North Carolina Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham answers questions following a televised debate during his 2010 run for the US Senate. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) Cal Cunningham
North Carolina Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham answers questions following a televised debate during his 2010 run for the US Senate. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Cunningham, who’s running against Tillis this fall, focused on voting and police reform in a virtual “town hall” with NC civil rights leader William Barber II Tuesday. 

In January 2007, retired corporate executive Thom Tillis first joined the NC General Assembly. Four years later, he became Speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives, and in 2013 he presided over what federal judges later called “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.” 

In response, the Rev. Dr. William Barber founded the Moral Mondays movement to fight for government by the people, among other priorities. 

In that same year when Tillis was starting out as a state representative, Cal Cunningham, a UNC-Chapel Hill trained attorney and U.S. Army Reservist, was deployed to Iraq with the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, prosecuting the first civilian contractor under military law since the Vietnam war, after one Iraqi stabbed a fellow Army translator in February 2008. In 2011, when Tillis was first chosen as Speaker, Cunningham was deployed to Afghanistan for a special operations task force. 

“I had to answer the nation’s call as an Army reservist to go to Iraq and to go to Afghanistan to work to expand the rule of law,” Cunningham said Tuesday night, facing questions from Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) at a U.S. Senate “Town Hall” live stream. “Only to come home and see it be the policy of the Republican party and of Senator Tillis to take away people’s rights. We are now stained.”

Barber said Tillis did not respond to multiple invitations by email, telephone, in person and even by certified letter asking him to participate in Tuesday’s discussion. Similarly, former Vice President Joe Biden will speak during next week’s National Moral Monday event, while President Donald Trump hasn’t responded to his invitation. 

“We would not withhold this opportunity from one candidate because the other candidate would not show,” Barber said Tuesday. “The Senate is, in essence, the most powerful political body of 100 people in the world. And the 140 million poor and low-income people of this country need to know where senators stand as statesmen and stateswomen committed to genuine democracy.”

The event was the first in a series of talks among U.S. Senate candidates, the PPC and the poor and low-wealth voters they represent. 

“I grew up to believe in the power of public service,” Cunningham said. “I believe strongly in the admonition that we be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, that we find meaning in this life by serving one another.” 

Barber asked Cunningham what he would do about racism in criminal justice. The candidate said he wants to put his legal experience to work by replacing Tillis on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he could advocate for his police reform plan, which includes de-escalation training, officers’ intervening with one another in crises and banning the use of chokeholds against detainees. 

“The notion that you would put a knee on the neck of any human being is not taught by any law enforcement trainers,” he said. “We have seen too often those who become warriors against our own people.” 

‘How can you help people who are barely surviving?’

William J Barber, Liz Theoharis
In this April 2, 2018 file photo, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, center, and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, left, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign, speak at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. Barber led a town hall on the US Senate race Tuesday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Later in the evening, a full-time student at one historically Black college, a stay-at-home mom and another voter, who is both a mom of teens and a college student herself, grilled Cunningham. They asked the Democratic candidate, a former state lawmaker, about access to healthcare, their struggle to get by and whether he would help to ensure that voices like theirs will be heard in government. 

Lelania Wince of Asheville said she’s raising four kids and three stepchildren while her husband works as an art teacher. 

“I cannot get health insurance for less than $400 a month. It’s just not affordable for me,” she said. 

“How can you help people who are barely surviving?”

Cunningham supports a $15 minimum wage to make it easier for workers to live off their paychecks. He also supports a refundable household tax credit of $3,600 per year, per child. Current tax law provides up to $2,000 per year for each child, but only up to $1,400 is eligible to be part of a tax refund once all taxes have been paid. The Democratic candidate said such tax refunds can help to lift up nearly 30 million Americans currently living in poverty

Cunningham criticized Tillis for not only eliminating the state-level Earned Income Tax Credit in 2013, which had provided poor households as much as $300 a year or more in refundable tax savings, but also for rejecting Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, blocking coverage for an estimated 500,000 North Carolinians who would have qualified. 

Like Biden, Cunningham supports a public option under the Affordable Care Act for taxpayers like Wince, whether by expanding Medicare and Medicaid or through some new program, without eliminating private or employer-sponsored insurance programs. 

“The economy is tilted very steeply toward the wealthy few against families like yours,” Cunningham told her.  “Ballots are being mailed right now. When you look at the U.S. Senate race, the second race below the president, you’ll see my name in the middle of a list of names. It’s Cal Cunningham. But what’s really on that ballot is healthcare. What’s on that ballot is a higher minimum wage. What’s on that ballot is a good job with benefits, with paid leave. What’s on that ballot is education, equal opportunity for all. What’s on that ballot is the question of whether we’ll connect all North Carolinians with infrastructure and broadband, whether we will build a society where the voices of those in the voting booth will be loudest.”

Cunningham also spoke with N.C. A&T senior Cailon Seth Washington, who last year helped to reverse an extreme case of Republican gerrymandering that divided the historically Black campus into two different congressional districts. 

“Voter suppression is on the rise again in this country,” Washington told Cunningham. “Though it targets Black and brown communities, it also hurts poor whites and other communities and undermines our democracy.”

That’s also what Claudia Diaz of Burlington wanted to talk about. 

Her undocumented, farm-working family came to the U.S. when she was a young child in the late 1980s, and she eventually gained her U.S. citizenship under policies approved during the Reagan and Clinton administrations. 

“It has become the policy of one of the major political parties in America to make it harder to vote. They bend the rules. They cheat in order to try to win. It’s the wrong answer for America. It’s the wrong answer for North Carolina.”

US Senate candidate Cal Cunningham

Diaz said she instilled in her teenaged son the importance of voting. Then when he and his friends went to vote in their first election last November, the poll workers told him he was in the wrong precinct.  To prove them wrong, he had to show his voter registration card he’d requested through the Division of Motor Vehicles.  

“Some of his friends just walked out because they simply did not want to stay there and answer these questions,” she said. “How are you addressing voter suppression?”

Cunningham said he wants to legislate against the sort of partisan gerrymandering that impacted N.C. A&T. Federal courts have been reluctant to act on such cases, although NC’s state courts intervened. If Republicans hadn’t drawn voting district lines in their favor since taking power a decade ago, Cunningham said he believes Democrats would have retaken majorities in both the state House and Senate

“It has become the policy of one of the major political parties in America to make it harder to vote. They bend the rules. They cheat in order to try to win,” Cunningham said. “It’s the wrong answer for America. It’s the wrong answer for North Carolina.”

Cunningham also called for renewing the federal Voting Rights Act, especially Section 5, which would have required a review by the U.S. Department of Justice before North Carolina instituted a series of Jim Crow-like voting restrictions in 2013. 

Cunningham has made limiting corporate influence in elections a keystone of his campaign and has rejected corporate PAC money, although he has received campaign money indirectly from executives and corporations through other candidates and traditional PACs. Cunningham supports a constitutional amendment undoing the US Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, thereby allowing the government to restrict corporate donations to political campaigns.

“It’s the question of how we lift up, advocate for, put government on the side of our poor and low-wealth people,” Cunningham said. “I frankly think that listening is the foundation of leadership and we need a whole lot more of that. We suffer from a lack of empathy.”