Politics & Government

Democratic Senate candidates keep gloves on in first, only debate

Democratic U.S. Senate candidates from left, Kevin Griffin, Ernest Reeves, Deborah Ross and Chris Rey shake hands Thursday following a televised debate at WRAL’s studio in Raleigh.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidates from left, Kevin Griffin, Ernest Reeves, Deborah Ross and Chris Rey shake hands Thursday following a televised debate at WRAL’s studio in Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

Four largely unknown Democrats vying to become their party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate faced off Thursday night in their first and only debate.

Durham businessman Kevin Griffin, Ernest Reeves of Greenville, Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey, and former state Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh discussed issues ranging from immigration to healthcare in the half hour debate moderated by WRAL News Anchor David Crabtree.

The candidates mostly agreed with each other. All support Medicaid expansion, an increase in the minimum wage, and better mental health services.

Griffin and Reeves, however, broke with their party’s position on immigration, saying they would not support legislation that would give immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

“I do not believe (immigrants) should be awarded citizenship,” Griffin said. “There’s path for them to follow already.”

Reeves, a retired Army captain who has never held elected office, followed up by saying, “I do not favor a pathway to citizenship, but I do favor a path to stay.”

Ross, a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, and Rey disagreed and said they favored a path that would give undocumented immigrants citizenship.

Ross said she would have supported the DREAM act that would have provided legal status for undocumented immigrants, and noted that Republican Sen. Richard Burr voted against it.

Burr faces three challengers in the Republican primary but is favored in the polls.

When the debate’s focus turned to the economy, all candidates agreed that an increase in the minimum wage was a way to help bolster the economy and support low to middle income North Carolinians.

Ross said increased investments in infrastructure needed to be made, while Griffin argued that he was the best candidate to address the economy with his experience as a business owner.

“For the last 23 years, that’s what I’ve done on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

The candidates did not attack each other and the only negative exchange came when Griffin said Ross couldn’t represent North Carolinians well.

“Miss Ross has 240 unanswered comments on her Facebook page,” Griffin said. “She’s not working for the people.”

Ross responded by saying that she communicates with voters regularly. “I have criss-crossed this state talking to voters in their hometowns,” Ross said.

Following the debate, the North Carolina Republican Party released a statement stating all four candidates were not prepared to lead North Carolina in the U.S. Senate.

“Their willingness to turn to government to create jobs instead of the private sector should concern taxpayers and job creators,” NCGOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said.

Ross, having been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, leads her opponents in fundraising. She raised $585,692 for her campaign in the last quarter of 2015.

Election Day

North Carolina’s primary election is scheduled for March 15.

In-person early voting begins March 3.

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