BUIES CREEK — A crowded field of Republican contenders seeking to succeed Dan Forest as lieutenant governor began the 2020 primary campaign in earnest at a forum hosted by the Harnett County GOP on Saturday. The event was moderated by former Florida Congressman Lt. Col. (Ret.) Allen B. West, who has moved to Texas and is seeking to be the next GOP chair of the Lonestar state.
“We’ve got some concerns out in Texas just the same as you have in North Carolina with people coming down I-95 out of New York and New Jersey,” said West.
West tells NSJ that he’s running to keep Texas red and to hold to policies that have made the state a success.
“We need to be asking people, ‘Welcome to Texas, why are you here? Welcome to Texas, why did you leave where you were?’” West said. “I think that is the same thing people should be asking here in North Carolina.”
Seven out of the nine Republican candidates running for lieutenant governor made an appearance: Buddy Bengel, co-owner of two restaurants in New Bern; John Ritter, a Moore County area attorney; Deborah Cochran, a former Mt. Airy city commissioner and mayor who is currently a business teacher in Winston-Salem; Greg Gebhardt, an Iraq war Army veteran who worked at the state legislature; Mark Johnson, the current state superintendent of schools; Mark Robinson, a gun rights advocate; and Scott Stone, a former Mecklenburg state house member.
State Sen. Andy Wells (R-Catawba), owner of a real estate firm, missed the forum due to a prior commitment. Former Congresswoman Renee Ellmers was also absent due to her husband recently suffering a heart attack.
The forum, which lasted just under two hours, gave each candidate two to three minutes to respond to a series of questions including qualifications, the top priorities of each candidate and on topics like education and economic development.
Before questions began, the forum kicked off with videos about Harnett County, Campbell University and a greeting from current Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who is challenging Gov. Roy Cooper.
The candidates all spoke in favor of school choice and, in particular, the need for more vocational educational options both in K-12 and in the state’s community colleges.
Robinson, a native of Greensboro who made national headlines in 2018 with a vocal defense the Second Amendment in front of the Greensboro City Council, said education was the most important issue facing North Carolina and the nation and that schools should “just teach” and “not indoctrinate” students.
“If you care about the Second Amendment, you should care about education, because our young people now do not appreciate our Second Amendment, because they are not being taught our Constitution,” said Robinson. He also took a shot at Cooper’s veto of the Born Alive Act by stating that North Carolina needs to become a “sanctuary state for the unborn.”
Scott Stone’s message also included education, however, his overall emphasis landed more on becoming a “champion for rural economic development.” Stone is currently the president of American Engineering, a regional civil engineering and survey firm in Charlotte.
Stone also underscored the need for better messaging and storytelling to carry Republican accomplishments and successes across the state and how the lieutenant governor’s role is positioned to do that.
Gebhart, who worked with the legislature as a policy adviser on both tax issues and voter ID, listed vocational trades, veterans and voter ID as the “three V’s” he intends to concentrate on if elected.
“We need to do more for our veterans,” said Greg Gebhardt. “Specifically, we need to make retirement income for veterans in North Carolina tax-free. We are one of only eight states that does nothing for veterans in terms of their retirement pay.”
Johnson, who is not seeking another term as the head of the state’s public schools after being the first Republican in 100 years, said that his position has “been a fight” which has made him ready to run for lieutenant governor.
A memorable line for Johnson was when he said, “The deep state in North Carolina is real,” in reference to fighting an entrenched education bureaucracy.
Following the forum, former Congresswoman Renee Ellmers said her campaign schedule would be limited in early January due to her husband’s Brent’s recent heart attack.
“Brent’s recovery continues to be my top priority,” said Ellmers. Ellmers worked in the Trump Administration as a Regional Director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after serving in the U.S. House.
The primary date for the lieutenant governor’s race is Tuesday, March 3. The winner will go on to face one of six Democrats taking part in their party’s primary.
The full forum can be viewed on YouTube courtesy of the Harnett County GOP: