More than 100 turn out to debate politics with state legislators at town hall meeting

Published 12:05 am Friday, March 17, 2017

By Josh Bergeron

SALISBURY — State Rep. Harry Warren started his Thursday town hall meeting by calling it “nothing unusual.”

In reality, it was far from normal.

More than 100 people — Republicans and Democrats — turned out for a meeting that at times became a debate about politics.

Warren usually holds town hall meetings when the N.C. General Assembly is in session. On Thursday, however, Republicans and Democrats rallied their bases to attend the meeting, which featured Warren, R-77; Rep. Carl Ford, R-76; and Sen. Tom McInnis, R-25. The meeting started with an overview of activities in the legislature that lasted for 30 minutes. The lengthy period without audience questions drew the ire of some in the crowd.

Halfway through the meeting, legislators started taking questions. But some people offered advice instead. Citing a Bible verse, Salisbury resident Jim Beard implored legislators to take care of North Carolina’s poorest residents — “the least of these.”

“If it means raising taxes a little bit to take care of the poor and the disadvantaged, we should do it,” Beard said to a round of applause.

McInnis responded to Beard’s question with a suggestion.

“If you will check the record in how much has been spent in programs for (the Department of Health and Human Services) and all the programs … ,” McIninis started.

Audience members interrupted with an audible “whoa.”

“I’ll tell you, I love it,” McInnis responded. “I love this crowd, love this crowd. Thank you for being here, but let me finish.”

He said Republican legislators in recent years have devoted more money to education than under former Gov. Bev Perdue. Teacher pay has increased to its highest levels in history, he said. He noted other financial commitments to education, including money for new buildings. He said legislators work to help “the least of these” every day.

Like Beard, the majority of those who asked a question or made a statement during the town hall challenged the legislators to take action. When audience members expressed displeasure with a statement, the legislators often became visibly frustrated.

“You don’t have to blurt out stuff,” Ford said at one point. “We’re here trying to answer your questions. The more time you do that, the less time we can spend answering questions.”

A few in the crowd praised legislators, including Fred Steen, who previously served as Landis mayor and a state legislator. Steen rattled off a list of news headlines about encouraging economic growth in North Carolina. Steen also encouraged state legislators to focus on investing in the state’s infrastructure.

Rowan County resident Will McCubbins, a registered Republican, also spoke positively about state legislators before asking about the status of legislation that would allow carrying a concealed gun without a permit.

Nonpartisan redistricting ranked as the most-discussed topic.

In response to various questions, Ford said both major political parties are guilty of gerrymandering. He said Democrats drew district maps for decades. Now, Republicans have the same opportunity. Ford said he doesn’t believe it’s possible to create a commission that completely avoids political influence.

Ford said congressional maps drawn last year are the best district maps he’s ever seen in North Carolina. Last year’s congressional maps, however, came after a federal judge found racially gerrymandered district in prior maps drawn by Republicans. The new maps put parts of Rowan County into two congressional districts, instead of three.

China Grove resident Luke Hamaty addressed Ford’s argument by quoting a hymn.

“Save us from the weak resignation to the evils we deplore,” Hamaty quoted. “You know, they did it and all the others are doing it, but we don’t want to hear about whether Republicans or Democrats did it. What’s right, what’s good, what’s better, please focus on that.”

Responding to Hamaty, Warren said the current method of drawing district maps isn’t perfect. Warren said “there’s probably a better way” than legislators drawing districts. But Warren didn’t specifically respond to a question about whether he’d support a constitutional amendment on redistricting.

McInnis’ answer to redistricting questions mirrored Ford’s statement. McInnis said the problem is that people stay home during elections.

“There’s no such thing as independent, nonpartisan redistricting,” McInnis said.

He said President Donald Trump simply received more votes in the 2016 elections than Hillary Clinton. In response, he received another round of audible disapproval.

“The popular vote,” a few people said.

Despite the spirited debates between legislators and some in the audience, Thursday’s meeting ended without any confrontations. People rapidly packed into the second-floor meeting room of the county’s administration building. Later, they slowly filed out. Some stayed behind to continue debates with legislators.

Warren said he plans to schedule more town hall meetings this year.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.