat Roy Cooper is running for his second term. Formerly the state’s attorney general, Cooper has taken a measured approach to reopening the state’s economy. This has drawn praise from people who say it’s the best way to protect the health and safety of North Carolinians. Others criticize his approach as harmful for the economy.
Looking to oust Cooper is Republican Dan Forest, the lieutenant governor since 2013. Forest, an architect and conservative defender of gun rights, has been skeptical about the effectiveness of masks. He has criticized Cooper’s handling of the pandemic, and has vowed to reopen all schools without a mask mandate if he’s elected.
During the pandemic, the governor’s role suddenly affected our day-to-day lives. People around the state tuned in for Cooper’s afternoon briefings, anticipating his updates on mask mandates and closures of bars and gyms.
Cooper maintains a polling edge over Forest. Most North Carolinians are hesitant to embrace a full-fledged reopening, as states like South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida have done, says Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics at Catawba College.
“Forest has been trying to make this a referendum on Cooper,” Bitzer says. “The problem is, a majority of North Carolina is supportive of the approach Cooper has taken. I think the Forest campaign is hoping and perhaps banking on a backlash to it. Where they see their numbers, I don’t know.”
Also running for governor is Al Pisano (Constitution Party) and Steven DiFiore (Libertarian) but for this story, we’re focusing on the race’s two competitive candidates.
We asked each where he stands on major issues that affect Charlotte, including affordable housing, the homicide rate, and the ongoing pandemic.
We asked two questions about each issue: 1) What’s the first thing to come to mind on that subject? And 2) a Charlotte-specific question within the issue, to help get a better picture of where they stand on a pressing matter in our city.
(Note: Neither candidate accepted our invitation to a phone interview, so the following responses, which have been lightly edited and summarized, were collected by email. For full text of their responses, go here).”
The issue: Real estate prices are soaring, but Charlotte still has a shortage of an estimated 34,000 affordable units. A new report out from Mecklenburg County shows that affordable housing is disappearing in the Charlotte area, while homelessness is increasing.
What is the first thing that comes to mind on this issue?
Cooper: The state has a limited role in access to affordable housing, Cooper says, but it should work with local and federal governments. Hurricanes Matthew and Florence exacerbated the need in eastern North Carolina, he adds. He supports tax credits and incentives for teachers, law enforcement, and other frontline workers — and downpayment assistance to help address disparities in communities of color. He says his proposed budget recommends putting a $4.3 billion infrastructure bond on the ballot. That includes a $500 million investment in affordable housing.
Forest: The lieutenant governor believes government influence and regulations make construction more expensive and prevent developers from building affordable housing. He says governments should work with developers to determine the community’s needs, while also creating “quality affordable housing to keep property values high. These decisions should not be made in a bureaucratic bubble.” He also wants housing programs to serve citizens with disabilities.
One Charlotte-specific question: What should be done about source of income discrimination. In other words, should the state take the city of Charlotte’s recommendation to change a state law and ban landlords from refusing vouchers, or from asking tenants about previous convictions?
Cooper: Charlotte’s proposal could be considered, Cooper says, but the state should also insist the federal government address disparity in support for cities. He also pointed out that he recently signed a Fair Chance hiring initiative that prohibits screening job applicants based on criminal convictions. He says it could be considered for housing, too. “People deserve a second chance to rebuild their lives,” he says.
Forest: “No,” Forest says bluntly. “The vast majority of landlords are families who rent out a single property, which they often pay a mortgage on. Their right to vet tenants and otherwise manage their home as they see fit should be preserved within current state law.”
The issue: In Charlotte and other places, homelessness is more visible than ever. As of June, 3,111 individuals were actively experiencing homelessness in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Under Cooper, the state is using federal funds to keep people in secure housing during the pandemic.
What is the first thing that comes to mind for you when you think of homelessness in North Carolina?
Cooper: He says the first thing that comes to mind is a concern for people without homes, especially those with children. In August, he announced $175 million to help North Carolinians with rental and utility payment support. His administration has prohibited utility companies from cutting service for nonpayment, or for charging high late fees. Additionally, Cooper has called on Congress to continue funding for federal unemployment benefits. “There is more work to be done, and the state should assist local government with these challenges,” Cooper says.
