One candidate didn’t meet her father until she was 15. Another grew up in public housing. Another experienced firsthand the problems of veterans returning from war.
Several candidates often dug into their own backgrounds Wednesday night as they offered prescriptions to some of the problems faced by people in North Carolina’s most urban congressional district.
Seven 12th District candidates met on stage at Johnson C. Smith University for a forum sponsored by the college.
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The forum made clear that voters will face a clear choice – but only in November.
Broadcaster Vince Coakley, the forum’s sole Republican candidate, consistently took positions at odds with Democratic rivals but consistent with his views of limited government. His GOP opponent, Leon Threatt, did not attend.
The candidates are running for the seat vacated in January by longtime U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, who now heads the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
The six Democrats in the heavily Democratic and predominantly African-American district agreed on most issues and differed mainly on experience and style.
For example, all gave President Barack Obama a grade of “A” and called the Affordable Care Act his greatest accomplishment. Charlotte Democrat George Battle III, 41, called Obama “the best president in my lifetime.”
All six Democrats also pledged to support a higher minimum wage, a ban on military-style assault weapons, background checks for commercial gun purchases and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Asked about the problems facing young black males, who have higher dropout and incarceration rates, state Rep. Alma Adams of Greensboro said she knows the problem firsthand, having met her father for the first time as a teenager.
She talked about her experiences, including starting an art gallery that offers classes to young people.
Curtis Osborne, a Charlotte lawyer, said community-sponsored athletic and other programs helped him grow up in public housing in Monroe and go on to get degrees in engineering and law.
Rajive Patel of Winston-Salem recalled starting Family Day as mayor of East Spencer in the 1990s.
Patel said his experience as a Vietnam vet also makes him sensitive to the needs of veterans in the district, many of whom are homeless or jobless.
“There should never be a homeless vet,” he said.
Battle said it’s a “travesty for anyone who has worn the uniform of this country not to have a job and be homeless.”
In answer to a question from JCSU President Ron Carter, state Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte – who works for the college – called mounting student debt “a national crisis.”
Graham proposed making college more affordable by moving to programs that would award grants instead of loans and provide for loan forgiveness. Virtually all the other Democrats agreed.
Asked what they would do about the gridlock in Washington, the candidates’ answers depended on their party.
Adams, Battle and Osborne said they would try to build relationships across the aisle. Graham and Marcus Brandon said that’s what they’ve done in Raleigh.
“The reality is the Republicans we face in Raleigh are the same Republicans we face in Washington, D.C.,” said Brandon. He’s touted his work with Republicans to pass Opportunity Scholarships, commonly called school vouchers.
But Coakley said a main reason for gridlock is the growing number of policy decisions that now come out of Washington.
“The government is not our nanny,” he said. Unless people demand more decisions at the state level, he added, “we are asking to be ruled by fools.”