North Carolina’s urban centers are the fastest growing parts of the state, but most people still live somewhere other than Raleigh or Charlotte.
On Tuesday, both candidates for governor pitched themselves to a gathering of several hundred leaders from rural communities all over the state at the 2016 N.C. Rural Assembly, which was held in Cary.
Democratic challenger and Attorney General Roy Cooper spoke first. He talked about working with tobacco and livestock on his family’s farm near Rocky Mount, then focused on his years in the N.C. General Assembly. Working with then-Gov. Jim Hunt, Cooper said, lawmakers expanded the Smart Start child care and education program to all 100 counties and also raised North Carolina’s rankings on teacher pay and education funding to much higher than they are now.
Republican incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory talked about cuts to unemployment benefits, raises for teachers and the $2 billion Connect NC bond that voters passed this March, which he pushed for. By putting more money into research facilities, community colleges and state parks, McCrory said, the bond should help with workforce development and tourism.
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Cooper said if he’s elected, he would work to put more money into education. He also questioned the GOP’s recent tax cuts, saying a better educated populace will do more to attract good jobs.
“I talk to CEOs and business people ... and they ask me, ‘Look, do you have the people who can perform the types of jobs I’m creating?’ ” Cooper said. “And particularly in the rural areas, their first concern is not about the corporate tax rate. It’s about education.”
McCrory painted a different picture. He said North Carolina’s tax rate is higher than in neighboring states, and the cuts were necessary to be more competitive.
“This is why all of a sudden we are having a ‘Carolina Comeback,’ ” he said, quoting his campaign slogan. “It didn’t happen by accident.”
Both candidates spoke about making college more affordable.
McCrory focused on four-year universities, criticizing them for “jacking up their tuition” and praising the legislature’s plan to cap tuition for some state schools at $500 a semester.
Cooper focused on community colleges, which he has proposed making tuition-free.
“Half of our counties still have fewer job opportunities than they did before the recession,” Cooper said. “Many of them are rural counties. We have a skills gap. Manufacturing has changed ... and making sure we have the skills in our workforce is important.”
Medicaid and the environment
The two candidates showed differences in opinion over how much the federal government should be involved in North Carolina.
Cooper said McCrory and the General Assembly made a bad decision not to let the federal government expand Medicaid in North Carolina. Doing so would have been free to state government for the first few years. After that, the federal government would have continued paying 90 percent of the costs.
Cooper said he understands that some conservatives don’t like Medicaid expansion for political reasons, but that McCrory should have followed the lead of other Republican governors who accepted it anyway, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich and N.J. Gov. Chris Christie.
“When you have partisan, political ideology put above the best interests of the state, that’s just wrong,” he said.
McCrory didn’t bring up Medicaid during his speech. Asked about it afterward, he said there was no way of knowing how much the expansion might have cost. It was offered as part of Obamacare, McCrory said, and he added, “Obamacare is a disaster.”
McCrory also criticized Cooper on other issues related to the federal government, saying Cooper has been siding with the Obama administration on issues ranging from pollution oversight to transgender rights.
Outside the event, about a dozen people held signs protesting Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds and their potential for pollution. Some critics have said McCrory’s administration has gone easy on the energy company, which is his former employer.
McCrory brushed off the protestors in an interview.
“My administration has met with them and will continue to have ongoing dialogue with them,” McCrory said. “But my biggest concern right now is I’m dealing with terrible flood conditions down at the coast, in Windsor, and I’m also still dealing with the situation in Charlotte.”
The forum was organized by the nonprofit N.C. Rural Economic Development Center.
Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter: @will_doran