CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - The 2020 North Carolina governor’s race is hotly-contested and features two candidates already in office - Democratic Governor Roy Cooper and Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest.
Cooper and Forest participated on Wednesday in their lone gubernatorial debate of the 2020 election cycle.
The event, held at UNC-TV studios in Durham, will be the only debate between the two politicians leading up to election day. The moderator, news anchor Wes Goforth, explained that no live audience was present for the event because of the pandemic.
Among the topics were coronavirus, reopening the economy, masks, unemployment security, race, healthcare and sending children back to school.
The debate began with a heated exchange about Cooper’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor jabbed Forest for holding campaign events where no masks were required.
“You know, politicians like this, who hold these in-person events and discourage masks, they’re part of the problem. They make it harder for us to ease our safety measures, harder for us to get our children back in school where they need to be,” explained Cooper.
The challenger responded by blaming Cooper for shutting down the state’s economy and costing North Carolinians jobs.
“Masks is a great cover for the over million and a half people he has left unemployed, thousands of businesses that had to close and will never reopen,” Forest said. “The suicides and drug addictions and anxiety and depression is wreaking havoc across North Carolina.”
When the conversation turned specifically to masks, both men took drastically different stances.
Cooper has been an advocate of wearing face masks in public as a way of slowing the spread of the virus.
“Masks are important,” Cooper said. “We need all our leaders to talk about this to slow the spread. People are saying masks are the best weapon for this. We are talking about protecting your neighbor.”
Forest made it clear he doesn’t think masks should be required for North Carolinians.
“It should be a personal responsibility choice. It doesn’t need to be a governor’s mandate. We don’t need a governor that treats us like five-year-olds,” said Forest. “We need a governor that does protect us, but not treat us like we’re little kids. Masks aren’t the solution to everything. In fact, Dr. (Anthony) Fauci said masks don’t work. The surgeon general of the United States said masks don’t work. The CDC said masks don’t work,” elaborated Forest.
Cooper questioned Forest’s remarks with an incredulous reaction.
“Really Dan? Really? Masks don’t work? Scientists say they don’t? That is just absolutely not true. You’re finding that on the dark corners of the internet. Across the board, scientists, Dr. Fauci, Dr. (Robert) Redfield, are saying that masks are our greatest weapon to slow the spread of the virus,” elaborated Cooper.
Just as the candidates held vastly different opinions regarding the effectiveness of masks, they were also at odds when it came to the subject of getting kids back in school buildings.
Cooper explained the methodical approach he favors, while Forest argued for an expedited return to in-person learning.
“The number one priority for me is to make sure we get our children back in school again,” said the governor. “We want our schools back normal, but we have to make sure that it’s safe for teachers and students. While I’m using science and data to make those decisions, Dan Forest is holding a press conference, saying we’re going to fill all the classes back up immediately.”
The moderator then asked Forest the same question: “When will school return?”
“As soon as I am governor,” Forest said. “Schools are open all over the world and in the United States. In fact, private schools have been open for 12 weeks in North Carolina. with no outbreaks or trouble from anyone. Our public schools can open the same way but the governor won’t take advice from anybody. Let’s get our kids in school because it is far more dangerous for our kids not to be in school than it is for them to be on the other side. Our kids are having massive struggles with anxiety, depression, screen addiction, abuse. Our kids are not even at risk of coronavirus. We need to open our schools.”
Cooper reminded Forest that there are coronavirus cases and outbreaks in schools.
“There are a lot of cases in our schools,” Cooper said. “I want to get our kids back to school, but I want to do it safely," Cooper said.
The governor candidates talked about balancing the state budget, teacher’s pay, improving state education and providing employment security for those out of work.
“This pandemic has taken thousands of North Carolinians from us too soon,” Cooper said. “It has left people hurting, jobless and separated from their loved ones. I’ve used science and data to make the tough decisions. Our strong actions early and persistence have saved lives.”
The moderator asked the candidates if they believe systemic racism exists.
Cooper did not directly answer the question, but said we need to listen to those speaking out against racism. Cooper says he is against violence and destruction that has happened in many big cities in North Carolina.
“The death of George Floyd has opened painful wounds. We have to hear and listen to people who raise their voices,” Cooper said. “But we cannot take violence and destruction.”
Forest gave a direct answer to the question about racism.
“No, I don’t think there’s systemic racism,” he said. “There is racism. We should reject it at every single turn.”
Forest also questioned Cooper’s support for law enforcement. Forest cited widespread support he’s received from law enforcement groups and routinely attacked Cooper’s slow reopening.
The final topic was on dealing with hurricane flooding.
There have been three major hurricanes in North Carolina in the past four years.
“We set up the North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resilience. We have to rebuild smarter and stronger. We got out $3.5 billion for people to rebuild their homes, rebuild their business, rebuild their infrastructure,” Cooper said.
“When it comes to flooding and it comes to hurricanes, this is a human issue. There are thousands of people across North Carolina that are still hurting after four years of your leadership,” Forest said about Cooper. “When I am governor, we will make sure these people are getting help.”
Each candidate finished the debate with a 90-second closing statement.
“I believe it is time to stop the fear and panic campaign and it is time to move on to hope and opportunity for people,” Forest said. “I believe we need a governor that can cast a vision for the state of North Carolina. Gov. Cooper has been here for 34 years and never had a vision for this state. My vision is going to be based on unity, opportunity and possibility. We need a governor that will assure the people we will come out of this stronger than ever.”
Cooper fired back in his final remarks.
“You do have a choice," Cooper said. "You have a governor who believes in science and a candidate who doesn’t. You have a governor who believes in our public schools and a candidate who wants to short-change them. You have a governor who believes everyone ought to have healthcare and a candidate who wants to deny over a half-million people the health care that they need. You have a governor who values diversity and thinks diversity is our strength versus a candidate who wants to use diversity to divide.”
Here’s some information about each candidate.
Roy Cooper is the incumbent running for re-election and has been governor since 2017.
He was the state’s Attorney General for 16 years and also served in the North Carolina House and Senate
Cooper earned a Juris Doctor degree in law from University of North Carolina School of Law in 1982.
According to his campaign website, Cooper issued executive orders prohibiting workplace discrimination, establishing paid parental leave for state employees and launched the Clean Energy Plan.
The website indicates that Cooper supports better teacher pay and Medicaid expansion.
Dan Forest has been the state’s lieutenant governor since 2013, but now has his eyes set on the governor’s office.
Forest currently serves on the State Board of Education and State Economic Development Board.
Before politics, he served as office president and senior partner of Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, one of North Carolina’s largest architectural firms.
Forest earned his master’s degree in architecture from UNC Charlotte.
According to his campaign website, Forest prioritizes issues such as defending the second amendment, defending life, combating illegal immigration, raising teacher pay, improving healthcare, ending human trafficking, protecting free speech, improving coastal fishing and protecting the elderly in nursing homes.
The 2020 general election is Tuesday, Nov. 3.