NAACP-sponsored forum draws Congress, N.C. House and Senate candidates

Congressional candidates included 12th District U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger Ty Cobb. Watt arrived late, having appeared earlier at an event in Greensboro.

Dr. Bryant Norman Jr., president of the local NAACP, served as moderator of the forum at Rowan Public Library, which was attended by 20 people.

When it came to the proposed elimination of emergency, surgical and inpatient services at the Hefner VA, candidates were united in their opposition.

Burnette, who lives in Davie County, said government has an obligation to care for men and women who serve in the military for the rest of their lives. "If it's mental problems, physical problems, it makes no difference," he said.

As a previous employee of the Hefner VA, Fisher of Salisbury said she was disgusted that the community had no say in the plans, which are part of the medical center's proposed transition to a long-term and mental health facility for veterans.

Her biggest concern is that the facility may become a treatment center for veterans with drug and substance abuse issues. Fisher said Rowan County cannot handle 1,000 or more veterans that are on drugs.

Coates, who lives in Salisbury, said, "I think we have promised our veterans that we would take care of them." The proposal to eliminate services at the VA "is just plain wrong," she said.

Echoing concerns of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, Coates said it could also lead to the loss of up to 1,000 jobs.

Cobb, of Rockwell, who is a disabled veteran, said services should be expanded, not cut. There are more soldiers surviving wars today, he said, and they need to be cared for appropriately.

Watt, of Charlotte, said he didn't know anything about the plans until they were announced to the media, after which he sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Director James B. Peake asking for a written report explaining the plans.

If unsuccessful in getting the plans changed, Watt said he and other legislators may have no other recourse than to cut the funds necessary to implement them.

Each candidate was given time for opening and closing statements.

Fisher, whose campaign slogan is "Get a doctor in the House," said in her opening statement, "I think we need a new prescription for North Carolina."

"We have some problems, and we need a new way of looking at the problems," she said. If elected, Fisher said she would bring "sound economic sense" to the state House and focus on economic growth and jobs, more support for small businesses, affordable health care and more educational opportunities.

Burnette said in his opening statement that he decided to step out of his comfortable lifestyle to run for the state Senate so he could help with the plight of poor and middle-class people in today's economic conditions. "My opponent is a very nice man," he said, "but I have 48 years of business experience and he has nine."

In her opening statement, Coates called the Nov. 4 election the most important election of her lifetime and said that's why she's casting her vote for Sen. Barack Obama for president.

It's also a crossroads when it comes to the country's economy, she said, adding, "I've worked hard to make sure we weren't living beyond our means."

Cobb said he's running for office to ensure a better future for his five grandchildren. He took off his tie when he retired and only wears it for funerals. But if elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, he said he'll put it back on and go to work.

And when he takes his sports coat off, Cobb said, demonstrating as he spoke, he'll have his sleeves rolled up, ready to go to work.

Coates said she has always taken her job in the state House seriously and will continue to do so if re-elected. "My job is to be your voice," she said, "to represent you and to do what's right for the people of Rowan County."

Watt said he had enjoyed getting to know his opponent during the campaign and said he also thinks his responsibility is to Cobb's grandchildren. "And your grandchildren and you," he said speaking to the people who turned out for the forum.

As for his 16 years in office, Watt said he offered his record as proof that he has done just that. "It's transparent," he said.

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