Voters question Bothwell’s chances against the GOP.
Cecil Bothwell, Democratic candidate for the 11th Congressional District of Western North Carolina (WNC) and current Asheville City-Councilman, hosted a town hall last Thursday, Feb. 2, at Macon County’s Public Library. About an hour before the town hall meeting began, Bothwell’s main opponent, sitting Democratic incumbent Heath Shuler, announced his decision not to seek a fourth term in office. Shuler’s decision definitely shakes up the congressional race, and could be a big boost for Bothwell, as the challenger is now the only Democrat in the race and has been actively campaigning for 10 months.
Bothwell was just as surprised as everyone else upon hearing the news about Shuler. He told the town hall attendees that it is about time for a “real Democrat” to represent WNC in Congress, and swiped at Shuler for voting against the 2009 stimulus package, the American Jobs Act, and the Affordable Health Care Act in 2010. The challenger is presenting himself as an old-fashioned Democrat, one that stands up for economic justice and progressive government. Until very recently, Bothwell has sought to strike a difference between he and Shuler to WNC voters, hoping to gain some momentum going into the May primary.
With over 1,100 volunteers, Bothwell’s campaign is planning town hall events across the 11th district, which after GOP gerrymandering is the largest Congressional district east of the Mississippi. The newly drawn district is comprised of 17 counties, with Avery, Burke, Caldwell, and Mitchell being the four new counties added to the 11th.
After being introduced, Bothwell briefly talked about his history and why he is running for Congress. The city-councilman discussed his background in investigative reporting and running a small business. As a reporter, Bothwell played an integral role in putting former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford behind bars for federal corruption charges. Bothwell’s campaign chief told the town hall crowd that no one would take on Medford until Bothwell took charge, and despite receiving death threats, the then investigative reporter pressed on and assisted federal prosecutors in sentencing Medford to 15 years behind bars in 2008.
Bothwell took questions from Maconians for the next hour about several issues, but mostly inquiries concerning the economy and whether or not he is electable in such a conservative district. Bothwell explained his positions on the economy and government spending before opening up for questions.
The candidate explained that the majority of Congressional members are wrong about the economy, and are putting the nation in a perilous situation by advocating for cuts in government spending during a recession. During a recession governments should increase spending to spur demand, much like the Roosevelt administration did during the Great Depression, Bothwell said. Bothwell stated that concerns about decreasing the deficit immediately are ill-advised, pointing to low interest rates on 10 year U.S. Treasury bonds as evidence that bondholders and investors still have faith in the United States. Current yields for 10 year U.S. treasury bonds are around 1.87 percent, an historic low.
“The way we have built out of depressions and recessions in the past is to do the work that needs to be done,” said Bothwell. “Coming out of the Great Depression we built the Blue Ridge Parkway and we built the TVA Dam that brought electricity to these mountains. Those are the kind of federal projects that have enriched our lives for two generations now,” he said.
Bothwell thinks New Deal Progressivism is the answer to high unemployment in WNC, arguing that public investment in bridges and roads, high speed broadband internet access, and green technology will pave the way for a secure economic future for WNC. The candidate even called on Congress to create a 21st century Civilian Conservation Corps to put people back to work on viable energy projects.
Instead of privatizing Social Security and Medicare to reign in federal spending, entitlement programs funded by payroll taxes (FICA), Bothwell believes simply raising the cap on Social Security presently standing at $106,800 of gross wages would go a long way in making Social Security solvent. Bothwell said Medicare’s payroll tax cap of $109,000 of gross wages should be raised for identical reasons. “As it is, Medicare is working dramatically well for the elderly. It seems to me that is a great model for health care for the future. Ultimately, I think we must get to a single payer plan in this country,” said Bothwell.
He added that Americans have far worse outcomes in the nation’s current health-care system compared to other countries with single payer plans, and pay more for medical care than any other country without getting positive results. “If we were getting better care, then you could probably say well we’re paying more for it, but we’re not. That’s why I would like to see this country move towards the Medicare model for everyone,” he said.
On Medicaid, Bothwell believes the entitlement program for the poor, elderly, and the disabled should be protected and expanded to help struggling middle class families deal with rising healthcare costs.
To pay for his proposed increases in federal entitlement spending, Bothwell is putting forth a different set of priorities that focus on revamping the welfare state. “Now all of that sounds expensive, but there are three principle ways I would like to pay for that,” he said. A significant decrease in military spending would help the federal government pay for his economic plan, he said.
According to Bothwell, two unnecessary wars combined with two tax cuts caused large budget deficits and led to a substantial increase in the national debt during the W. Bush Administration. “A police action is what was needed to bring criminals to bay,” said Bothwell on bringing the 9/11 perpetrators to justice. “In fact it was a police action that took out Osama bin Laden. Wars have simply cost us a lot of money and haven’t had much results,” said Bothwell citing Iraq’s potential risk of breaking into three separate countries and Afghanistan’s tribal elements that have built a culture that is not conducive to centralized government.
Reforming the federal tax code to ensure the wealthy pay their share in taxes and a financial transactions tax would also help bring in more revenue to fund a single payer system and other critical investments, according to Bothwell. “I think we need to make taxes fair from top to bottom. There is no reason why Mitt Romney should pay 13 percent when you pay 28,” he said to the crowd. “It’s crazy that we allow people to get wealthy in this country and stash their money in Swiss bank accounts and in the Cayman Islands,” he said attacking GOP Presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney.
A quarter of a cent financial transaction tax on stocks and commodities trading would bring in more revenue and assist in preventing dangerous bubbles on Wall Street from emerging once again, Bothwell said in describing his third proposal.
No one questioned Bothwell’s policies at the town hall, but some people expressed their doubts about his ability to win in a general election. Bothwell is a pro-choice Democrat who happens to be an atheist, which is why the candidate was asked if he could withstand potential assaults that are sure to come his way if he were to win the primary. Another person asked Bothwell if he could raise enough money to counter potential attacks, as the challenger refuses to accept PAC money. Bothwell responded to the inquiries by stating that he is “obnoxiously” optimistic he can win, and strongly believes his economic message will resonate with voters in WNC.
Some people at the town hall seem to remember that the last progressive to run in the 11th Congressional district was Patsy Keever in 2004, and she lost to Republican Charles Taylor by a large margin of 10 percentage points. One woman at the town hall expressed her dissatisfaction with Congressman Heath Shuler for his conservative positions on fiscal and social issues to candidate Bothwell, but noted that a liberal may have a difficult time winning in WNC. “Are you ready for what is going to get thrown at you?,” she asked Bothwell.
Before the meeting ended, Linda Brown, Bothwell’s campaign chief, requested for The League of Women Voters in Macon County to sponsor a debate between Bothwell and the other candidates competing for the open house seat. There is no scheduled date for the debate, but the League is working on sponsoring the event in the near future.