Editor’s note: Traditionally The Macon County News provides candidate profiles during election season. The series continues with the N.C. Senate race with Republican incumbent Jim Davis and Democratic challenger, Bobby Kuppers on the ballot.
Republican incumbent Sen. Jim Davis and Democratic challenger Bobby Kuppers are in the final weeks of the North Carolina Senate District number 50 race, vying to represent the state’s seven westernmost counties.
Issues range from limited job opportunities to tackling the opioid crisis. While the candidates’ solutions overlap in some areas, their philosophies diverge when it comes to role of government, health care and education. Both candidates were asked for interviews, either at a campaign event or in an informal setting. This past week, interviews were conducted with both candidates: Davis at his Franklin dental office and Kuppers following a “Brews with Bobby” campaign event at Innovations Brewery in Sylva.
Following is a breakdown of their positions on some key issues, with a fun fact about each candidate as a reward for reading through to the end. Early voting starts Oct. 17.
“My whole life has been serving the community or the state or the nation in one way or another,” Kuppers said, tallying up 25 years in the military, 18 years as a teacher, 15 years as a coach and four years as a Macon County Commissioner.
“Coaching football and driving a nuclear submarine are not a whole lot different,” said the veteran, wearing a Navy shirt and a Bobby Kuppers campaign pin. “What you’re doing is you’re trying to take a group of people, make them understand tough choices, make them understand that sacrifice is part of the deal and make them buy into something that quite honestly they might not want to otherwise.”
Davis pointed to his eight-year record in the Senate and promise of more of the same.
“All they have to do is look at my record,” Davis said of voters’ choice in November. “They know what they’ve gotten with voting for me and I will continue to serve the citizens of the state and particularly of the 50th senatorial district to the best of my ability.”
Davis said tax and regulatory reform could be used to attract business to Western North Carolina, and he said he helped win a 2012 job development grant worth $12 million that saved Evergreen Packaging from an estimated $50 million in costs to meet environmental regulations related to its coal furnaces. The result was 1,200 jobs in Haywood County. He also noted authority to expand Cherokee’s gaming operations to include live dealers and up to three casinos. A second casino in Murphy led to 1,000 new jobs.
“Since we don’t have a railroad, large manufacturing is not really likely,” said Davis, noting that continuing reforms will make it easier for “entrepreneurs to start and large businesses [to succeed] that are already here.”
Kuppers suggested pooling tourism efforts in the seven westernmost counties to create a regional approach to tourism at greater cost effectiveness. Also acknowledging that manufacturing was not likely for the region, the educator stressed the attractiveness of mountain living as an incentive.
“What we’re going to deal with is small businessmen, private businessmen, who want to live in the mountains where it’s beautiful and be free from all the city stuff and run their business from their home,” said Kuppers. “Can’t do that unless you get broadband.”
Kuppers supports exploring public-private partnerships with internet providers to provide high-speed internet service to more citizens.
“My colleagues literally drag themselves in every day asking ‘Why?’” Kuppers told supporters at a small gathering on the patio of Innovations Brewery in Sylva. He later explained, “We need to give teachers the tools they need to teach, and we need to make teachers feel valued again.”
The 18-year public school teacher said that means respect from bosses and adequate teaching tools in the classroom. He gave an example of a local chemistry teacher who buys his own chemicals for lack of school resources.
To achieve these goals, Kuppers said it may not be necessary to raise taxes if state resources could be shifted to prioritize education. He named goals to include incentivizing future teachers, hiring more teachers, reducing class sizes, providing teaching tools and expanding electives.
“I think it’s very important that we rightly fund education,” said Davis, estimating that education accounts for 56 percent of the state’s budget. “We have funded education but educating our kids to inherit a legacy of debt is a disservice to them.”
Davis admitted that he was not “up to speed” on innovation in education, but he stated unequivocally, “I’m interested in outcomes, not just spending more money.” Asked what programs were working that he liked, the senator called for expanding choice for parents to enroll their students in charter schools.
“Competition is a good thing, and we will enhance our educational opportunities in this state by giving people more choices,” he said.
“Health care is a tough nut to crack,” said Davis, noting that North Carolina is faced with reacting to the changes that are coming down from Washington.
The orthodontist called for more investment in prevention. He faulted the 2010 Affordable Care Act for preventing insurance companies from charging customers higher premiums for having unhealthy habits, like drug abuse, smoking, excessive drinking or obesity.
Davis also said it was “safe to assume” that the HCA (Hospital Corporation of America) buy-out of Mission Hospitals will protect local area hospitals. He noted an HCA promise to keep Angel Medical Center open and its plans to invest $40 million in building a new hospital.
Kuppers said the number one thing North Carolina can do right now to extend health care access to citizens is expand Medicaid. “Would you go to Ingles and buy $300 of groceries and put them in someone else’s car and drive off?” Kuppers asked supporters rhetorically, making the case that North Carolinians are helping pay for states that accept Medicaid expansion.
The Democratic candidate reserved judgement regarding the HCA buyout and consolidation of local and regional hospitals, noting it “bears watching.” He expressed concern that Swain and Macon county hospitals could be shuttered if they fail to turn a profit, making it more difficult for rural citizens to reach a hospital in an emergency.
The Opioid Crisis
“There are very few families that are not affected by the opioid epidemic in one way or another,” said Davis, noting that 3-4 North Carolinians die each day. The Republican candidate praised Gov. Roy Cooper for signing the STOP Act in 2017 to limit the number of prescriptions physicians can write, and the HOPE Act in 2018, which appropriated additional funds for treatment and strengthened law enforcement’s ability to respond.
As Senate chair for the task force for opioid sentencing reform, Davis said he is working to find alternatives to mandatory incarceration for low-level and non-violent offenders and seeking opportunities for treatment outside of the prison system, where offenders can rely on their family support network.
Kuppers said the HOPE and STOP bills are “not bad bills,” but he believes they did not go far enough by allotting just $10 million to be shared by the state’s 100 counties, or the equivalent of $100,000 per county with no guarantee of future funding. “The General Assembly has not grasped the depth or breadth of the problem,” he said, admitting he was not an expert on the subject and would rely on research to guide investment.
“We need to go where the science takes us and not be afraid to invest in the science,” he said. “Even THC is being used in some cases.”
And Something More…
Sitting in the dental chair at Davis’s office, a patient could almost make out his 2015 Airstream trailer down the mountainside and underneath an extra-long car cover. The senator gave a tour as he shared his favorite place to camp in Macon County: Standing Indian Campground.
“It’s so cool and peaceful, and by the stream. To have a fire, it’s just really nice,” he said. Davis also said Outer Banks and Panama City Beach, Fla., are favorite destinations for longer trips with his wife, Judy.
Searching for a fun fact about himself, Kuppers turned back to football.
“I sometimes tend to get outside myself on the football field,” he said, with a smile. “But despite all the yelling and screaming, I never have got a 15-yard penalty, but I have come close.”
Kuppers said that despite his animation on the sidelines, Franklin High School football has been his “sanctuary.”
“I’m intense. I care. It matters to me,” he said. “If there’s an insight as to who I am, it’s five days of practice and Friday nights.”