‘Elections have consequences’: Coleman, Forest offer competing visions for N.C.’s future

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North Carolina lieutenant governor candidates’diametrically opposed viewpoints took center stage from the start of a Tuesday night debate at Barton College, with the first questions broaching the topic of House Bill 2. The “bathroom bill” topic persisted and took up about a quarter of the question period with Republican incumbent Dan Forest defending the legislation and Democratic candidate Linda Coleman slamming it as discriminatory.

“I think it was a very reasonable law that provided very reasonable accommodations,” Forest said of the state law spurred by a decision of the Charlotte City Council to remove gender restrictions on bathrooms, showers and changing rooms. The father said he had the safety of his wife and daughters in mind when he supported prohibiting men from female facilities.

Coleman pointed out other legislation pertaining to sexual assault that Forest did not push through the General Assembly despite claiming safety was the source of his support for House Bill 2.

“This is a solution in search of a problem because there is not one documented case of women in bathrooms where men came in to assault them,” she said. “The protection of women is yet another disguise of promoting a bill that has no place in North Carolina.”

The two continued to trade political viewpoints, with Coleman questioning the economic impact of House Bill 2, contending it was driving jobs away, but Forest said the Republican-led administration has made significant strides with job creation in recent years. The debate on the issue boiled downed to a principal of “elections have consequences,” which was brought up several other times throughout the night by both candidates.

Other topics where the hopefuls differed included the best course for the state’s education system, with both candidates agreeing that work needed to happen to improve the state’s schools. Forest supported giving parents the option to choose which educational structure is best for their family, but his opponent, a former teacher, said positive outcomes can’t be achieved when the state pot of education dollars is split between four education systems.The duo both condemned failing schools, with Forest saying after the debate that “failing schools are failing students.”

“When a charter school fails, we can shut it down, but when public schools fail, we throw more money at it,” Forest said.

The candidates agreed that voter education should be extended to the state’s high schools but disagreed on the validity of the voter photo identification law, which a federal court deemed discriminatory and unconstitutional.

“The voter ID was a bad, monstrous bill that denied participation in democracy,” Coleman said.

She claimed the bills’ backers used “surgical precision” to look at the issues that affected people who voted and targeted people of color. Both candidates did support the creation of a broadband infrastructure, with Forest touting North Carolina as being the first in the nation set to achieve internet connectivity for all classrooms in the state. When the issue of Wilson building a network for high-speed internet to the reach the underserved residents of Pinetops arose, Coleman and Forest recognized the impact broadband has on a community’s viability.

“The internet, information and broadband are absolutely critical,” Coleman said. “It is infrastructure for business, and if you don’t have that infrastructure, you can’t get businesses to come.”

Forest boiled the decision for voters down to a record of Republican-led successes.

“Elections are about choices, and you can go back to the previous administration who cut teacher pay, froze staff increases, who cut 4,200 teachers, who drove our economy into the ground, who created a $3 billion deficit we had to dig out of, or you can stick with the Republican plan that has been working and putting people back to work and creating jobs and improving education,” he said.

Coleman said a Democratic administration would bolster the middle class, adding such North Carolinians are the backbone of the state and the economy.

“It is our absolute prerogative to make sure we have a North Carolina full of pride and all of the things going to make our state great,” she said during her opening statement. “I look forward to joining (gubernatorial candidate) Roy Cooper to build a North Carolina that will work for all of us, not just a select few.”

Kelly McCullen of UNC-TV served as moderator for the debate, which was sponsored by the nonpartisan North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership and the Wilson Chamber of Commerce. Panelists quizzing the candidates were Bobby Burns, editor of The Daily Reflector in Greenville, and Corey Friedman, editor of The Wilson Times.

A broadcast of the lieutenant governor debate at Barton’s Kennedy Family Theater will air at 9 p.m.today on UNC-TV.

bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com | 265-7821