HENDERSONVILLE – Together for the first time since the ballot was set for Western North Carolina’s U.S. House race, Democrats proposed boosts to the minimum wage, student loan forgiveness and ideas for combating opioids — including hacking Chinese websites — in their bids to reach the general election.
Four of the six Democrats, who signed up for the 11th District primary, took part in the March 23 forum by the Young Democrats of Henderson County, which included a straw poll. Winning the poll with 31 votes was Katie Dean, followed by Jasmine Beach-Ferrara with 17 votes, Jay Carey with 13 and Bo Hess with 6.
Marco Gutierrez, who was absent, got one vote, while Bynum M. Lunsford, who was also not at the forum, didn’t get any votes.
The winner of the May 17 primary will face the eight-way Republican primary’s top finisher, an opponent several candidates said would be incumbent Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a Donald Trump-aligned congressman whose rhetoric has drawn the ire of the left.
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“This is a winnable race to beat Madison Cawthorn,” said Beach-Ferrara, a Buncombe County commissioner and the Democrats’ top fundraiser.
In front of an 81-person standing-room audience, the candidates answered questions on affordable housing, what their first House committee choice would be, student loan debt and other topics.
Dean, an environmental engineer and small business owner, said the housing problem required a “multifaceted, multidisciplinary approach” that would include working against private equity firms that were buying large numbers of homes.
Carey, a retired Army combat veteran, said raising the minimum wage to $24 an hour would be one of the most effective ways to help people afford housing in skyrocketing markets, such as WNC.
“Do we get there tomorrow? No,” Carey said. “But we have to work towards that.”
Hess, a clinical social worker, agreed, saying companies from Florida were buying rentals and hiking rents by double digits. Increasing federal housing vouchers and subsidizing and incentivizing affordable construction with lower interest rates were part of the formula, he said.
Halfway houses should be more stringently regulated to make it more difficult to kick people out, he said, “to really make sure that if they’re getting government money that they were with that person and they keep them housed.”
Beach-Ferrara, a nationally known LGBTQ activist, also called for local, state and federal help incentivizing affordable construction and getting vouchers to the poorest residents. She called housing a “basic human right” and pointed to her work as an elected county official to increase affordability. That included “high access” homeless shelters, “a critical part of the journey in getting people from homelessness back into housing,” she said.
Asked about what House committee they would want, Beach-Ferrara said Education and Labor and that the first legislation she would seek would be universal pre-K “as it will be such a game-changer in the lives of children.”
Dean named Transportation and Infrastructure where she could work on issues such as lead pipe removal to prevent WNC towns from becoming “the next Flint, Michigan.”
She promised to bring tax dollars back to the region from recently passed infrastructure legislation to rebuild roads and bridges.
“Because there is nothing more made in the U.S.A. than American infrastructure,” she said.
Carey said his military experience led him to want to be on Veterans Affairs and Armed Services where he would seek to reduce the military budget “without reducing our readiness,” spending the money instead on areas such as health care for single parents.
Hess said he was interested in the Health and Human Services Subcommittee and national security out of concern for the country’s own “authoritarian tendencies” and Russia’s and China’s hopes to increase their influence.
“I really do see this election right here as really fighting for our Democracy,” he said.
Student loan debt
Candidates proposed various levels of debt forgiveness, Hess suggesting forgiving up to $50,000 in student loan debt.
He and others, such as Beach-Ferrara, said community college should be free, while Carey said four-year state colleges should also be free of charge.
Dean called much of the lending “predatory” and said teacher loan debt should be forgiven.
Carey said the many existing organizations could deal with the epidemic, if better funded.
Beach Ferrara said that programs, such as those backed by Buncombe County government, could help, including community paramedics, medication-assisted treatment to prevent withdrawal issues and not criminalizing low-level drug use. She touted her work as an appointee to a state-level body to create a blueprint for using money won through lawsuits against prescription opioid makers.
Hess supported similar ideas and talked about providing safe pharmaceutical grade heroin and supervised injection sites. He said the current local spike in fentanyl use should be treated as a public health issue and that much of it was coming coming from China. The U.S., he said, should look into hacking Chinese websites to disrupt the fentanyl flow into the country.
Dean said the issue was complex and the solution largely came down to funding and who would be better at directing federal aid back to the district.
Joel Burgess has lived in WNC for more than 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He’s written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Got a tip? Contact Burgess at firstname.lastname@example.org, 828-713-1095 or on Twitter @AVLreporter. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.