RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and challenger Linda Coleman tied themselves tightly to the positions dug out by their respective parties on education funding, House Bill 2 and other issues in what could be their only head-to-head debate before Election Day.
The election is a rematch of 2012, when Forest narrowly topped Coleman by nearly 7,000 votes out of 4.4 million cast.
The candidates who debated Tuesday night in Wilson are seeking the job of the state’s No. 2 executive, who runs independently from the governor but whose key role is to take over if the top executive is unable to finish his elected term.
Coleman aligned herself from her opening statement to the Democratic Party’s candidate for governor, Roy Cooper. The former state legislator and personnel director under former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue has advocated for public employees and expanding social support services to the poor.
Forest, a Republican who has forged a political path separate from incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory, has become one of the state’s most outspoken politicians for conservative social issues.
Coming in a week that the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference decided to pull championship competitions out of North Carolina because of HB2, questions about the law consumed the first third of the debate.
Forest has been a leader in defending the law, which requires transgender people to use restrooms in schools and state government buildings that correspond to the gender on their birth certificate. The law also excludes gender identity and sexual orientation from statewide antidiscrimination protections.
Forest used his role as president of the state Senate to call a special legislative session in March to block a Charlotte city ordinance expanding protections at public accommodations for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. He emphasized the position of most Republican politicians that the law protects the privacy and safety of women and girls who might be molested by heterosexual men posing as transgender to enter public bathrooms.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that my wife would have to walk into a bathroom in North Carolina and have a man follow her into that bathroom,” Forest said. “I don’t put a price tag on my wife or daughter.”
Legislators reacted to a problem that didn’t exist and ended up sparking a backlash costing the state’s businesses as companies, entertainers and sports leagues blacklisted North Carolina, Coleman said.
“We have not only lost millions of dollars, but we have lost our reputation as well,” she said. “The protection of women is yet another disguise for promoting a bill that has no place in North Carolina. It is making North Carolina a test laboratory for state-sponsored discrimination.”
The lieutenant governor also participates on the state boards overseeing the statewide community college system and the public schools that educate 1.5 million children. Forest has been an active member of both education bodies and pushed for expanding parental choice for K-12 schools.
One program he’s supported allows nearly 6,000 low-income students to attend private schools. Many religious schools participate in the voucher program, meaning that taxpayer money is sent to schools that may reject students of unaligned faiths or who have LGBT parents.
“People should be able to send children to any school they want, but I don’t think it should be paid for with taxpayer dollars,” Coleman said.
Traditional public schools and the teachers in them have been underfunded for at least a decade and still showed progress like improving graduation rates, Coleman said. Better funding would improve failing schools, she said, and multiplying school-choice experiments are draining money away from improving public schools.
Forest said the private-school vouchers allow poor students a way to leave public schools that may not serve them.
“There is no reason to say that only government schools are the answer for our parents,” Forest said. “We should demand excellent education for all of our students and quite frankly, we really shouldn’t care where it comes from.”
The debate was scheduled to be broadcast on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Channel on Wednesday night and at noon Thursday.
Follow Emery P. Dalesio at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio .
This story has been corrected to replace the photo of Linda Coleman from Mississippi with a photo of Linda Coleman from North Carolina.