By Arielle Emmett
Amid the fancy retirement homes and country clubs, encampments of homeless and financially strapped public schools, Henderson County voters here are watching the midterm election signs crop up like weeds on unmanicured lots.
It’s no exaggeration to say that American democracy is on the ballot. Democrats and Republicans these days are terrifically divided in their sense of what is truthful, factual, and endemic to American government and our way of life.
For Democrats, especially, the underlying worry is that GOP extremists aim to unravel fundamental Constitutional rights and protections, among them voting rights, Social Security and Medicare, public education, and women’s choice– not just abortion, but ultimately contraception and the rights to privacy. Republicans, in turn, are capitalizing on sky-is-falling economic fears -- inflation, for one, the American Rescue Plan Act, rising crime, gun rights. and even the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential election.
Beware GOP Extremism
As a Democrat, I yearn for moderation and joint problem-solving. But locally, incumbent candidates, virtually all Republican, are following the extreme tilt of the GOP today and espousing extremist views.
§ State Senator Chuck Edwards (District 48) is running for Congress in the 11th district as a like-minded replacement for the ousted Madison Cawthorn. Edwards touts his pro-gun, pro-life “mountain values” opposing abortion rights without any exceptions. He’s gone on record saying he wants to dismantle the State Board of Education and voted with the GOP legislature against expanding Medicaid for 660,000 uninsured, working North Carolinians (he did an about-face this year, like his party, but no one in the NC legislature could agree on details). Edwards is best known for taking $1.1 million in forgivable loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to subsidize his McDonald’s franchises, then introducing a state bill to give himself and other lucky business owners a tax break.
§ Representative Tim Moffitt (NC District 117), a conservative House Chair of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Committee, is running for Edward’s Senate seat. Moffitt is proudly endorsed by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Conservative Union, but not endorsed by Environment North Carolina, the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters or Planned Parenthood Votes.Moffitt avoided voting in July for the NC appropriation for Education, Economic Development, and Transportation. He voted “yes” in June 2022 on a bill requiring state sheriffs to cooperate with ICE.
§ A GOP candidate to replace Moffitt’s seat in the House is Jennifer Balkcom, a local member of the Henderson County Planning Board. She’s an avowed conservative who spews vitriol on her website. On gun control: “Do not cede an inch to the radical left!” On border security: “Criminal illegal aliens must serve their full sentences then be deported.”
None of these GOP candidates have addressed the barbarity of forcing ten-year old rape and incest victims to bear children, and not one has spent a word explaining why the Republican legislature has brutally defunded North Carolina’s public education system for a decade. Or why Henderson County has an 11% poverty rate, or a 25% homeless rate among the black community here, and a draconian local policing system cooperating to target non-citizens for ICE enforcement.
Instead, the GOP contenders seem to be falling in line, like dominos, with the most bellicose ‘Hatfield and McCoy’ rants of their leadership. Oddly enough, their views seem completely out of touch with the majority of the NC constituents they claim to represent. A recent Public Policy survey, for example, shows that 74% of North Carolinians endorse a woman’s reproductive rights. On guns, given the epidemic of mentally ill juveniles murdering children in mass shootings, a WRAL News poll finds 62% of North Carolinians want stronger gun control as well.
A Rare Trifecta of Candidates
There are better choices in these elections. A rare trifecta of candidates -- Jasmine Beach-Ferrera, Jay Carey, and Michael O’Shea -- have emerged in the Congressional, NC Senate and House races to redefine “mountain values” in new ways. These candidates stand for community-centered ethics, economic growth for all, not just a few, and protection of human rights that won’t be overlooked either in Raleigh or Washington DC.
Jasmine Beach-Ferrera, Democrat for Congress (11th district). I met Congressional candidate Jasmine Beach-Ferrera on a canvassing stop and again during a confab of Democratic women supporting her candidacy and that of the US Senate candidate Cheri Beasley, the former North Carolina Chief Justice, running against Republican extremist Ted Budd. Both women are in neck-and-neck races, sharing strong views on protecting reproductive health, capping drug costs, eliminating medical insurance abuse and ensuring economic growth through advanced manufacturing and farming initiatives throughout the state.
