Publisher's note: The author of this post is Evelyn Howell, who is a contributor to the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.
Buncombe County GOP incumbent Ramsey faces tough test from Democrat Ager
RALEIGH — With the Nov. 4 election looming, incumbent Republican state Rep. Nathan Ramsey is battling to hold his seat for a second term against a strong campaign by Democratic opponent John Ager, who has a double-digit lead in at least one poll.
They are campaigning fiercely in House District 115, which covers the northern and eastern portions of Buncombe County. Democrats have a 37.8 percent chunk of the electorate, compared to 30.3 percent registered Republicans and 31.5 percent unaffiliated.
While they disagree politically on public education, health care, and tax reform issues, Ramsey and Ager share some similarities.
Both are farmers who grew up in Buncombe County, and not surprisingly both support small farmers. Both ran unopposed in the May 6 primary, and both pledge a desire to serve their district and the people of North Carolina.
Ramsey said he supports local schools, and voted for this year's budget, which contains an average 7 percent pay raise for teachers. Ramsey said teacher raises are the first substantial increases in a decade.
But last year he voted against the budget.
"I didn't feel it was good enough for Buncombe schools," he said.
"There is never a perfect budget. There's a good budget and a better budget," said Ramsey, an attorney and former Buncombe County commissioner for eight years.
Ager's campaign criticizes the legislature's handling of budget issues, and, despite a $1 billion increase in allocations over the past four years, says education is currently underfunded.
He said the legislature "pulled money out of every pocket" to come up with funds for the teacher raises, and shifted money from other school needs including a reduction in textbook funding from more than $111 million in 2009 to $23.3 million in 2014.
"Textbooks? Not a place to save money," said Ager. "It's condemning the children of North Carolina to substandard education."
Ager said the GOP resorted to "selling vanity license plates to raise funds for schools," an apparent reference to Lt. Gov. Dan Forest's "I Support Teachers" program to create an endowment fund to give the state's highest performing teachers a merit raise on top of other pay.
A better solution is to find the revenue and rebuild "our world-class education system," he said.
Ager believes that the GOP-controlled legislature has declared war on public education and health care, and said Ramsey is "running away from his involvement in the General Assembly" by voting 97 percent of the time along party lines.
"I've worked hard to represent the people of Buncombe, not necessarily any political party," said Ramsey. As an example, he said, his vote against the final fracking bill in the House proves he has an independent voice.
A recent flash poll conducted by the Civitas Institute shows Ager leading by as much as 13 points. That is a far cry from a 2012 Civitas flash poll that put Ramsey up 6 points over Democrat Susan Wilson. Ramsey was elected with 54.3 percent of the vote, more than 8 points in front of Wilson.
"I'm sure he's not paying much attention to polls because he has been raising millions and attacking me since August," said Ramsey speaking on Ager's fundraising efforts.
Even Ager said his campaign is aware of other polls that show this race is far closer.
"That number surprised me. I do not trust that number to tell you the truth," he said.
Buncombe County Schools has an enrollment of 25,463 students, making it the 11th largest public school system in the state and the largest district in western North Carolina.
Ager's campaign criticizes the state legislature for passing a state budget that, he said, led various districts to cut teacher assistants, and a "damaging bill passed last year that eliminated class size caps in early grades."
"There are lots of TV ads attacking me, but if I had not been supportive of education, educators would not be supporting me," Ramsey countered.
"I've worked hard to increase teacher pay, making our teacher compensation more competitive," Ramsey said. With the raises passed in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, "North Carolina will have the second highest starting teacher pay in the Southeast, and our overall teacher compensation will be around 32nd in the country."
"That's not where it should be, but it certainly is progress," he said.
On health care, Ager said Medicaid should be expanded using federal funds under the Affordable Care Act because "it comes at no cost to the state."
"Republican legislators turned it down because of political spite, and they are trying to figure a way now just to save face," said Ager.
Ramsey opposes Medicaid expansion now because "the state should first fix problems with its existing Medicaid program," which had cost overruns of $1 billion over four years, and has had severe systems and management problems.
"You can't add water to a leaking bucket," Ramsey said. Once we get a grip on our current Medicaid system, then we can look at Medicaid expansion."
Instead of a proposal backed mainly by Senate Republicans shifting Medicaid to a managed-care model, Ramsey said, there are other ways government can handle Medicaid.
"There is the ACO [Accountable Care Organization] approach where there are networks of doctors and hospitals," he said.
Ramsey said when he was first elected in 2012, North Carolina was ranked as one of the five states with the highest unemployment rates, but now is "about in the middle of the pack."
"We didn't get in this position overnight. We are still coming out of a significant recession," he said.
If re-elected, Ramsey said, he will continue to do what's best for his district, and he won't be a "rubber stamp for anybody."
Ager, who is employed by Sherrill's Inn and Hickory Nut Gap Farm Camp, said he's more of a realist. He describes himself as a good citizen who has been very involved in his community all his life, and who believes he can better represent his district.
He wants "to take on the problems of North Carolina," and if elected his first priority would be "to get to work on education issues."
Editor's note: This article was modified after initial publication to correct a typographical error.