Forest: “I believe a state is judged by how we take care of the vulnerable among us — the elderly, unborn, orphaned, disadvantaged, and homeless,” Forest says.
One Charlotte-specific question: What should cities like Charlotte do to help people living in places like the so-called Tent City?
Cooper: The governor says he continues to push for the expansion of Medicaid and invest in areas like public schools, substance abuse treatment, workforce initiatives and job creation. “We know coronavirus is shining a light on the massive inequities that existed before,” Cooper says.
Forest: Many people experience homelessness because they suffer from drug dependence or an untreated mental health condition that prevents them from earning a living, Forest says. He points to efforts like the Men’s Shelter, which his mother, former Charlotte Mayor Sue Myrick, helped to launch. “I support further efforts to help get people off the street and into shelters where they can more easily access substance abuse and other mental health treatments,” Forest says. He adds that the state must examine the root causes of homelessness — “including opioid addiction and the collapse of the family.”
The issue: 2020 is the year of Covid-19, and how we’ve responded to it. More than 3,600 North Carolinians have died from it.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the governor’s role in pandemic response?
Cooper: Cooper defends his administration’s measured, science-based decisions during the pandemic. “We are slowing the spread of the virus while helping the unemployed, our schools and teachers and our small businesses,” Cooper says. He also notes that communities of color have been hit the hardest, so state leaders are concentrating resources in those areas.
Forest: It ought to be a priority for the state to simultaneously protect lives and livelihoods, Forest says. “This is more important than just subsistence: So many of society’s ills can be cured by a good job.” The governor should direct time, money, and resources toward protecting elderly residents, he adds.
One Charlotte-specific question: How has the state fared in protecting people in urban areas like Charlotte — both economically and health-wise?
Cooper: Cooper says he has made tough decisions on a range of issues intended to protect the lives of North Carolinians, such as getting children back to school and mandating masks. His office has provided grants to help small businesses financially hurt by the pandemic, too. “Our economy can’t fully recover until we’ve dealt with this pandemic and people feel safer,” Cooper says. He reiterates that Medicaid expansion would provide health care to thousands, including in Charlotte.
Forest: Forest blames the Cooper administration’s shutdowns for the loss of jobs in urban areas, particularly in the service and retail sectors, and for creating a “climate of fear.” Over the summer, Forest even sued Cooper over his business restrictions, calling them unconstitutional. “As governor, I will not pick winners and losers in the economy with poll-driven restrictions,” Forest says.
The issue: Thousands of people protested police brutality after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota this summer — and not just in urban areas. Suburban towns like Waxhaw and Huntersville held protests with large numbers.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind on the topic of policing?
Cooper: Cooper was attorney general for 16 years before becoming governor, so he says he knows that law enforcement officers have hard jobs. But we have to make sure that we invest to attract and retain “the best law enforcement officers that we can” and ensure they reflect the communities they serve, Cooper says. Officers also need to be trained on de-escalation and bias training. In June, his office created a task force that has made recommendations such as banning chokeholds. “The deaths of George Floyd and other Black lives broke open painful wounds,” Cooper says.
Forest: Forest led the effort to declare September 11 a state holiday as First Responders Day. He notes that as lieutenant governor, he meets regularly with law enforcement officers who do everything from pull over drunk drivers to defuse domestic violence situations. “Their stories are inspiring. These men and women continually put themselves in harm’s way,” Forest says.
One Charlotte-specific question: CMPD accounts for 40 percent of the city of Charlotte’s budget? Should some of the money that we spend on policing be shifted to other social services?
Cooper: Cooper does not believe that defunding the police is the answer. “I believe that local governments should listen to the voices of their residents and work to address the unique problems within their communities,” he says. The state must, however, do more with local governments to address areas such as food scarcity, disparities in health care, and quality education and lack of access to jobs, Cooper says.
Forest: We can’t afford to defund the police, Forest says. “In Charlotte and across North Carolina, violence is spiraling out of control. Homicides have spiked in Charlotte yet again, and our children are paying the price.” Forest vows to, as governor, defend the police and work to curb the state’s “culture of violence.”
The issue: Charlotte had 107 homicides in 2019, more than in any year since 1994. This year’s pace is even higher, with nearly 90 homicides before the end of the third quarter.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about our rising homicide rate?
