Debates filled information void

Published 8:37 pm Wednesday, November 30, 2016

By H. Ross Harris

Special to the Salisbury Post

There is no doubt that the 2016 election cycle will prove to be a pivotal one, both in our country and in North Carolina specifically.

The candidates and campaigns for president, U.S. Senate and governor have received significant media coverage. Down the ballot, however, candidates for Council of State typically receive less public or media attention, even though their offices play a critical role in the operation of state government and the formation of public policy in North Carolina.

Importantly, too, while our urban counties have experienced rapid population growth in recent decades, most North Carolinians still live elsewhere. Over half of the state’s population can be found in the 90 counties that have fewer than 200,000 residents each. Many of these communities are undergoing significant demographic, economic and social changes. Some are trying to replace longtime manufacturing industries such as textiles, furniture and tobacco with new business sectors. Others are becoming bedroom communities or retirement destinations.

With the goal of spotlighting races that get less attention than those for governor and U.S. Senate, as well as emphasizing issues facing North Carolina’s smaller communities and rural areas, the staff and board of the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership (NCIOPL) came up with the idea of Hometown Debates.

NCIOPL is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate future political and community leaders such that its participants will have a sound grounding in ethical behavior, consensus building and cooperative and collaborative leadership as they run for office and govern.

This fall, NCIOPL co-hosted, with local Chambers of Commerce, three debates for the offices of lieutenant governor, attorney general, and treasurer in Wilson, Asheboro and Statesville respectively.

In Statesville, the candidates for treasurer, Democrat Dan Blue III and Republican Dale Folwell, were questioned by editors Elizabeth Cook of the Salisbury Post and Dave Ibach of the Statesville Record and Landmark. The candidates engaged in a productive discussion of the state’s financial assets, health care plan and pension funds.

The debate was held in the Statesville Civic Center and broadcast on UNC-TV’s NC Channel and radio’s NC News Network. Viewers, listeners and readers all had the opportunity to receive good answers to their questions and helpful information from the candidates. We also received widespread social media support which was critical in disseminating information from the debate.

These debates were sponsored statewide by NC’s Electric Cooperatives, the John William Pope Foundation, the State Employees Association of North Carolina, the NC Advocates for Justice and the NC Association of Defense Attorneys.

Our intent with these Hometown Debates was to set the standard for North Carolina politics by offering forums that are balanced and fair. Our hope is that this will help us inform the electorate and achieve the political discourse that is needed today.

R. Ross Harris is executive director of the N.C. Institute of Political Leadership.