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Wesson, Phelps respond to redistricting, other issues

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N.C. House District 1 candidate Ron Wesson at candidates forum at Pasquotank County Courthouse, Tuesday, Oct. 16.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

State legislative candidates Cole Phelps and Ron Wesson tackled an array of issues in a forum last week in Elizabeth City, including constitutional amendments, redistricting, education funding, and even whether to legalize marijuana.

The two candidates spoke during a forum hosted by The Daily Advance, the Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce, and the League of Women Voters of Northeastern North Carolina. Phelps is a Washington County commissioner running for Senate District 1, while Wesson is a Bertie County commissioner running for House District 1. Both are Democrats; their respective Republican opponents, District 1 Rep. Bob Steinburg and Ed Goodwin, both of Chowan, said they did not attend due to conflicting events.

One of the first topics the event's moderator, Mark Maland, asked about was legislative redistricting. Redistricting has proven controversial in recent years, as federal courts have struck down Republican-drawn Congressional and General Assembly maps as racial gerrymanders.

Both candidates said they supported a nonpartisan committee drawing new legislative maps, based on the results of the next census in 2020. The census will show population changes that will guide how to redraw districts to account for population shifts.

“I believe that we need a nonpartisan, independent redistricting committee in 2020,” Phelps said. “We should select our representatives. Raleigh should not select them for us.”

Wesson agreed, and suggested both parties draw district lines to their political advantage, when able.

“I think we need to have a nonpartisan commission that will do it,” Wesson said. “I think any party, whether it's Republicans or Democrats, are always going to try to err on the way that kind of helps them.”

The candidates also opposed all six of the proposed constitutional amendments on this year's ballot.

Opposing the amendments, Phelps commented, “Our constitution has worked just fine for hundreds of years in North Carolina.”

North Carolina has had three constitutions, the last taking effect in 1971, according to an article available online from the University of North Carolina School of Law.

Phelps also argued voters have not seen the specifics of how the amendments would be implemented.

“The law is not written for the constitutional amendments,” Phelps said. “The legislature already has a special session called for the end of November, so, if the constitutional amendments are passed, they will go in and then write the law.”

Wesson also said he opposed all the amendments, dismissing four as “fluff” that didn't give voters additional rights and two others as efforts to shift power from the governor's office to the General Assembly. Wesson was apparently alluding to amendments that would reduce the governor's appointment powers for the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement and for judicial vacancies.

Maland also asked about the region's “urgent needs,” and the candidates agreed education was high on that list. Phelps said it was “unacceptable” for North Carolina's teacher pay to be 37th in the nation, apparently referring to estimates by the National Education Association. He also called for the state to share a larger portion of NC Education Lottery proceeds with counties and for the state to invest more in early childhood education.

Phelps also said there have been funding cuts for the University of North Carolina system, including Elizabeth City State University, “and that's unacceptable.” While ECSU has lost millions of dollars in recent years due to reduced enrollment, the General Assembly has approved special appropriations for the university, funded renovations there, and committed to $51 million to buy down tuition costs at ECSU and two other campuses in an effort to boost their enrollment.

Wesson said the state needed to help poor, rural counties afford to build new schools, and said the state could afford to issue bonds – borrowing money – for that purpose.

“In three of the counties within the 1st House District, they're trying to build new schools. They cannot do that on the back of their local citizens and without state support,” Wesson said.

Wesson also said the district had urgent needs in health care and job creation. While not calling out local lawmakers by name, Wesson also argued the district needed someone to better represent rural interests in the General Assembly.

“Even the representatives we've sent there have gone along to get along,” Wesson said.

An audience member also asked the candidates about a topic that's gotten little attention in local races: whether to legalize marijuana.

Both men agreed on legalizing medicinal marijuana, but only Phelps said he'd consider supporting legalizing it for recreation.

“I will tell you that my mother has multiple sclerosis, and she's had that for seven years,” Phelps said. “If medical marijuana could take the pain away from my mother and so many other people, I would be all for it.”

Phelps acknowledged some states have legalized recreational marijuana, seeing it as a source of tax revenue, but said North Carolina needed to study the matter more.

Wesson said marijuana is a “gateway drug,” and he opposed it for recreational use, but said it had potential for medicinal use. Bertie County is one of the few places in the state allowed to grow hemp, he noted.

“It's less than 1 percent THC, so it's not going to get you high, but it has some of the other effects” that can treat patients, he said. THC is the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana.

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