Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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N.C. 11th Congressional District candidates Morris “Moe” Davis, a 62-year-old retired Air Force colonel, and Madison Cawthorn, a 25-year-old real estate investor, explained policy differences and traded personal attacks in equal measure Saturday night during their second of two back-to-back debates. (Read a recap of the Friday night’s debate.)

The debates between Democrat Davis and Republican Cawthorn were hosted by Blue Ridge Public Radio, Mountain Xpress and Smoky Mountain News and held at Western Carolina University’s site at Biltmore Park in Asheville on Friday night and then the university’s Cullowhee home campus on Saturday.

Blue Ridge Public Radio live-streamed video of the debates, which didn’t have a live audience due to safety concerns about the spread of Covid-19.

On Friday night, representatives of local media organizations asked the questions: Reporter Mark Barrett for Mountain Xpress; Pete Kaliner, a local talk radio host; and Aisha Adams, Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Equity and Diversity Institute program developer and co-host of the online video show The Asheville View.

On Saturday night, the questioners were: Chris Cooper, head of Western Carolina University’s Political Science and Public Affairs department and a university political science professor; Edward Lopez, director of WCU’s Center for the Study of Free Enterprise and Economics professor; and Richard G. Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

Here’s a breakdown of Saturday night’s debate:

Rural broadband

Both candidates agreed in general terms that Western North Carolina was behind in the development of broadband access.

With the rural region already behind on this front and the pandemic pushing grade school, medicine and more people to work from home, Davis said he would support passage of the Affordable Internet for All Act, a bill that would put $100 billion into building building high-speed broadband infrastructure in underserved/unserved communities. The bill, introduced by U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) would also subsidize broadband service to make sure it was affordable.

Cawthorn agreed that it was critical to invest in high-tech infrastructure, but said the government should focus on providing “a framework to let private business flourish.” He added that he would make an effort to increase the amount that WNC counties receive as payment in lieu of taxes from the federal government as a way to boost broadband investments. These PILT payments help local governments offset losses in property taxes due to the existence of nontaxable federal lands in their counties, a significant issue for several smaller WNC counties that are home to large national parks and forests.

Domestic violence and violence against women

In response to a question about what they would do to protect women against acts of violence and domestic violence, especially indigenous women, Cawthorn noted his endorsement by more than a dozen WNC sheriffs and said he would be “more than willing to vote for” renewal of the Violence Against Women Act which was passed by Congress and signed into law in 1994 but expired in 2018.

Davis said he, too, supported the Violence Against Women Act. He noted his endorsement by the National Organization for Women. And he went on to note media accounts of allegations of sexual misconduct lodged against Cawthorn, whom he said once stuck his hand up a woman’s skirt without her consent. “That’s deplorable. That’s not acceptable,” Davis said.

Cawthorn responded in kind by decrying “another liberal lawyer using personal attacks.” He said he had certainly made failed attempts at kissing women in the past, advances that were also certainly not akin to sexual misconduct. Cawthorn then accused Davis of defending alleged terrorists during his time as a military prosecutor with the Guantanamo Bay military commissions. Davis said he was proud of his Guantanamo record of seeking fair trials and justice for the accused.

With that, a pattern was set for the rest of the night, as both candidates outlined their political differences and then turned their attention to personal attacks, which at times verged on the petty and bitter.

Public debt

Responding to a question about rising concern over the ever-increasing levels of national debt, Davis said the economy under President Trump was great for Madison Avenue and Madison Cawthorn, but horrible for Madison County. He cited his long experience dealing with fiscal policy and responsibly managing money.

Cawthorn jumped at the chance to assail Davis. “I believe he went to school at Hogwarts rather than Hendersonville,” Cawthorn said, noting that Davis wanted the government wanted to assume all outstanding student college loan debt, something the U.S. can’t afford, Cawthorn added. The level of national debt is the top risk to national security and stands as “an existential threat to our country,” he said.

Davis parried by stating that Cawthorn wouldn’t know a thing about student loan debt since Cawthorn didn’t have a college eduction and had never held a job. “He’s a multi-millionaire” who’s never had to worry about those things, Davis said. Cawthorn pointed out that more than 60 percent of Americans don’t have a college degree and he would be proud to represent that majority in WNC if elected. Cawthorn also noted that he worked for former U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, who last year resigned his N.C. 11th Congressional seat to work as President Trump’s chief of staff, and started his own real estate investment company in August of last year.

Checks on executive power

Congress has not acted as an adequate check on executive power, Cawthorn answered in response to a question by Cooper. There’s “a deficit of courage” in Washington, D.C., right now, Cawthorn said, adding that he had the backbone – reinforced with titanium after a car wreck that left him paralyzed and having to use a wheelchair – to stand up to the powers-that-be and fight for change. Both presidents Obama and Trump have used executive orders far too much, he said.