Cooper: The state has to work to reduce it, Cooper says. He says he’s worked to strengthen background checks, to keep guns from criminals and people who are mentally ill, and to improve public health and incident response. “I’ve proposed meaningful, common sense changes to promote gun safety and better protect our communities.”
Forest: The rising rate of homicide and other violent crime is the biggest issue facing Charlotte, Forest says. He promises that as governor, he will prioritize the safety of the state’s citizens. “It’s time that North Carolina got back to law and order.”
One Charlotte-specific question: Homicide is often seen as a local issue. But it’s true that state policies can exacerbate inequities that lead to crime. What role can the state play in reducing Charlotte’s homicide rate?
Cooper: Cooper says he is concerned about the correlation between gun violence and domestic violence. That’s why he has supported legislation aimed at protecting victims, and opposed measures loosening gun restrictions. For instance, as governor he has supported legislation that prohibits gun possession by people convicted of domestic violence. As attorney general, he opposed a measure to eliminate the need for getting a pistol permit from a local sheriff before buying a handgun.
Forest: Forest says he will hold sheriffs accountable if they refuse to cooperate with federal law enforcement when it comes to harboring undocumented immigrants. He also says he won’t hesitate to call in the National Guard to put a stop to rioting and looting if he is elected. “As governor, I will support law enforcement and make sure our communities have the resources they need to keep the public safe,” Forest says.
The issue: CMS accounts for about 30 percent of Mecklenburg County’s budget. Still inequities exist, with some kids getting better education based on their neighborhoods.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about improving schools in large districts like CMS?
Cooper: As governor, Cooper has pushed the legislature to raise teacher pay, expand pre-K programs, and re-establish the Teaching Fellows Program. He’s also directed $95.6 million in new funding to help support K-12 and postsecondary students hurt most by the pandemic. Cooper wants to see teacher pay raised to at least the national average, and wants teachers with advanced degrees and decades of experience to earn more. “Inadequate funding has forced schools to cut back on critical positions, like school nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers,” Cooper says. He directed a large portion of CARES funding to filling those roles.
Forest: Forest supports school choice options, which he says gives students access to good education, regardless of where they live. “For too long, our education system has prioritized the system over the student,” he says. Forest supports a full reopening of schools for in-person instruction.
One Charlotte-specific question: What steps can be taken at the state level to ensure equity in education, to ensure kids in poor neighborhoods of west Charlotte have the same opportunities as those in southeast Charlotte — and for that matter, the students in rural Montgomery County have the same opportunities as those in Wake?
Cooper: Cooper says he’s pushed for a construction bond for repairing aging schools. He’s also worked to expand high-speed internet throughout the state, and to recruit more teachers of color. He’s also tried to raise the per pupil funding for all public schools to at least the national average. This, he says, will help fund positions like teacher’s assistants, counselors, and other support staff. Cooper has slammed the legislature for failing to include such measures in its budget. “Budgets are about priorities. My budgets favor public education over tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy,” Cooper says.
Forest: As lieutenant governor, Forest has helped lead a $100 million effort to have every classroom connected to high-speed broadband. “When I’m elected governor, we will make North Carolina the first state to ensure all children have access to high-speed Internet at home as well, connecting all of rural North Carolina to broadband,” Forest says.
Transportation and climate change
The issue: Hurricanes hit our coast more frequently and with more ferocity than before. FEMA money has been slow to arrive in places like Fair Bluff. Recent reports show that there will be a migration of people moving from coastal N.C. in the next 30 years.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when considering the state’s role in addressing climate change?
Cooper: Cooper believes climate change has intensified storms in North Carolina. His administration has invested $3.5 billion in hurricane recovery and rebuilding. Cooper has established a goal to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2025 and 70 percent by 2030 with carbon neutrality by 2050. His administration has opposed offshore drilling and has supported expanding the use of solar energy and renewables.
Forest: Forest calls the term climate change a “catch-all for both environmental stewardship and apocalyptic alarmism.” He wants to tackle issues — like protecting clean air, clean water, and conserving land for future generations — one at a time. “I believe there is a place for good regulatory policy related to the environment, but I also believe in innovation over regulation. It’s time to stop using the environment as a political football and start solving problems.”
