Election 2020: In 76th District race, Warren, Heggins differ on COVID-19 response, Medicaid expansion
By Natalie Anderson
SALISBURY — While both candidates running to represent the 76th House District agree COVID-19 has exacerbated issues in education and health care, they disagree on the expansion of Medicaid and how state health officials have led the pandemic response.
Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican, was elected to serve District 76, which includes Rowan County, in 2018. But he’s been a member of the House since 2010 and previously represented the 77th District. He’ll be challenged in the upcoming general election by former Salisbury Mayor and current Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins, who’s a Democrat.
Heggins made history in 2017 when she was the first Black female mayor in the city of Salisbury and the first Black woman to serve on the city council.
As COVID-19 has dominated policy decisions this year, it will shape many of the issues to be addressed moving forward. While Warren said governors across the nation are basing their pandemic response on a political basis, Heggins said the response has been based on science and data.
Warren said the nation knew little about the virus in February or March, but it was clear by the end of April the most vulnerable population includes those with pre-existing conditions, congregate care facilities and the elderly. As a result, Warren said, the state should have moved its resources to concentrate on that population instead of a “shotgun approach” that’s killing the economy.
Additionally, Warren said state health officials should report more distinct numbers, such as how many cases are mild or asymptomatic, to paint a full picture of the virus’ impact.
Heggins said she supports Gov. Roy Cooper’s pandemic response and credited North Carolina with being “one of the states that have fared pretty well.”
“I believe that Gov. Cooper has been doing the right thing to protect North Carolinians by asking us to protect each other,” she said.
In August, state health officials announced an error in hospitalization data reported on the state’s website, which resulted in a higher count of tests performed. Health officials noted the error didn’t affect the overall key metrics and trends used to monitor and better understand the pandemic in North Carolina and that it didn’t impact the reporting of results to patients or doctors.
Heggins said it’s easy to have a data flub anywhere, and that it was highlighted by critics of the governor since.
“I think what’s important is that that data flub has not done anything to damage North Carolinians,” she said. “I think that’s what we have to focus on.”
While she agrees with the overall statewide response, she said local leaders could have been more proactive and more on top of what businesses were doing and ensuring locals wear face masks.
Both Warren and Heggins agree the pandemic has exacerbated some of the biggest issues facing the district. Foundational to Heggins’ platform is the eradication of poverty in Rowan County. To do so, Heggins said, workers’ rights have to be expanded and they must be provided with safe working environments. She supports raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
The current rate of poverty for children in Rowan County is 25%, while the statewide average is 20%, according to the 2019 State of the County Health Report.
Heggins supports the expansion of Medicaid and added that lawmakers must work together and be sincere, serious and proactive with the information available regarding Medicaid.
“We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are people living and dying without health coverage,” she said. “That’s unacceptable. That’s not even humane. So don’t talk to me about being a Christian when you are willing to let people die because they don’t have health coverage.”
North Carolina is currently one of 12 states that has not yet expanded its Medicaid program. Cooper requested that Medicaid expansion be included in the 2020-21 budget, but it ultimately didn’t make the final budget bill that was passed and signed into law.
Warren agrees health care is an important issue, particularly because of the pandemic. However, in lieu of expanding Medicaid, he referenced a health care program lawmakers are trying to put together that would be unique to North Carolinians.
Education and economy
Both Warren and Heggins prioritize strengthening education. Heggins said funding education fully will help citizens improve their lives and build wealth.
Warren said the economy is of great concern, especially as businesses are operating at reduced capacity, which results in reduced revenue. The added safety protocols come with additional costs, which leads to businesses “breaking even.”
“We’ve got to be very, very concerned about that because we’ve seen businesses that have been closed that just can’t come back,” he said. “We have businesses out there right now that are toward bankruptcy.”
Warren said legislators have already begun working to address these issues with the establishment of bipartisan working groups within the House Select Committee on COVID-19. Warren is a member of that committee and serves on the Economic Support Working Group.
“In a unique fashion, Republicans and Democrats worked together to come up with great strategies that affected all three of those areas,” he said.
Both Heggins and Warren agree that broadband expansion is critical to the district.
Warren said that no one can conduct a business, big or small, without it. He referenced the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, grant program passed by legislators in 2018, which incentivizes and pushes for broadband growth in rural areas.
In early September, Cooper announced an additional $4 million in supplemental GREAT grant funding through the COVID-19 Recovery Act. Additionally, part of the 2020-21 budget includes about $30 million for broadband expansion.
North Carolina is no stranger to legal battles regarding redistricting.
Warren served as a member of the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting in 2019 and referenced one of his bills, the NC FAIR State & Congressional Districts Act, which currently sits in the House Committee on Redistricting. That bill calls for the establishment of an independent redistricting commission that consists of 16 registered voters, including 11 voting members and five nonvoting alternative members. Members would be selected by the Senate majority and minority leaders, the House majority and minority leaders, along with four members selected by the other eight voting members of the commission.
However, both the House and Senate should have final say before the redistricting maps are drawn, he said.
“It’s important to remember that it’s a Constitutional responsibility, not just a right, of the General Assembly … to do those maps,” Warren said. “The approval has to rest with the voice of the people.”
Heggins said it’s important to ensure the lawmakers protect “the heart of our democracy.”
“A part of that heart of our democracy is making sure that people, No. 1, have access to the right to vote,” she said. “And that, No. 2, understand that they are within lines that are being drawn in which their vote really does count. And in which they can have candidates who have to compete and work for that vote.”
Heggins added that it’s harmful to democracy when someone vying for public office can assume they will win that seat. It doesn’t bode well for constituents, and it allows elected officials to become complacent, she said.
If re-elected, Warren would be among the most senior members of the House, but he has no desire to move into a leadership role.
“From what I’ve seen over the years, I think I can accomplish more for Rowan County as a chair of a committee rather than caucus leader or majority leader or speaker or speaker pro tem,” he said. “I would rather be able to be more flexible where I’m at right now as a senior member.”
Warren chairs multiple standing committees in the House, including the Finance and State and Local Government committees.
He also serves in leadership positions in the Joint Legislative Elections Oversight committee, the Joint Legislative Committee on Local Government and the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance.
Both Warren and Heggins were asked to name a strength of their opponent. They both complimented the other on being a good public speaker.
Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.
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