RALEIGH — The House District 119 race is a rematch of the tight 2012 electoral contest when Democrat Joe Sam Queen defeated Republican Mike Clampitt by just over 1,000 votes.
“It was sort of a no-brainer after being so close in 2012,” Clampitt told Carolina Journal regarding his decision to run again.
Although the incumbent Queen has raised more than $110,000 during the election cycle, three times Clampitt’s fundraising total, the challenger has $2,871 cash on hand — double the $1,463 reported by Queen — and the race is considered competitive due to the district’s demographics.
District 119 is deep in the North Carolina mountains, and covers Swain and Jackson counties, as well as a portion of central Haywood County.
While 43 percent of voters are registered Democrats compared to the 25 percent who are registered Republicans, 31 percent of voters are unaffiliated, which would be considered a pretty big bloc of swing voters.
While voters favored Republican Mitt Romney for president with 52.4 percent of the vote, and Republican Pat McCrory for governor with 54 percent of the vote, they cast more ballots for Democrats in six of eight council of state races in 2012.
Clampitt says the number of unaffiliated voters has risen in the North Carolina mountains, traditionally a strong, conservative Democratic region, as Democrats have become more liberal.
Clampitt thinks those unaffiliated voters will step up and cast their votes this year. He also thinks the 2013 law doing away with straight ticket voting in North Carolina will work in his favor.
“I think it will allow for a change in the demographics for voting in North Carolina, especially in this district,” Clampitt said.
Queen, a self-employed architect, is not worried about demographics or changes in voting law.
“My issues are nonpartisan, and I am supported broadly by all factions,” he said.
One thing is for sure, voters will have clear choice on the issues.
Clampitt, a retired Charlotte fire captain, said he supported laws passed by the General Assembly under the leadership of House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham.
“Up here in the mountains, if somebody tells you they’re going to do something, you can better bet they’re going to be there an hour early to do it,” Clampitt said.
“Doing what you say you’re going to do, that’s a trait that is very unusual to find these days,” Clampitt said. “That’s a trait in Berger and Tillis that should be appreciated, and I don’t think enough people appreciate it.”
Meanwhile, Queen described the 2013-14 General Assembly session as a “march of folly on education, on healthcare, on jobs.”
The biggest disagreement is over Medicaid, which is among the most potent partisan issues facing the state at this time. Clampitt agrees with the General Assembly’s decision not to expand Medicaid, saying “there’s nothing free from the federal government,” while Queen believes the decision represents a subsidization of other states at North Carolina’s expense.
“By not accepting federal dollars to come back to North Carolina, we’re subsidizing the rest of the nation to the tune of $3.5 billion,” Queen told CJ. “Federal tax dollars have been denied to help the citizens of this state. That’s the camel that’s been swallowed while squinting at a gnat.”
Clampitt says the expansion of health care coverage and mandates under Obamacare resulted in a significant hike in his insurance premium, while Queen says it’s the failure to expand Medicaid that has resulted in premium hikes for working-class people, which make up the majority of the District 119 constituency.
While the candidates agree that charter schools are a viable option to traditional public schools, they disagree on the issue of education spending and teacher pay.
Clampitt characterizes education spending levels as “throwing good money after bad,” while Queen characterized legislative education reforms as “an assault on the teaching corps.”
Queen said he didn’t vote for the legislature’s average 7 percent pay raise for teachers because Democrats “added an amendment to give the 7 percent raise without firing any teachers, and without losing longevity, which would have been a far fairer approach.”
Clampitt does not begrudge teachers a salary hike, but by the same token, he said, “teachers are not the only state employees,” and that the desire for a higher salary is a personal decision. During his 28-year career as a firefighter, he changed fire departments three times in search of a higher salary.
“Teachers have to recognize they have to do what’s best for them,” he said.
The two candidates also differ strongly on what should drive the local economy. Clampitt believes clean industry such as computer technical support companies should be recruited to the area. He also supports business incubators to help entrepreneurs get their own companies started.
Queen, however, says government funding cuts have harmed the local economy.
“Hospitals and public schools are the top two employers in the district,” Queen said. “Of the Medicaid jobs lost, 800 or so of them would be in my district. We could sure use the good jobs. It’s hurting our citizenry and they’re telling me that.”
Queen has the edge in terms of direct legislative experience. His current term is his second in the House; he previously served in 2003-2004. He also served in the Senate from 2007-2010.
Clampitt will draw on his experience as the General Assembly’s sergeant-at arms.
“I have a working knowledge of the House,” Clampitt said. “I would not be like a freshman representative going down to Raleigh for the first time.”
Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.