One Charlotte-specific question: If people keep migrating to cities like Charlotte, what should be done to prepare, and should we as a city and state be investing more in infrastructure such as light rail and bus routes?
Cooper: As governor, Cooper got bipartisan support for the Build NC program, which helped the start of road construction projects at low interest rates. “Our state is only as strong as the bones of our infrastructure — roads, bridges, public transportation and high speed internet,” Cooper says.
Forest: Forest says he would immediately restructure the state’s Department of Transportation, which he calls broke and broken. (Note: The DOT is experiencing a funding shortfall of about $300 million). The state, Forest says, needs a long-term vision to address its infrastructure needs. “I will bring in the state’s best and brightest minds to help in this effort, especially leaders from the private sector with proven experience in job creation, infrastructure and logistics,” Forest says.
The issue: Medicaid expansion was front and center of the state budget stalemate this year. Generally, Democrats support it; Republicans do not.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you consider Medicaid expansion in North Carolina?
Cooper: Although his efforts have been halted by state Republicans, Cooper has pushed to expand Medicaid to close a coverage gap and provide care for half a million families in North Carolina. Medicaid expansion, he says, does not cost the state anything. And it’s one way to avoid costly emergency room visits. “No person in this state should have to choose between basic necessities and access to quality health care that saves lives,” Cooper says.
Forest: Forest opposes Medicaid expansion because, he says, it would result in tax increases. The Affordable Care Act resulted in similar “broken promises.” “Our people are smarter than this political rhetoric,” Forest says.
One Charlotte-specific question: The pandemic has hit communities in Charlotte with poor or no health care particularly hard, and on top of that, it’s dealt an enormous financial blow to hospitals throughout Mecklenburg County. What role should the state playing in ensuring that North Carolinians have affordable and accessible health care in the midst of an ongoing pandemic?
Cooper: Along with providing coverage to hundreds of thousands of residents, Cooper says, Medicaid expansion would boost the economy by $4 billion and create 40,000 jobs. Earlier this year, Cooper signed bipartisan legislation that included $1.6 billion in assistance for families, schools, hospitals, and small businesses. Also this year, Cooper announced that $56 million will go toward improving early childhood education and health outcomes for at-risk children.
Forest: “When I’m Governor, I’ll focus on providing better access for patients by encouraging doctors to practice in our rural communities,” Forest says. He plans to work with the general assembly and state treasurer to ensure more price transparency on prescription drugs and health services. He also says he’ll fight to get those left in the coverage gap created by the ACA onto private insurance. But right now, Forest says, the quickest way to get people health insurance is to help them find a job. “As governor, I will reopen the economy and get people back to work.”
The issue: North Carolina has seen increases in gun permits issued by county sheriff departments since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you consider Second Amendment rights in North Carolina?
Cooper: Reasonable gun reforms are long overdue that are not in conflict with the Second Amendment or our nation’s values, Cooper says. As governor, he signed an Executive Directive to strengthen the background check system, increase protections from gun violence, and improve the state’s public health and incident response.
Forest: The Second Amendment secures all the rights enshrined in our Constitution, Forest notes, adding that he stands with all counties affirming the right to keep and bear arms. “When I’m governor, this right will never be in jeopardy in our state.”
One Charlotte-specific question: Firearms are the primary weapons used in homicides in Charlotte. A recent increase in cases of children getting a hold of guns prompted elected officials to focus on gun safety through a lock giveaway with CMPD. What role can the state play in gun safety measures like this?
Cooper: Cooper supports enforcing gun safety measures. For instance, he ordered the state to add 280,000 criminal convictions to its background check system, a way to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Cooper says if reelected, he will continue to advocate for a universal background check law. He has pushed the state legislature to pass a red flag law, which directs courts to take guns from anyone who is a known threat. “There’s more to do,” Cooper says.
Forest: Forest says he is “deeply skeptical” of laws that undermine the Constitutional right to own and carry firearms. “I don’t believe we need new gun laws to protect public safety, but instead enforce existing laws against violent criminals and prevent the mentally ill from buying and accessing firearms,” Forest says.
Note: Andrew Dunn, a former Axios Charlotte editor, is the spokesman for Dan Forest.