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Election 2020: Howard, Townsend differ on handling of racial issues, redistricting

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — While Rep. Julia Howard says racial injustice issues should be handled at the local level, Democratic challenger Keith Townsend says giving working people a chance can help close the generational wealth gap.

Both Howard, a Republican who’s served in the state House for more than 30 years, and Townsend, a Democrat from Mount Ulla, are running in the general election to represent House District 77, which covers Rowan and Davie counties.

In addition to COVID-19, parts of the year have been marked with protests for racial justice across the nation following the death of George Floyd in May. Floyd was a Black man who was seen on a viral video dying after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s back until Floyd lost consciousness and died. Protestors have marched for other Black Americans who lost their lives this year, too, including Breonna Taylor — an EMS worker from Louisville, Kentucky, who was shot and killed by police in March.

Townsend said people in the white community need to educate themselves on how the nation got to the point it’s at now with systemic racism and racial injustice, adding that while no one alive today can be held responsible for slavery, the issue at hand is the consequences that have resulted.

“I remember the separate restrooms,” he said, recalling his time as a child during the Jim Crow Era. “I remember as a kid, walking into a Sears or Belk, and major stores in Greensboro, and every store had two sets of male restrooms and female (restrooms). And they were labeled ‘colored’ and ‘white.’ And that was Jim Crow. That wasn’t long ago.”

He added that toward the end of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, he began speaking about economic freedom for all. Townsend said that issue still prevails today with the issue of generational wealth.

Townsend recalled a memory of his father having the opportunity to use the G.I. Bill after serving in World War II, which was “an enormous chance to change things for the better.” But ultimately, language inserted into the bill before final passage restricted Black veterans from reaping those benefits.

“Many of the African-Americans who’d served just like my father had didn’t have that opportunity,” he said. “And when people talk about white privilege … that’s what white privilege really means. That we are living with the historical consequences that have worked to our advantage to a large degree.

Overall, Townsend’s goal for the economy is to give working people a chance, he said.

“If you want to stimulate the economy, help the people who don’t have the resources because they will immediately put that into the economy,” he said. “They don’t have any other option. They need it then. The need is right in front of them.”

While Howard acknowledges racial injustice issues, she said that she believes such issues should be handled at the local level and not in the General Assembly, particularly as local government has control over its police departments and sheriff’s offices.

“I certainly don’t condone injustice or inequality or people acting racial,” she said. “I have no time for that.”

Nonetheless, Howard said she’s never heard anything negative about the conduct of any Highway Patrol troopers.

“They are well-trained, well-respected, and they have earned the respect of the people,” she added.

Following state and federal battles with redistricting in the state, discussions have arisen regarding the implementation of an independent, bipartisan or nonpartisan redistricting committee. Townsend is among those who support such a commission that includes experts, adding that as long as candidates sit in “safe districts,” they don’t have to listen to constituents.

Howard notes, however, that she doesn’t have the right answer for solving the problem and avoiding legal troubles and that creating the committee is “almost impossible.”

“That’s almost impossible to have a committee that has no interest or personal interest,” she said.

She said that it should be easy to draw the districts, but that it can be restrictive. Regardless, it’s ultimately the decision of any candidate to run, she said.

“It’s my option if I choose to run. I don’t have to. If I think that the district is not favorable to the possibility that I would be successful, I’m not required to run,” she said. “It’s the people’s district, not mine.”

Due to serving in the General Assembly for more than 30 years, Howard is among the most senior members. But she has no desire for additional leadership positions, and has “a plate full” as senior chairman of the House Finance Committee — a committee she’s led all her tenure. Any bills related to taxes and incentives, as well as the state budget bill, has to come through that committee. Additionally, that committee sets tax rates and passes measures that affect the revenues of the state.

“Even when we Republicans were in the minority, I was able to work very successfully with the Democrat chairs of the Finance Committee,” she said. “It’s a complicated system that is forever changing. I’ve pretty much got a plate full, so I’m pretty happy where I am.”

Howard also serves in various leadership roles within the House Banking Committee, the Non-standing Revenue Laws Study Committee and the Non-standing Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance.

Howard said she represents everybody in her district, regardless of party affiliation. And when she’s not in Raleigh working on bills, she spends her time helping constituents sift through the jargon and red tape of mundane issues, such as obtaining a driver’s license or renewing license tags.

And while Howard said constituents want their leaders and government to “stay out of the way,” Townsend wants to bring new ideas to the district.

“I think I can bring some new ideas. (These) aren’t new ideas, but they’re new ideas for District 77,” he said. “I can’t wave a wand and push them all through, but I’d be willing to work for them right away.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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