Democratic gubernatorial candidate and current lieutenant governor, Walter Dalton, rallied party heavyweights Saturday at a Watauga Democratic Party rally held at Appalachian State University. Hank Shell/Carolina Public Press

Party heavyweights rallied in Watauga on Saturday

In what Watauga Democrats called “the most important political rally” in the county’s history, gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton took aim at Republican-led cuts to funding of public higher education in the state.

A crowd of more than 200 Democratic supporters gathered on Saturday at Appalachian State University’s Central Dining Hall around 5 p.m. for the Watauga County Democratic Party’s Fall Rally.

The scope of the night’s event ranged from singing, sarcastic nuns to a satirical “empty chair” conversation with Republican U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, though gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton’s campaign speech was the most anticipated event of the evening.

Despite being last in a queue of 15 county and state Democratic candidates and representatives, including four other members of the council of state, Lt. Gov. Dalton’s march to the podium was enough to receive a standing ovation.

In his speech, Dalton largely set aside the issue of taxation, which has been a hot button issue in the gubernatorial campaign thus far, and instead catered to the Watauga crowd with an impassioned defense of the state’s public education system.

Watauga Democratic Chairwoman Diane Tilson said the issue holds sway with Watauga’s Democratic Party, which recognized activist Pam Williamson called “the strongest county Democratic party in the state.” Williamson was named Grassroots Democratic Activist of the Month in February by the state Democratic Party.

“Locally, education is what people focus on the most,” Boone Town Councilman Andy Ball said.

The lieutenant governor began the heart of his speech by emphasizing the importance of this election to the health of N.C.’s education system.

“North Carolina is at a crossroads,” Dalton said. “We have always been a state of opportunity. We have the best public university system in the nation. It’s part of our DNA. (We are) the first state to have a public university system.”

Dalton hailed former Gov. Terry Sanford for bolstering the state’s community college system and was quick to attack the state legislature’s Republican leadership for last year’s cuts to the public university system.

Tuition increases and cuts to financial aid have been especially poignant issues on university campuses; Dalton blamed Republicans for devaluing higher education and attacked opponent Pat McCrory for supporting the cuts.

“That’s against the DNA of North Carolina,” Dalton said. “The first time I’ve ever seen tuition go up and financial aid go down. That’s a formula for disaster.”

Though education was the primary focus of his speech, Dalton did take time to criticize McCrory for his plan to “redistribute the tax burden” and for taking a pay raise while he served as Charlotte’s mayor during the 2008 financial crisis.

Dalton also questioned McCrory’s current role with Charlotte law firm Moore & Van Allen and highlighted his own record of releasing tax returns.

“(Moore & Van Allen) represent big oil big insurance big financial institutions, but he’s not a lawyer, so what’s he doing?” Dalton said. “He’s not a registered lobbyist anyway, so what’s he doing? The people ought to know.”

Though most of Dalton’s points of criticism fell within the sphere of state politics, he didn’t miss a chance to capitalize on McCrory’s defense of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s recent “47 percent” comment, calling him “totally wrong.”

“I have always said we should respect everyone and stereotype no one,” Dalton said.

But it was education that Dalton returned to for the closing part of his speech, warning that the state’s public education system would be “whittled down to sawdust” without the intervention of Democrats.

‘Blue dot in a sea of red’

Boone Mayor Loretta Clawson (left) and Watauga County Board of Commissioners candidate Billy Kennedy (right) speak after the Watauga County Democratic Party’s Fall Rally, held on Saturday at Appalachian State University. Clawson was recruiting volunteers for a telephone campaign for Democratic candidates. Hank Shell/Carolina Public Press

Saturday’s lineup of heavyweight Democratic leaders underscores the role Watauga County is playing as a base of Democratic Party strength in Western North Carolina in the upcoming November election.

The only Democrats from the council of state who weren’t in attendance were Attorney General Roy Cooper and State Auditor Beth Wood, who cancelled her appearance after undergoing an appendectomy on Thursday.

Most of Saturday’s speakers praised the state’s public education system – a particularly relevant topic at Appalachian State University, which was founded as a teacher’s college in 1899.

The ties between Democratic voters and public higher education were highlighted in the May 8 primary, when seven of eight counties that voted against Amendment One were home to a public university.

Because Watauga was one of only two counties in WNC and the only in northwestern North Carolina to vote against the amendment, Democrats have made it a beachhead for voter outreach in the northwestern part of the state, and Barack Obama’s campaign has once again opened an office in Boone.

After the rally, Appalachian State University College Democrat President Lia Poteet called Watauga “a blue dot in a sea of red” and emphasized its importance in reaching the voter base in WNC, which was largely conservative in the 2008 presidential election. Gubernatorial candidate McCrory made a campaign stop in nearby Blowing Rock on Aug. 9.

“A lot of our folks here attending the rally are our community activists in the precincts on the ground in our churches in our neighborhoods passing signs out having coffees and particularly year after year educating their neighbors about the candidates,” Boone Town Councilman Ball said. “That’s what we look to for them to be our eyes and ears on the ground. You can’t be everywhere.”

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Hank Shell is a contributing reporter and photographer with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at

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