Four Democrats and one Republican running to represent North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District met Thursday night at the Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church for a panel hosted by the John S. Leary Association of Black Attorneys.
The theme of the night: how to improve the state and country's educational system.
For two hours, the candidates addressed a wide range topics such as gun control, whether Russia is the nation's biggest threat and how to feed starving children. But the evening focused mostly on education.
Democratic candidate George Battle drew on his experience - he’s general counsel for the Charlotte Mecklenburg School Board.
"We need to have the federal government play an expanded role in helping states catch up," Battle says. "We are so far behind in terms of funding our schools, funding facilities, funding teacher salaries, funding the basic operations of our schools that we can never catch up."
All but one of the Democratic candidates – state House Representative Marcus Brandon -- say they are opposed to a new school voucher that would give low-income parents $4,200 a year to send their children to private or religious schools. That program is now held up in court. Brandon pushed for alternative schools before the mostly African-American audience.
"We do have to look at alternative education. We do have to look at private schools. African-Americans historically have been educated by private schools. We have churches that have been educating folks before we had integration. And some people forget that. But I would like to remind you of the history of our culture and of our people."
All of the Democratic candidates called for more federal funding for public education. This is where Vince Coakley stood out.
"My conviction that the role of the federal government should be very limited," Coakley says. "I would like to see the federal government get entirely out of the education business. This is something that should be a state and local function."
As the only Republican participant, Coakley's responses elicited smiles and obvious skepticism from the audience. Coakley is a former WSOC-TV news anchor who says he's aligned with the principles of the Republican party, but in his closing statements he told the audience that getting rid of social welfare programs is not his priority.
He's running in the Republican primary against a pastor in Charlotte, Leon Threatt. A Republican has never represented the 12th district. It had been represented by Democratic congressman Mel Watt since 1993 until early this year when Watt stepped down this year to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
Here's what Democratic candidate Curtis Osborne, a Charlotte attorney, said after Coakley turned over the microphone to him.
"I can tell by the smile on Mr.Coakley's face that he can imagine I'm going to disagree with him again," Osborne says. "I wholeheartedly agree that the government has no role in funding private education or the cost of students to attend private school. And Mr.Coakley said he believes parents should have a choice with regards to where their kids are sent. His argument is flawed."
The majority-minority district goes through six counties from Charlotte to Greensboro, including parts of Concord, Salisbury, High Point, and Winston-Salem.
Noticeably absent from the panel was James "Smuggie" Mitchell. Organizers say he planned to attend, but waited until the day of the debate to let them know he had a conflict and wouldn't be able to make it. Mitchell, a former city councilman and ran against Patrick Cannon for mayor, is being considered for mayor by City Council.