Two candidates for the office of lieutenant governor faced off in the Kennedy Family Theater on Sep 13. Linda Coleman, a former state legislator, teacher and school administrator, is the Democratic candidate, challenging incumbent Republican Dan Forest.

Only two-tenths of a percent of votes separated the two candidates in 2012 when Forest emerged victorious. The 2016 election appears to be a tight race, as well. According to Public Policy Polling, the candidates were tied at 37 percent in polls in June, with 22 percent of voters being undecided. The remaining four percent supported Libertarian candidate J.J. Summerell, who has now withdrawn in favor of Jacki Cole.

The debate started with several questions regarding the controversial HB2 bill. The bill spawned as a response to an ordinance passed in Charlotte , that effectively would prohibit transgender individuals from using the bathroom of their preferred gender in government building bathrooms.

Forest pointed to safety concerns for women and an overreach by Charlotte. “They said that in the city of Charlotte, you have to take the (gender) signs off your bathrooms,” Forest said. The Charlotte ordinance did not require the removal of signage.

Coleman called the law a “solution to a problem that did not exist” and pointed out that Mecklenburg County will suffer an estimated economic blow of $285 million and 1,300 job loss as a result of HB2.

The two candidates clashed on other controversial topics that have put the North Carolina legislature in the national spotlight during this year, as well, including voter ID laws and gerrymandering.

Coleman described the voter ID law as a “bad monstrous bill” and highlighted that a federal court said the law targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision”

Forest defended the law, saying, “You need an ID to do just about anything to participate in society. In other states where they’ve done this, they’ve actually seen minority participation go up.”

North Carolina was sued for gerrymandering, the practice of drawing district boundaries to favor one party, in August this year. Coleman expressed her support for a non-partisan system of redistricting, while Forest responded that there “is no such thing as impartial” and called the current districts “not gerrymandered at all.”

The lieutenant governor’s official responsibilities, outlined in the state constitution, consists of presiding over the Senate, but will not involve voting unless there is a tie. The officeholder also fulfill additional duties assigned by the General Assembly or the governor.

Forrest praised economic success in North Carolina and improvements in education during his years as lieutenant governor. Coleman called for additional improvements in both areas if elected.

The lieutenant governor debate was the first in a series of three events dubbed “Hometown Debates.” The two remaining debates are for the office of attorney general in Asheboro on Sept. 20 at the Sunset Theater and the office of state treasurer in Statesville at the Statesville Civic Center on Sept. 27. Both debates start at 7 p.m.

The N.C. Institute of Political Leadership, a non-partisan, nonprofit organization, partnered up with the Wilson Chamber of Commerce to host debate.

“We are pleased to bring this public service opportunity to our community,” said Ryan Simons, Wilson Chamber of Commerce president.. “NCIOPL’s mission is centered around fair political discourse on issues, and these debates will provide the opportunity to do just that.”

The debate was sponsored by five statewide organizations: the NC Advocates for Justice, the NC Association of Defense Attorneys, NC’s Electric Cooperatives, the John William Pope Foundation, and the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

Kelly McCullen of UNC-TV served as moderator for the debate, which was videoed by UNC-TV and aired Wednesday evening. Others who asked the candidates questions were Bobby Burns, editor of The Daily Reflector in Greenville, and Corey Friedman, editor of The Wilson Times.

The debate was open only to invited guests.

By: Marcus Strath

Contributor