Pandemic dominates debate between Cooper, Forest

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest exchanged verbal jabs Wednesday night about the coronavirus pandemic, masks, schools and violent protests during their only scheduled debate before Election Day.

Posted Updated

Matthew Burns
, WRAL.com senior producer/politics editor
RALEIGH, N.C. — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest exchanged verbal jabs Wednesday night about the coronavirus pandemic, masks, schools and violent protests during their only scheduled debate before Election Day.

The hour-long debate, sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters, also included discussion of state budgets, Medicaid expansion, broadband access, hurricane recovery and climate change.

But the pandemic, including its impact on North Carolina's economy and schools, dominated the rapid-fire back and forth between the two men.

Forest has frequently criticized Cooper for shutting down large swaths of the economy and blocking schools from reopening for months, and he repeated those arguments on Tuesday.

"We don't need a governor that treats us like 5-year-olds," Forest said, saying that businesses and schools should be allowed to set their own precautions and get back to work. "The lockdown mandates and the masks are actually causing more harm than good."

Cooper, who was the more aggressive of the two throughout the debate, fired back that nothing can return to normal until the pandemic has passed and that Forest isn't helping the situation with his statements and actions.

"You cannot wish the pandemic away. It doesn't work like that," he said. "It's going to take us dealing with this pandemic and slowing the spread to get our economy fully going again, and when you're out there pretending that there is no pandemic, that's going to hurt the number of jobs that we have."

Forest has held numerous campaign rallies in recent months where people didn't wear masks or follow social distancing guidelines. Cooper blasted him several times during the debate for that, calling it "reckless," but Forest deflected the criticism by citing a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing most people infected by the virus said they regularly wore masks.

"Masks is a great cover for what he really doesn't want to talk about: the over million and a half people he has left unemployed, the thousands of businesses that have been shut down, the thousands of businesses that will never reopen again," he said, adding that Cooper's administration has "completely failed" North Carolina residents needing unemployment assistance, leaving desperate people struggling for answers and help.

In one of several attempts to link Forest with the Republican-controlled General Assembly, Cooper noted that legislative leaders have repeatedly blocked his efforts to upgrade "one of the stingiest" unemployment systems in the country. He acknowledged the Division of Employment Security was overwhelmed by the pandemic's economic impact, but he said the state has been able to deliver $8.2 billion in unemployment aid to nearly 1 million people.

Cooper said the state could help many of those who lost their jobs, as well as thousands of people still working who lack health insurance, if lawmakers – and Forest – would agree to expand Medicaid.

"What we can do to help these people is to give them their jobs back," Forest retorted.

"Dan talks about getting a job that's a magical thing that's going to get you health care. There are tens, hundreds of thousands of people in this state who have jobs but don't have employer-sponsored health insurance and can't afford [individual coverage]," Cooper said.

Medicaid expansion has been among the sticking points that has prevented Cooper and lawmakers from agreeing on a state budget over the last years. Forest noted several times during the debate that the governor has vetoed every budget the General Assembly has approved during his time in office, calling him "obstructionist."

"He keeps saying, 'I want more teacher pay,' and then he says, 'Zero is better than something,'" Forest said, arguing that lawmakers are more responsible than the governor for raising teacher salaries in recent years.

Cooper responded by calling Forest a "rubber stamp" for Republican lawmakers, who would "starve [public schools] for funding and then use those tax dollars to help rich people send their children to private schools using vouchers."

"He's satisfied with teacher pay, bragging with where teacher pay is now," Cooper said. "We have the ability to do more, and we should do more. We have to increase our investment in public education."

The governor said Forest and GOP lawmakers are more concerned with cutting corporate taxes than funding schools – another reason for the budget vetoes – but Forest noted that North Carolina has run growing budget surpluses in recent years as the state economy has expanded.

When asked about protests against police brutality and calls for racial justice over the summer that sometimes devolved into riots, Forest said he doesn't believe the racism that exists in North Carolina is systemic but that everyone should reject racism. He also criticized Cooper's administration for not doing more to stop the violence and looting.

"I will never allow an angry mob to destroy our cities," he said, noting he would bring in the National Guard if needed to halt a riot.

Cooper said Forest was using the issue "for fear and division."

"You do have a real choice," he told voters watching the debate. "You have a governor who believes in science and a candidate who doesn't. You have a governor who believes in our public schools and a candidate who wants to shortchange them. You have a governor who believes that everybody ought to have health care, and you have a candidate that wants to deny over half a million people the health care that they need."

"I believe it's time to stop the fear and panic campaign and move on to hope and opportunity for people," Forest said. "We really need a governor that can ensure the people of North Carolina that we're going to come through this stronger than ever before."


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