Barry Saunders

Saunders: A real food fight for the 2nd District seat

Rep. Renee Ellmers and Rep. George Holding face off Thursday, May 19, 2016 during the 2nd Congressional District Republican primary debate at WRAL studio in Raleigh.
Rep. Renee Ellmers and Rep. George Holding face off Thursday, May 19, 2016 during the 2nd Congressional District Republican primary debate at WRAL studio in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

The 2nd Congressional District contest between George Holding and Renee Ellmers is a carb- and calorie-counter’s nightmare.

In one of Holding’s TV ads, a stern-faced, schoolmarmish woman holds a flier with Ellmers’ picture on it, glowers into the camera and intones “This takes the cake.”

She then proceeds to tell what took the cake by lambasting Ellmers for being too liberal – compared to whom, Barry Goldwater? – and for what she perceives as an unfair attack on Honest George Holding.

In one of her radio ads, Ellmers depicts Holding as a foodie dilettante dining lavishly at 35,000 feet.

“For Congress,” the ad’s narrator says, “we have a choice between a man who fancies cheese tortellini … and one powerful conservative in Renee Ellmers. George Holding voted against the farm bill, against military funding to defeat ISIS. But Holding voted for cheese tortellini when selecting his meal for a recent first-class ticket on a trans-Atlantic flight that he billed to you, the taxpayer.”

Egads! Cheese tortellini? What did she expect him to eat in first-class – pimento cheese?

The ad, from the moment I heard it, has been blowing my mind, so much so that I called Jessica Kozma Proctor, an Ellmers spokeswoman, and asked her to explain the negative connotations of eating cheese tortellini: was it too high-tone for the salt-of-the-earth, Cheez Whiz-and-soda-cracker-eating residents of the 2nd District? Did it mean a politician was too “stove up” after eating it to represent the people’s interests?

Did ordering a dish with two words and five syllables mean, perhaps, that Holding was a ... – cover the children’s ears, Martha – closet gourmand?

“It’s really not about the cheese tortellini,” Proctor explained, “but what it represents. Rep. Holding travels extensively and often on taxpayer money. He said in debate recently that he had to take these trips as a result of Obama’s foreign policy, but some trips were to England, India, not hotbed countries. Even Switzerland.”

When Ellmers visited female troops in Afghanistan in 2014, Proctor said, “she slept in military barracks and distributed Mother’s Day cards to servicewomen.”

And I’ll bet a cheese tortellini never touched her lips.

In Holding’s case, Proctor said, it’s not about the cheese tortellini, it’s about the other kind of cheese – the green kind, cheddar, moolah – and who’s not getting any.

“While taking so many trips on taxpayer money, he’s adamantly voted ‘no’ to any and everything that helps the people of the 2nd District, including transportation improvements, increasing military spending; goodness, he voted no to researching cures for deadly diseases,” Proctor said.

“The 2nd District, the great towns within this district ... are mostly hardworking people whose extra money isn’t used to splurge on lavish international trips with first-class tickets, but to pay health insurance premiums, college tuition and mortgages. So yes, the tortellini is just a symbol of a much deeper issue.”

Is that dish too high-class for 2nd District residents? I asked.

“I don’t know if cheese tortellini is so high class,” Proctor said, “but having it on an international flight while sitting in first class certainly is.”

Holding voted in 2013 to cut food stamps – something he proudly touts in his TV ads – to drug test people before they could get food stamps and to require them to work for them. His campaign slogan could be “If you want to eat without working, get elected to Congress.”

Then, you can dine sumptuously among the clouds.

Ellmers also voted to cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

I tried sending an e-mail to Holding’s office to see if perhaps he had paid for his own trips – or at least his own cheese tortellini – but his office doesn’t accept e-mails from outside his district.

I finally asked the question prying political pundits ponder before passing out: “Does Rep. Ellmers eat cheese tortellini?”

“My guess,” Proctor said, “is the congresswoman would prefer cheese pierogi.”

What either candidate eats is, ultimately, of exceedingly little consequence. What takes the cake, though, is that someone thinks Ellmers is too liberal.

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