Davis called it “laughable” that Cawthorn would go to Washington and stand up to Trump – just watch the recent video of Cawthorn fawning over Trump and members of his inner circle, including Meadows, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham during a meeting at Trump’s Washington hotel, Davis said. The weakness of Congress in reigning in executive powers extended back to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., Davis said. The first order of business if elected would be to bring integrity back to the office of the president, Davis added.

Cawthorn asserted his credentials as a political outsider, pointing out that he’s not been endorsed by Meadows, Trump or anyone else in Washington. “I’m not beholden to anyone,” he said.

Davis, in his rebuttal time, returned to the Guantanamo issue and said he was issued a Legion of Merit award for his work there. He then urged Cawthorn to stand up for veterans by disavowing Trump for allegedly calling American war dead “losers” and “suckers,” as reported by The Atlantic.

Minority representation in government

Davis said there’s no doubt that there are “too many people that look like me” at all levels of government as he answered a question about how he would work with minorities and build their ranks in government. He said he’s “stood up for equality” and pointed to his decision when working as a U.S. Department of Labor administrative law judge to order Enterprise Rent-a-Car to pay $6.6 million to resolve longstanding practice of hiring discrimination in Baltimore.

Davis ruled that Enterprise had violated federal labor regulations when it engaged in hiring discrimination against African American applicants who were unfairly denied jobs based on their race between the years of 2007-2018, the Baltimore Sun reported. According to the ruling, Enterprise’s Baltimore unit rejected nearly 200 more black applicants for its management training program than it should have, even though Enterprise’s human resources staff appeared to apply neutral job criteria, the newspaper reported.

Cawthorn said his injuries resulting from the 2014 car accident that left him using a wheelchair taught him perseverance, grit and most of all, empathy. “I stood 6-foot 3 before my wreck,” he said. “I know what it feels like to feel like someone who the system has left behind.” He then proceeded to implore “my liberal lawyer friend” to dispense with the personal attacks.

Instead, Davis dug in. Although Cawthorn had just asserted that he stood more than 6 feet tall before his wreck, Cawthorn said in a lawsuit deposition related to his car wreck that he was just 6 feet tall. “You make yourself bigger in every story you tell,” Davis said, while also returning to the sexual misconduct allegations lodged against Cawthorn.

Cawthorn, astonished at the new low in personal attacks, said he’s grown an inch or two since his 2014 wreck. “What a silly attack,” he said. “It is despicable to attack me for not being the right height.”

Tariffs and trade wars

Cawthorn said free trade isn’t always fair trade, and said he would be willing to use tariffs to help bring jobs back to the U.S. and punish countries like China that make goods by using low-wage labor that verges on slave labor.

Davis said free trade is good for consumers. He criticized President Trump for claiming that tariffs he imposed on China would be paid by China when, in fact, they were passed on to consumers and goods producers like U.S. farmers. Davis said he supported green technology as an economic path forward, adding that while he liked some aspects of the proposed Green New Deal, he has refused to endorse it in its entirety.

Cawthorn in turn criticized Democratic economic policies, including the Green New Deal, which he said Davis fully supports, as stated on Davis’ own website. Then Cawthorn recalled that growing up, he used to be happy to visit downtown Asheville, but today, downtown visitors find used needles “and feces in the middle of the road.” He added, “That’s what Democrat policies do.”

Questions from WCU students

Debate emcee next turned to questions submitted by Western Carolina University students on the following subjects: student loan debt, public land management and voting by mail and support of the U.S. Postal Service.

The questions regarding student loan debt and public land management elicited similar responses to earlier questions, while the question about mailing ballots had each candidate expressing support for absentee balloting and voting in general.

The candidates spent most of the time in this section returning to lines of personal attack.

Davis returned to his line of attack that Cawthorn hadn’t been truthful about his height earlier by noting Cawthorn’s testimony in a deposition three years ago. He also said voters should read it to see what Cawthorn said about being accepted to a Harvard program and compare that to more recent claims.

Davis then said Cawthorn had been cited for “stolen valor,” a term that refers to a person making a false claim about serving in the U.S. military. Cawthorn has been criticized for stating vague descriptions of being headed to the U.S. Naval Academy before being “derailed” by the 2014 car accident he was in as a passenger, when in fact he had been rejected by the academy prior to the wreck.

Cawthorn fired back, claiming that Davis “stood shoulder-to-shoulder with suicide bombers” and turning his back on Americans while working at Guantanamo Bay. Cawthorn said he comes “from a long line of Marines” who would “wear me out for pretending I served.”

Cawthorn also returned to his earlier line calling Davis “just another liberal layer” issuing “more and more personal attacks.” What really matters is finding a way to work together, he said. “We need to move forward as a country.”

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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