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Healthcare, immigration discussed at 6th district debate

by Jordan Green

Three Democratic candidates vying for the opportunity to challenge Republican Howard Coble for the representation of North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District sparred over healthcare and immigration at the Democratic headquarters in Asheboro last week.

Mac Whatley, a real estate lawyer who chairs the county party, informed the roughly 25 loyal Democrats in attendance that the heat had recently been fixed at the new headquarters and to not be startled if they heard the clatter of free weights at the gym next door. The three candidates gamely attempted to set themselves apart, and to establish themselves as the party’s best contender to unseat a popular incumbent.

“My positions are centrist,” said Dr. Teresa Sue Bratton, a Greensboro pediatrician. “In an election where we are going to have a watershed year, there are going to be a number of Republicans who are going to consider voting for a Democrat, and I will be an appealing candidate.”

Greensboro house painter Jay Ovittore and Summerfield plumbing supply store manager Johnny J. Carter said they favored single-payer universal healthcare. Bratton took heat from Ovittore for supporting a more modest consumer choice arrangement that allows private insurance companies to remain in the market.

“The insurance companies are very profitable and they have a lot of clout,” she said. “They will not allow universal healthcare…. I am not for a single-payer healthcare system at this time. You would be taking an industry with many, many employees and you would be saying, ‘You need to go find another job.’

Carter and Ovittore agreed that universal healthcare could be easily paid for.

“Take the premiums your paying right now,” Carter said. “Take out the medical gouging. No offense, you’ve paid for it, you just haven’t been receiving it. All I want is the healthcare plan that Congress is receiving.”

Ovittore said establishing universal healthcare would eliminate the need for the federal Medicaid and Medicare programs, freeing up $45 million to $50 million, and repealing the tax cuts to the wealthy signed by President Bush would reap another $40 million. He charged, “I think Dr. Bratton’s calling for more of the same.”

All three candidates offered similar prescriptions for how to address immigration: Ovittore and Bratton agreed that undocumented immigrants should be fined and then be given the opportunity to become citizens, but Ovittore went further and said they should be required to learn English. Carter said he was against breaking up families in the course of enforcing immigration laws.

In tone, Bratton presented a more compassionate perspective on the place of immigrants in the North Carolina Piedmont, while Ovittore, who moved with his parents from New Jersey to North Carolina, signaled a sense of sympathy with the nativist sensibilities in this most Republican-leaning district in the state.

“We’re a melting pot,” Bratton said. “In this district, we have people from all different groups.”

Ovittore introduced a note of urgency.

“My fear is that they’re going to bring diseases like tuberculosis and smallpox across the border and we’re going to have an epidemic,” he said. “It’s a health issue.” He later deplored the fact that two federal agents were in jail for shooting people attempting to cross the border.

Ovittore criticized Bratton for saying that free trade agreements with Mexico and Central America have contributed to increased immigration.

Suppressing a smile, Bratton said, “We can disagree. If you look at the number of communities in Central America where there are no jobs because banks and corporations came in, a lot of factories have been set up on the border that are drawing people away from the farms. The banks and corporations have destroyed small businesses and offered credit. These people have gotten in trouble with credit cards just like we have.”

All three candidates agreed that the US military should redeploy from Iraq, but largely evaded a question by Asheboro Courier-Tribune reporter JD Walker about whether immediate withdrawal was possible.

The folksy Carter suggested the plan needn’t be complicated.

“We’re standing on another country’s ground,” he said. “Now they’ve got our boys out there in the dirt. They’re acting as policemen, and they’re sitting ducks. I think we’ve all been to bad places that we needed to get out of. The way you get out is you get up and you walk out.”

Audience members appeared to have gathered distinct impressions of the candidates, but it was unclear whether one came out of the debate with more support than the others.

“If I were to vote in the next thirty minutes, I would vote for Mr. Ovittore,” said Dick Myers, a Randleman resident employed by a medical testing company in Burlington. He cited the candidate’s “depth of knowledge in all the issues. I think what put me over was universal healthcare. The doctor said, ‘The insurance companies are too powerful,’ but why do we give them the power?”

He added that his employment sector is “part of the problem. But in a single-payer system we’d still have a job. We’d just be repurposed.”

Linda Allred, a retired county social worker who lives near Ramseur, said she listened to the candidates’ statements on foreign policy to evaluate them.

“What did Jay Ovittore say?” she mused. “I liked what Mr. Carter and Teresa Bratton had to say: that we need to improve our image. We are not liked now, and we need to change that.”

Whatley said after the debate that the last time a Democrat had won a countywide race in Randolph County was 1976. The political odds are similarly daunting in the 6th District as a whole, with registered Republicans overwhelming their Democratic counterparts by a 13.6 percent margin. The formidable Coble reported a $666,098 war chest in his most recent campaign finance report filed with the Federal Election Commission last December. On the Democratic side of the ledger, none of the candidates had raised more than $2,000.

Ovittore said he would appeal to small local donors and more wealthy Democratic funders outside of the district to mount a challenge against Coble. Bratton pledged to solicit small donors, large donors and political action committees.

Carter expressed disdain for the money contest.

“I’ve done a little advertising study of my own and found that word of mouth will get you a long way,” he said.

Whatley indicated this might be a practice run for the Democrats in the 6th District.

“I think part of the problem is it’s been so long since there has been any serious opposition to Howard Coble, so we don’t know what it’s going to take,” he said. “You heard the answers from the candidates on how much money it would take to beat him, everything from zero to two hundred and fifty thousand to half a million to seven hundred and fifty thousand. I like Howard, but he’s not going to be around forever, and he’s not going to want the job forever.

“And it’s not necessarily going to be a Republican district forever; they change every decade or so. [Mounting a serious challenge] gives us some benchmarks, win, lose or draw. Even if we lose, we’ll know. The Democrats have got to practice up for the win. You can’t tell me that there aren’t Republicans backed up waiting for their turn, too.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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