On the eve of North Carolina’s first day of early voting, Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican challenger Lt. Gov. Dan Forest debated issues from health care to taxes to hurricanes. But much of the debate centered on their most contentious disagreement: how to handle the coronavirus.
Although Cooper is leading in the polls, he attacked Forest from the outset. The majority of polls show Cooper leading by at least 10 points, and a WRAL survey released Wednesday had him up by 13 points.
Face to face for the first time, they debated face masks and schools. Cooper defended his mask mandate against Forest’s claims that they are not proven to be effective. Forest argued that children should return to classrooms, and Cooper defended his phased reopening.
During the hour-long debate, which was sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, they also clashed on how fast Cooper was reopening the state’s economy.
“Talking about masks is a great cover for what he really doesn’t want to talk about, the over million and a half people that he has left unemployed,” Forest said.
“You’re not just ignoring science, you’re ignoring common sense,” Cooper replied. “You cannot wish the pandemic away.”
Forest acknowledged the threat of COVID-19 for older people and those with underlying health conditions. He emphasized the danger the pandemic poses to people in nursing homes and the state’s most vulnerable residents. “That’s where we should be spending all of our time and attention,” he said. “We should allow healthy people to get back [to] life.”
He said children are 17 times more likely to be impacted by the flu than coronavirus, a claim PolitiFact has rated mostly false.
Cooper countered that protecting the most vulnerable people requires cooperation from everyone. “The problem is, Dan, you treat nursing homes like an island,” he said.
“When you have people out there discouraging masks, when you have people out there trying to prove that there’s not a pandemic, then you end up having more people who are infected. It could be a nursing home staff member [or] a visitor,” he said.
Above: Plexiglas wasn’t the only thing that separated Roy Cooper from Dan Forest in the gubernatorial debate. (Screenshot from WRAL broadcast.)
North Carolina’s governor and lieutenant governor don’t seem to agree on anything.
As candidates for governor, Roy Cooper, the Democratic incumbent, and Dan Forest, the Republican challenger, have sparred most bitterly over the response to the coronavirus. And they don’t see eye to eye on another group of issues that are important in this year’s election: systemic racism and police brutality.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers prompted countless protests across North Carolina and lots of discussion about what government can do on the issues of racism, protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. Cooper and Forest have emphasized drastically different messages.
Cooper has spoken out against systemic racism and excessive use of police force. In a press briefing in late May, he proclaimed that “Black lives matter” and urged North Carolinians not to let people who destroy property undermine the message of peaceful protesters.
Forest has focused more on the threat of violence from the protests. He has said relatively little about racial inequality and instead emphasized the importance of law and order. He said he stands proudly with the police.
Forest: ‘We don’t put up with anarchy’
Forest says he will protect North Carolinians when “anarchists” take to the streets. Gov. Cooper failed to do so, he said.
In an interview with John Woodard, a North Carolina YouTube user and podcast maker, Forest said the mainstream media didn’t tell the full story about the disorder in downtown Raleigh in May, when protesters smashed windows and destroyed storefronts. He said the coverage, or lack thereof, essentially gave Cooper a “free pass” to avoid action.
“Not only did he not do a good job, he didn’t do anything,” Forest said.
“[People] shouldn’t have to wonder, when the violence comes to my town, what’s the governor going to do?” Forest said.
In the interview, Forest didn’t spend much time discussing why the protesters were there. While he acknowledged that “there will always be a racism problem,” he cited the nation’s success in eradicating slavery more quickly than other parts of the world.
“I do not believe that the vast majority of Americans think that we have a systemic racism problem,” Forest said.
He said he finds it unfair that a handful of cases of police misconduct around the country have led some to believe that there is a systemic problem.
Police officers put their lives on the line everyday to protect citizens, Forest said in the interview.
“We don’t put up with anarchy,” he said, “We don’t want to see our cities destroyed, we don’t want to see our police defunded.”
Restoring law and order is a central part of his platform. “Here in North Carolina, we Back the Blue!!!” says one Facebook ad.
Cooper: ‘People are more important than property’
After the violence in Raleigh, Cooper spoke at an emergency briefing. While he thanked police for working to keep the peace, he emphasized the importance of the protests.
“Today the headlines are not about those protestors and their calls for serious, meaningful change,” Cooper said, “They are more about riots, and tear gas, and broken windows and stolen property. I fear the cry of the people is being drowned out.”
When the mayors of Raleigh, Charlotte, Fayetteville and Greensboro requested state highway patrol and National Guard soldiers to maintain order during protests, Cooper complied.
But he focused on the issues that caused the unrest.
“We cannot focus so much on the property damage that we forget why people are in the streets” he said.
“Let me be clear,” he said, “People are more important than property. Black lives do matter.”
In June, Cooper formed a task force to address racial inequity in North Carolina’s criminal justice system. He also criticized Forest for failing to speak out against racism.
He accused Forest of failing to denounce a racist incident that occurred at 311 Speedway, a race track in Stokes County. Mike Fulp, the owner of the track, posted a Facebook ad for a “Bubba rope” for sale, shortly after a rope fashioned into a noose was found in NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace’s garage.
Cooper launched an ad campaign against Forest for not speaking out against Fulp, a Forest supporter.
Defending the police and promoting law and order is a smart strategy for Forest, who is still behind in the polls, said Mac McCorkle, a former Democratic strategist who is now a public policy professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
But McCorkle said he thinks Cooper has played it wisely. He hasn’t supported defunding the police, which has made it difficult for Forest to label him an extremist.
The unrest has eased since the summer, so the issue has less urgency.
“He needs a specific bill of indictment against Cooper,” McCorkle said, “He needs to be able to really concretely say something that makes people think that Cooper has failed on the job.”
Unless he finds that, Forest faces an uphill battle.
“The race seems very static, very stable,” McCorkle said, “and if it stays that way, Forest is in trouble.”