Editor’s note: This story was corrected after initial publication to clarify several statements Dr. Frank Moretz made to Carolina Journal.
RALEIGH — Democratic incumbent Rep. John Ager and Republican challenger Dr. Frank Moretz have deep roots in Western North Carolina, and hold similar views on some matters. But as they battle in a tight race for the House District 115 seat, they are attempting to distinguish themselves from each other while claiming their platforms are being distorted.
Ager defeated incumbent Republican Nathan Ramsey in a close election in 2014. Ramsey was criticized by Republicans for running toward the middle in a conservative district, and Democrats chided Ager for not winning handily, even though he had seven times as much funding as Ramsey, much of it coming from groups advocating tougher environmental regulations and higher spending on public schools.
House District 115, which takes in northeast Buncombe County, has a split electorate of 36.9 percent Democrats, 29.6 percent Republicans, and 33 percent unaffiliated. The North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation, which closely tracks state elections, rates the district competitive, based on its conventional voting behavior.
Outside of his hometown of Fairview, Ager is perhaps best known for his in-laws. His wife, Annie, is the daughter of former state representative and state Sen. Jamie McClure Clarke, who also was elected to three nonconsecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1980s.
Ager is a fourth-generation farmer with a long record of community service. He helped establish the local library and a scenic byway. He has helped expand conservation programs in Buncombe County, volunteered for kids and school programs, and serves on a number of boards and commissions.
He and his wife now work for one of their four children at Hickory Nut Gap Farm.
In his first term, Ager’s numerous committee assignments focused on agriculture, children, and education.
On some of the hot-topic votes, he opposed stricter regulations on abortions, House Bill 2, and allowing magistrates to opt out of duties associated with gay marriages. He supported terminating the contract to uses tolls on Interstate 77 north of Charlotte, and voted against requiring North Carolina Education Lottery winnings to be reported to social services agencies for re-evaluating the winner’s eligibility for state welfare such as food stamps.
As Ager runs for a second term, he is challenged by Republican Dr. Frank Moretz, who is retired after eight years active duty in the Air Force and 35 years as an anesthesiologist in the Asheville area.
Moretz continues to serve on the boards of various medical organizations and institutions of higher learning, and he has funded three medical-education endowments. He said he doesn’t want to play the native son game, but his Western North Carolina roots go back seven generations, to 1780 in Boone.
Both candidates have leveled allegations that the other is airing lies and distortions in their ads.
“He says I’m subject to special interests. As a physician, I advocate for the health of the population. That’s my special interest. I just represent mountain values,” Moretz said.
Moretz’s top issues include reforming mental health policy to get people into treatment instead of emergency rooms and jail, supporting education, and taking care of veterans.
Moretz said he would have voted for Medicaid expansion under Obamacare to allow the federal government to pick up 90 percent of its costs — but only after a series of reforms to the program that were enacted by the General Assembly fully take effect.
Ager cited Moretz’s conditional call for Medicaid expansion as one of several areas where the two agree, including “North Carolina’s commitment to clean air and water.” Ager’s top priority, though, would be education.
“The most important duty of the General Assembly is to fully support education in our state, and to provide opportunities for all of our citizens to have the resources to raise their families outside the shadow of poverty,” Ager said.
Another issue important to Ager is election reform, including the elimination of partisan gerrymandering. If re-elected, he said, he would continue to support agriculture.
“As a small farmer myself, I will continue to support new agricultural products like hemp to strengthen our rural communities, and to find ways to engage young farmers eager to enter agriculture,” Ager said.
Moretz said he would have supported the legislation making lottery winners give up Medicaid and food stamps, and the Jessica Lunsford Act further restricting convicted sex offenders’ access to public spaces.
And while having concerns about some aspects of H.B. 2, Moretz said the courts eventually will determine whether the statute is constitutional.
He would back regulatory reform to help attract new business and grow existing business, and he wouldn’t vote to raise taxes.
“The General Assembly shouldn’t spend money without a firm way to pay it back,” he said.