Beach-Ferrera, a remarkably articulate Buncombe County Commissioner who serves as the County Chair of the Early Childhood Education and Development Committee, has upset Republican challengers in the last two elections. She’s ebullient and active, an ordained minister who has tackled the opioid and Covid-19 public health crises in Asheville and is ready to adapt public policy to meet local needs.
“My whole life I heard different versions of ‘you can’t,’” she said. “And I know that far too many people in Western North Carolina feel counted out and overlooked.”
Beach-Ferrera talks about “the issues that keep people up at night -- access to affordable housing, early child education, and getting a job where you can raise your family and have a future.” Of the GOP candidates on tap, she warns that their predilection for dismantling fundamental protections -- Roe v. Wade, contraception, gun control, even Medicare and Social Security are on the docket for GOP “free market” privatizing and destruction -- will hurt those who struggle the most. “Most dangerously, [extremist candidates] will try to use the blunt instrument of power to divide people,” she said. By contrast, “we have a responsibility to talk to people, meet them where they are, and bring everyone to the table to figure out solutions.”
Jay Carey – Candidate for NC Senate District 48
Jay Carey, a retired Army Bronze Star awardee who served in Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan, describes himself as a “rare trifecta” of US combat deployments. Today Carey, a maintenance specialist, describes himself as “aggressive progressive, but not liberal – we have different methods,” he said.
“I firmly believe everyone needs access to health care separate from employment,” he continues. “Women should have absolute autonomy over their own bodies, and make their own decisions without the government or anyone else telling them what to do. Education is the cornerstone of our society; to be successful, we need to make sure every child has access. But the Republican right-wing wants to choke off public education here until it dies. Witness our legislature holding out $785 million in disbursements to public schools while the Supreme Court continues to debate the Leandro case and public school equity.”
On Carey’s wish list: Immediate repeal of NC House Bill 129, known as the “Level Playing Field or Local Government Competition Act,” passed in 2011-2012. This act prevents local governments from developing a competitive broadband infrastructure to offer citizens. “Mark Meadows sponsored this bill; he was in the pocket of AT&T. But in our rural areas we need municipal-sponsored broadband. During Covid-19 my kids had to stay home, and learning on the Internet was a struggle. I want to see that bill repealed.”
Michael O’Shea, Candidate for NC House District 117
Michael O’Shea, a young music and film production editor, is the candidate for Tim Moffitt’s vacated House Seat (District 117) in Henderson County.
A native of Mills River where he and his wife Jennifer currently live, O’Shea has pre-Revolutionary war roots, a degree in philosophy and English from Western Carolina University, and has traveled worldwide. He ran in 2020 as the first millennial to be on the NC-11 Democratic primary ballot.
“I saw in the 2016 election when Trump was elected that it was my obligation to get involved in a real way,” he said. He calls the Supreme Court decision to reverse Roe v. Wade “disastrous” and wants NC to protect people’s right to make their own health care decisions.
“The Republican legislators are out of step with what people in their own party want,” he said. “They realize that Medicaid expansion is popular in their own party but they still won’t pass it. Federal funds would cover over 90% of the cost while North Carolinians have been sending our tax dollars to other states to cover their healthcare.”
On the gun control issue, he wants to see the end of GOP hypocrisy. “If you think the problem [with gun violence] is mental health, then let’s fund mental health. But if you’re not addressing this in any meaningful way, ask why it’s easier to get an AR-15 in this state than a therapist?”
O’Shea wants to expand Medicaid, address local wage stagnation to help working families deal with inflation, fully fund public education and expand rural broadband, reversing state policies he calls “ideologically incoherent.” And, like the other candidates, he wants to end the politics of division.
‘‘My parents were the minister and music director of a Mills River church and taught me that ‘Love thy neighbor’ has no exceptions,” he said. But this election is critical to our democracy and the human rights protections enshrined in the Constitution and state laws. “If the GOP gains a supermajority this year, they are going to ram through their extremist bills that don’t represent the majority in North Carolina,” O’Shea said. “And it will take a decade or more to undo the damage.”
Arielle Emmett, Ph.D., is a journalist and former US Fulbright Scholar. She lives in Hendersonville.