Miles from nowhere: First Foxx-Carter debate held outside media spotlight

by Keith Barber

The slate gray skies of Alleghany County opened up with a steady downpour on the morning of Oct. 24 as a reporter traveled the highways and byways of northwest North Carolina, making his way to the first debate between US Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, and her Democratic challenger, Roy Carter.

Sharp, hairpin turns at the bottom of steep inclines on slick roads added an element of danger to the otherwise scenic drive — nothing like several close calls with 18-wheelers to get one’s blood pumping. Cows grazed on lush green hillsides, and autumn leaves at the peak of their color blended with acres and acres of lush Christmas tree farms in an Appalachian cultural tableau. If it was the candidates’ intention to make it as difficult as possible for members of the media living outside the Ashe County area to attend their only debate before a live audience, it was a brilliant move.

Students filed into the middle school gymnasium and seated themselves in an orderly fashion in anticipation of the town hall-style debate. Student Anna Wooten introduced Foxx as “a champion of conservative values” and “the most conservative member of the North Carolina congressional delegation” to the students and parents in attendance. Wooten’s classmate, Chelsea Eller, introduced Carter as the son of a tobacco farmer, who derived his philosophy from the role family, faith and athletics played in his upbringing. In their opening statements, both candidates evoked thoughts of Abraham Lincoln, speaking of their humble beginnings growing up in western North Carolina. Foxx said she was raised in Avery County in a home with no electricity or running water. An Ashe County native, Carter claimed the home-court advantage at Friday’s debate, touching on his three years serving as a coach and teacher in the school where the debate was held.  

“I’m looking at the reason I’m running for Congress,” Carter said, referring to the students seated in the gymnasium. Carter spoke of how he worked his way through college before embarking on a 40-year career in public education. Carter commented on how much more difficult it is these days for young people to do the same. Our system is broken, Carter said, evidenced by the fact that corporate CEOs earn 400 times as much as teachers.

Foxx told the students they could rise above their “deprived” backgrounds and make something of themselves. Foxx pointed out that only 250 women have served in Congress as compared to 12,000 men, a source of personal pride for her.

“My focus has always been on serving the constituents of this district,” Foxx said.

The first question posed to the candidates centered on bringing new jobs to Ashe County.

Foxx said the state had the highest tax rate in the Southeast, and a lot of responsibility for new job creation falls on the state legislature. Foxx said government doesn’t use money wisely all the time, and neither do individuals, so businesses should be allowed to keep more of their money to invest in the economy. Carter took the opportunity to criticize what he called Foxx’s support of NAFTA and her support of legislation that gives tax breaks to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. Foxx and Carter sparred on a variety of issues during the 90-minute debate, including No Child Left Behind, the war in Iraq, the US government’s $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, tax policy, the 2nd Amendment, alternative energy and funding for public schools.

Jake St. Germain, a 7th grader, asked the candidates where they stood on the war in Iraq. Foxx reminded the audience that she was not serving in Congress when the Iraq war began, but pointed out there had been no terrorist attacks on US soil since 9-11.

“The war is going to take care of itself,” said Foxx.

Carter disagreed, saying the war had sent the national debt soaring past $10 trillion, and the overall effect of the war is to actually increase the number of terrorists in Iraq.

“We went to war when we shouldn’t have gone to war,” said Carter.

Carter advocated bringing all troops home within 18 months and fully funding veterans’ programs. Carter and Foxx’s divergent positions on the economy and the war in Iraq appear to be making a difference among voters. On Aug. 1, Public Policy Polling of Raleigh released a poll that showed Foxx had only a 45-percent approval rating with voters in the district, well below the 50-percent threshold that is considered safe for an incumbent. On the issue of the economy, the polling firm’s research revealed Carter has a 48-45 lead over Foxx among registered voters.

During Friday’s debate, Carter said he would “dump” No Child Left Behind and work hard to cut the cost of a college education.

Jenny, an 8th grader, asked Foxx and Carter if they supported the $700 billion Wall Street bailout.

“The mistakes of the current generation will be paid for by the next generation,” Jenny said.

Carter said he supported the actions of the House and Senate in passing the bailout bill, while Foxx touted her opposition to the bill. Carter attributed the financial bailout to deregulation, while Foxx laid the blame for the current crisis at the feet of former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, along with Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, both Democrats.

“That dog won’t hunt,” Carter said in rebuttal. “The problem is partisanship and we’re seeing it here today.”

On more than one occasion, Carter criticized Foxx for inflammatory remarks she made on the House floor, which were captured by C-SPAN’s cameras. On the question of developing alternative energy, Carter said Congress has given tremendous tax breaks to gas companies, which have had record profits, and the nation must start weaning itself from fossil fuels. Carter advocated Congress taking tax breaks away from the oil companies and giving them to companies investing in alternative energy.

“If we don’t take a stand now, we will be left behind,” Carter said. “Drilling is not the answer.”

Foxx said she has worked all year to bring gas prices down, and supported the American Energy Act, which proposed drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf. On the issue of increasing funding to public schools, Foxx said education should be the province of state and local governments. Carter vehemently disagreed with taking the federal government out of the public schools.

“My opponent says you can’t find the word ‘education’ in the Constitution. You can’t find the word, ‘Air Force’ either,” said Carter. On tax policy, Carter advocated expanding the middle class, while Foxx said she supports reducing federal spending and shrinking the size of the federal government. Foxx advocated breaking ties with the United Nations as one cost-saving measure.

In closing, Carter stated his campaign slogan, “People above politics,” has been his lifetime motto. Carter also pointed out that Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, ranked Foxx 399th out of 435 representatives.

“We must have real change,” he said. “We are in a mess. If you send the same people back to do the same job, we’ll get the same results.”

Foxx defended her effectiveness and bipartisan efforts in Congress. She said Washington is broken, and it needs people who have worked in both the private and public sector. Foxx said she believes the number-one role of government should be national security.

At the conclusion of the debate, the two candidates did not shake hands or even acknowledge one another. After posing for several photos, Foxx was asked by a reporter about her support of House Resolution 4297, which extended the Bush tax cuts. The bill cut taxes for the top 1 percent of Americans by $42,000 and only gave the middle class a $20 tax break.

“I’m willing to give a tax break anytime I can,” Foxx responded. The bill put the federal budget in the hole an additional $69 billion. When asked about her support of HR 653, which cut $40 billion from entitlement programs, specifically Medicaid, Foxx appeared indignant.

“I can’t remember what’s in a bill,” she said. “I have to look at it.”

Carter and Foxx engage in their second and final debate on Wednesday on WXLV-TV’s “Triad Today” with host Jim Longworth — perhaps the best chance for voters in the 5th District to actually see and hear Carter and Foxx debate the issues.

To comment on this story, e-mail Keith T. Barber at