Crowd fills Rep. Harry Warren’s town hall with questions, criticism

Published 12:10 am Friday, May 19, 2017

By Josh Bergeron

SALISBURY — For the second straight month, state Rep. Harry Warren’s town hall meeting drew a large crowd that posed challenging questions, dished out criticism and, at times, offered thanks for legislative action.

Warren, R-Salisbury, started the meeting with an introduction that lasted about 10 minutes. He spoke about a number of pending and passed bills in the N.C. General Assembly. Then, the county’s Republican and Democratic party chairmen alternated drawing names of people who wanted to ask questions.

Fewer than 100 people attended the town hall. A total of 17 people asked questions or spoke. Multiple questions focused on partisan school board or judicial elections. One person asked Warren about his bill that could result in a partisan Rowan-Salisbury school board race. His proposal — House Bill 42 — would place a question on the ballot in 2018 and allow voters to choose between a partisan and nonpartisan race.

Warren stressed that his bill would give voters a choice. He said some members of the legislature have made school board races partisan without allowing voters to choose.

“Ever since I got engaged in politics, that’s one of the questions I’ve heard batted around — that the school board ought to be partisan,” Warren said. “I don’t think it’s my responsibility to make that decision. I think that’s something we should delegate to the local voters to decide.”

Later, Warren was asked whether he would prefer a judge who is nonpartisan or partisan if he were involved in a court case. Warren said he would prefer someone who shares his values. He said party affiliation is one way for voters to know a person’s values.

Rowan County Commissioner Craig Pierce, a Republican, challenged Warren by asking why the state didn’t do more to shoulder the burden of teacher pay increases.

“When I hear that our government in Raleigh has a $500 million surplus, my question is: Why are y’all not distributing that through the educational side and quit putting the work onto the county to provide teacher pay,” Pierce said to a round of applause. “That’s the state’s job.”

Warren said he supports an idea to restore lottery funding for education to its original levels. He also spoke generally about work completed by the legislature to increase teacher pay.

The meeting covered a range of topics. At one point, Warren expressed support for legalizing medical marijuana if strict controls are in place. Because the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal about North Carolina’s voter ID law, Warren said it’s likely the General Assembly will enact a new version in the near future. He said the House will release its budget proposal by the end of the month.

Near the end of the meeting, Warren was asked a question unrelated to politics.

George W. Benson read statistics about food insecurity — not having access to affordable, nutritious food — and questioned what the legislature is doing for the poor.

“While it’s nice that you’re worried about judicial courts and school boards, which don’t have their own opinion — they only have one opinion — it would be nice to know what you will do to help the poor citizens of Rowan County feed themselves,” Benson asked. “Basic care for citizens should not be an argument.”

Warren responded that the best solutions come on the local level because needs vary in different areas. He mentioned Meals on Wheels as an example of a good local program. He said it’s the state government’s role to find worthwhile programs, provide funding and conduct oversight after money is allocated.

Throughout the town hall, several people from the activist group Salisbury Indivisible stood outside the Rowan County Administration Building, where the meeting was held, and held up signs at passing motorists.

Before Thursday’s meeting, Warren said it’s good more people are coming to his town halls than usual. Last month’s meeting drew a standing-room only crowd that topped 100. This time, there were fewer attendees.

“It’s a good thing more people are politically involved, civically involved, paying attention to the issues and getting engaged,” he said. “The other thing is that the political fervor that’s come with that and maybe the motivations that have got them involved have made it a very volatile situation to try to continue to do these.”

As long as discussion stays relatively civil, Warren says he plans to continue hosting town hall meetings. When things briefly became heated at Thursday’s meeting, he said he’d shut the meeting down.

The heated moment came when he was talking about his thoughts on partisan judicial races. Someone in the audience interjected with a question, and Warren fired back.

“I’m sorry. You’re going to have to be quiet,” he said. “I tell you what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna answer the questions, and you’re gonna ask them in order. … I’m not going to be a target for you, and this is not an opportunity for people to turn this into a free-for-all.”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.