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Election 2020: Heggins, Warren talk racial injustice, economy

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — While Salisbury Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins says elected officials should undergo training to better understand systemic racism, Rep. Harry Warren says efforts to address those issues are currently underway in the General Assembly.

Heggins, a Democrat, is challenging Warren in the upcoming election for House District 76. Warren has served in the state House for a decade, and is seeking his sixth term. Before serving as mayor pro tem, Heggins made history as the first Black female mayor elected in the city of Salisbury in 2017.

Heggins said addressing racial inequality issues is something in which she has a background. She referenced training conducted among Salisbury city staff, school systems and various private organizations and said elected officials should be willing to go through those trainings to understand “what this looks like and what it is.”

“We need to begin to use an equity lens when we’re beginning to put policies and laws in place that impact communities,” she said.

In June, the Salisbury City Council reached an agreement with the Robert F. Hoke chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to relocate the “Fame” Confederate monument from downtown to a local historic cemetery. Heggins said the city of Salisbury was absolutely within its authority to reach the deal for relocation as it “became a dangerous space in our city.”

“We didn’t need a lightning rod in the middle of our city that was beginning to draw more violent crime,” she said.

The issue of public safety reignited following local protests for racial justice that escalated, including gunshots fired into the air on May 31, as well as the use of tear gas on citizens by local police in riot gear the following day. Additionally, incidents of vandalism occurred at the statue in August 2018 and March 2019.

She noted that the current state law in place for Confederate monuments is one of many that is too restrictive and constrains many local governments, adding that lawmakers should give local governments the opportunity for more flexibility to work with constituents in public collaboration and problem-solving.

Warren said the General Assembly has already started addressing racial injustice issues and police brutality with the creation of the bipartisan House Select Committee on Community Relations, Law Enforcement and Justice.

In terms of law enforcement reform, Warren said lawmakers need to look at how officers are being supported, both psychologically and through training, as well as the responsibilities they handle. At one meeting, Warren said he heard that in a law enforcement officer’s 20-year career, she/he may experience as many as 800 traumatic events, ranging from child abuse to murders to traffic accidents.

“It’s important to bear in mind they’re people just like you and me. And this has to take a toll on them,” he said.

He said testimonies heard by the committee suggest it may be helpful for professionals to assist officers with various calls, such as domestic abuse cases, in an effort to lessen the burden officers face.

“We need to train them better, offer them greater support and offer them assistance, or maybe reduce the responsibilities that they cover,” he said. “But I don’t think defunding them is the right way to go.”

Warren said the current Confederate monuments law could use some clarification, particularly with justifying the relocation of “Fame” under the pretense that it’s a public safety hazard. For example, with that same thinking, relocation can be justified for a gas station that continuously gets robbed, he said.

“I think the legislative intent was clear that safety hazard pertained to the structural integrity of the monument,” he said.

Warren said it might have been more ideal to put the issue of Fame’s relocation on the ballot for voters.

Heggins and Warren said they both value economic development in the district. Heggins cites prioritizing East Spencer, in particular, as it’s struggling economically. She wants to help the town “build their economic engine.”

Heggins said public officials should engage in conversations with business owners to understand what it is they need. Additionally, she’d like to see more state money funneled to the district.

“There’s been lots of money that has come into North Carolina and quite frankly, not enough of that money has come into Rowan County to support our small businesses,” she said.

Warren credited the Rowan Economic Development Commission and county commissioners with doing “a phenomenal job” bringing businesses to the area. He wants to continue working with those leaders to promote the arrival of new businesses and jobs and talk to local business owners to better understand any impediments to growth.

Both candidates were asked what constituents value most in elected officials, and both answered with “transparency.”

“I think they want transparency. I think they want communication,” Warren said. “I think it’s important to remember, too, I’m a constituent. The reason I’m running for office, the reason I ran in the first place, was because as a citizen, I wanted to see things done differently than they were being done. I wanted people to be accountable for what they do.”

Warren referenced being accessible for constituents, and the publishing of his weekly newsletter, which focuses on the “bright side” of what’s going on in the state when not in session, he said.

Additionally, despite the polarization of the parties, Warren said he focuses on how lawmakers lay the foundation today for the future. He wants people to look at his record and his past experience, which ranges from sales to construction to restaurants.

“I’m just one of your neighbors — the guy around the corner,” he said. “I have that personal experience but from three different industries. From labor work to management.”

Heggins said representing the district is about public service. She credits her ability to work across the aisle, such as when she served as mayor. During that time, Heggins said, she worked with Republican lawmakers, such as Sen. Carl Ford, R-33. She has been invited to the White House multiple times — once when the Rowan Little League’s softball team visited, and another when female mayors visited to discuss issues facing their communities.

Additionally, Heggins noted she was able to rally representatives from the White House to host a discussion regarding opportunity zones in the county in 2019.

“They sent those representatives here. And not every city was able to get that kind of attention and that kind of access to be able to have an in-depth conversation like that about opportunity zones,” she said. “What’s most important is that we remember that first and foremost, we are North Carolinians, that we are Americans. And that sometimes we have to put down the ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’ and say, ‘What is best for the people we are trying to serve?’”

Heggins reiterates that if elected, she’s going to be concerned with all people. She added that constituents want leaders who are going to work for the quality of life constituents deserve.

“Our path to victory is just being honest, being transparent, talking to as many people as we can,” Heggins said. “I’m the kind of legislator that they will have access to and that they will be able to just have a regular relationship with. I’m a neighbor.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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