RALEIGH — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest met 12 hours before in-person early voting began across the state in their only debate of the 2020 general election. The two spent an hour outlining their plans and criticizing the others’ job performance over the past four years.
The candidates each showed different strategies — Cooper was critical of Forest from the outset. He said they needed a plexiglass shield between the two candidates because Forest “has been reckless and endangered the lives of North Carolinians” by holding in-person campaign events. Forest opened the debate by talking about his family and his business career, introducing himself to the statewide audience. “My natural habitat is not in politics — it’s in architecture,” Forest said.
The first question was on the state’s COVID-19 response, where Cooper repeated his often-used phrase of “following the science and data” and criticized Forest for statements he’s made saying that masks don’t work.
“He even sued me to stop our safety measures, and thank goodness he lost,” Cooper said.
“Masks is a great cover for what he really doesn’t want to talk about: the over million and half people he has left unemployed, the thousands of businesses that have been shut down, the thousands of businesses that won’t reopen again, and the anxiety that has wreaked havoc over this state,” Forest responded. He also said his plan would be to protect vulnerable populations while allowing healthy people to get back to work.
Cooper said he has helped small businesses by creating a grant program to give those businesses money.
The two candidates covered lots of ground on the topic of education — teacher pay, return to in-person instruction, and school choice.
Cooper said his number one priority was getting kids back in school and he said again he was using science and data to make that happen and said that Forest wanted to “starve them for funding and use tax dollars to help rich people send their children to private schools.”
Cooper reversed his initial decision on in-person instruction, announcing on Sept. 17 the option for K-5 schools to return full-time if the school districts approve.
Forest said schools will return full-time “when I am governor.” Forest said that parents who want their kids in the classroom should have that right. “Our kids are missing a year of school. We can figure out how to keep a school clean,” Forest said.
Forest also called out Cooper for vetoing every state budget that has included teacher pay raises, saying that under Cooper’s leadership, “nothing is better than something.”
Cooper’s latest proposed budget would have eliminated the state’s Opportunity Scholarships, a program that sets aside money for low-income parents to send children to private schools.
One of the most memorable exchanges occurred on the topic of protests and riots in the state over the summer.
“We need to listen to people and lift up their voices for equality and justice,” Cooper said, and attacked Forest’s use of footage from an out-of-state protest in a television ad.
“The governor said we should reject violence, destruction and looting, but while he was locked in his mansion two blocks away, downtown Raleigh was being destroyed. The governor had the ability to call out the National Guard, and he didn’t do it,” Forest countered.
Cooper tried to pivot to his record as attorney general and attacked the spring ReOpen NC protests, alleging that they were supporters of Forest and called law enforcement officers “pigs” and burned masks.
“That’s the most bizarre comment I’ve heard — my supporters in the streets calling police officers pigs?” said Forest incredulously. “Those aren’t my supporters, Governor. They’re yours — the ones you walked through before they rioted and looted downtown Raleigh, while you had that little mask dangling around your ear, not around your face,” said Forest.