Cooper and Forest clash over masks, schools, and COVID-19 response in NC Governor debate – The Fayetteville Observer

The candidates have tussled over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with Forest challenging Cooper's go-slow approach to reopening the economy

On the eve of early voting, Gov. Roy Cooper and Lt. Gov Dan Forest took turns criticizing each other over schools, masks, science and the states coronavirus response during the only gubernatorial debate before Election Day, on Nov. 3.

Their exchanges were sharp but orderly, with both candidates allowing the other to finish as they spoke from behind plexiglass as a COVID-19 safety precaution.

Throughout the one-hour debate, Cooper defended the states pandemic response and derided Forests relaxed approach to safety protocols and school openings. Forest steered conversations toward the economic toll of the past year, saying the Governors reopening policies were to blame for higher rates of unemployment and a lost school year for children.

The debate was held without an audience Wednesday night at UNC-TVs Bryan Center in Research Triangle Park. Moderator Wes Goforth, a former news anchor in New Bern, opened with questions on masks and mask mandates.

Cooper called his opponents relaxed approach to masks and in-person events reckless, saying it makes it harder for us to ease our safety measures. Forest has previously expressed skepticism about the efficacy of wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Forest said the government should focus on mitigating the threat of coronavirus among more vulnerable populations while allowing healthy people to get back about life, back about work, back to school.

Masks is a great cover for what he really doesnt want to talk about: The over million and a half people that he has left unemployed. The thousands of businesses that have been shut down, Forest said.

Cooper countered, Now youre not just ignoring science, youre ignoring common sense. You cannot wish the pandemic away. It doesnt work like that. It requires all of us doing our part.

More: Early voting in North Carolina: Pens instead of I voted stickers, no masks required

A good portion of the debate centered on schools, how best to fund them,and how to bring students back safely.

Forest said, As soon as Im Governor, school will return, and reiterated his position to lift all restrictions on how districts and charter schools can conduct in-person lessons.

Cooper defended his gradual relaxing of in-person restrictions and accused Forest of using children as political pawns.

Forest gave a full-throated endorsement of private school vouchers and school choice, while Cooper said he supported charter schools but wanted politicians to help reaffirm the benefits offered by traditional public schools.

An example of the often tense back-and-forth came afterForest pointed out that Cooper has a daughter who attends a private school, to which Cooper responded, I really dont think our children should have anything to do with this debate.

Near the end of the debate, each candidate was asked if they believe systemic racism exists in North Carolina.

Cooper sidestepped the question, applauding those who strive to promote social justice while adding But we cannot tolerate violence and destruction. He later highlighted his record as North Carolina attorney general.

Forest said he believed there was racism, but not systemic racism, in the state. He argued the Governor has been too hesitant to address civil unrest this summer.

When Im governor, Id never allow an angry mob to destroy one of our cities, he said.

A recent Monmouth University poll showed Cooper holding a 51% to 44% lead over his Republican challenger, a slightly narrower lead than the advantage Cooper has enjoyed for most of the campaign. A new New York Times/Siena poll, released Oct. 14, showed Cooper with a wider 14-point lead over Forest.

At this point during the 2016 campaign, RealClearPolitics showed Cooper having a 4.4% polling lead over then-Governor Pat McCrory who Cooper would go on to defeat by a slim .2% of votes.

Compared to more high-profile contests on the ballot, the campaign for governor has largely gone under-the-radar.

N.C.s gubernatorial race is trying to break through the onslaught of the presidential and U.S. Senate races, but its pretty hard at this point with everything going on, said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.

While the swing states 15 electoral votes prompts visits from the major presidential candidates and their surrogates, the Senate contest between Republican Thom Tillis and Democrat Cal Cunningham is attracting national prominence with control of the Senate at stake. The race is set to be the most expensive Senate campaign in U.S. history, according to a recent analysis by the Charlotte Observer and the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

Spending on the gubernatorial contest has been comparatively modest, with Cooper outraising Forest $18.8 million to $6.8 million according to the nonprofit Vote Smart.

Brian Gordon is the education and social issues reporter for the Citizen Times. Reach him at bgordon@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter @briansamuel92.

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Cooper and Forest clash over masks, schools, and COVID-19 response in NC Governor debate - The Fayetteville Observer

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