No middle ground: Forest Coleman stick to party lines

Red meat was on the menu Tuesday night as Barton College in Wilson hosted the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership’s lieutenant governor debate.

Republican incumbent Dan Forest and Democratic challenger Linda Coleman offered prime cuts of partisanship to the roughly 200 in attendance and a statewide television and radio audience thousands strong. The candidates toed their party lines and neither broke any new ground with an appeal to the center.

Forest continued his full-throated defense of House Bill 2, which restricts restroom and changing room access based on biological gender and excludes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from state nondiscrimination protections. Coleman, predictably, lambasted the law, calling it discriminatory and lamenting the jobs and money lost in a string of concert cancellations, corporate boycotts and the NBA and NCAA pulling high-profile sporting events from the state in protest.

There was no middle ground — HB2 was either a white knight guarding the safety of restrooms for women and girls, according to Mr. Forest, or a blatant swipe against the dignity and civil rights of transgender people, according to Ms. Coleman.

Answering a question related to the lack of a legal penalty for using the “wrong” restroom, Forest refused to acknowledge that HB2 is more a policy statement devoid of any enforcement mechanism than a law in the traditional sense. He said those caught violating HB2 could be charged with trespassing or indecent exposure. The elements of both crimes are already well-established in state statute and case law, and neither fits the bill.

Butch Bowers, an attorney defending HB2 from a legal challenge brought in federal court by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, explicitly acknowledged that HB2 is a paper tiger, a toothless law seeking voluntary compliance, in August arguments before Judge Thomas D. Schroeder.

Mr. Forest was right to make his political case for HB2, but he was wrong to dream up farfetched criminal enforcement powers the state’s own lawyer says simply don’t exist.

The sitting lieutenant governor did score points, however, in his well-articulated advocacy for a campus free-expression bill. Forest detailed the disturbing proliferation of speech codes — school rules that violate students’ First Amendment rights — on North Carolina’s public college campuses. In denouncing minuscule “free speech zones” that universities use to confine protests and petition drives, Forest explained the entire United States is zoned for constitutionally protected expression.

Coleman appeared uninformed on the issue of college censorship and argued Forest was only interested in shielding the speech of those who agree with his conservative views. Forest easily slapped down that weak intimation in his rebuttal. Instead of reflexively taking an opposing position, Coleman should have expressed support for free expression on our state’s campuses.

The challenger was at her best when advocating for a nonpartisan redistricting panel, for the restoration of voter registration in high school and for supporting struggling public schools instead of diverting state education dollars to voucher programs and virtual charter schools.

Coleman argued passionately and convincingly for taking politics out of district mapmaking, while Forest offered a cynical rebuttal questioning whether any redistricting effort could be truly nonpartisan. He excused Republican gerrymandering by pointing to a long history of Democratic gerrymandering.

Two wrongs don’t make a right.

We do not endorse candidates for public office, but that’s not the reason we decline to identify a winner in this week’s debate.

Both candidates parroted their parties’ poll-tested, platform-approved positions to a tee, offering boilerplate partisan talking points instead of new ideas that may appeal to undecided voters in the vast middle ground between left and right.

Democrats will declare Coleman the victor, while Republicans will herald Forest’s performance as a win. We doubt many undecided voters were swayed.

This debate was a Rorschach test — a win or loss, in this case, comes down to a matter of perspective.

The Wilson Times
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