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GOP leader fumbles attempt to expel press from candidate forum

Madison Cawthorn raises his hand in support of allowing the media to stay at a forum after 11th District Chair Aubrey Woodard asked two reporters to leave. Madison Cawthorn raises his hand in support of allowing the media to stay at a forum after 11th District Chair Aubrey Woodard asked two reporters to leave.

ASHEVILLE — Republican candidates for the 11th Congressional District nomination were 18 minutes into a campaign forum on Saturday afternoon when district chair Aubrey Woodard rose to make an announcement.

 “We have two members of the media that have walked in," he said. "We’d like for them to exit the building please. Please, now.”

When Joel Burgess, a city hall reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, made his case to stay, a dull chatter issued up from the crowd. “This is a ticketed event, it is by invitation, and that’s why we asked them to leave," Woodard added. There was a pause before a member of the audience broke the silence. “I don’t want to act like a Democrat," he said. "I suggest that they be allowed to stay.”
Madison Cawthorn, who has a big voice and Hollywood smile, was the only candidate to speak up.

“I think the press should be allowed to stay so people can hear what we have to say," he said. "Buncombe County is now a part of the district so we have to reach into urban Buncombe County to get votes and if the Asheville Citizen Times can’t report what we’re saying, we’re not going to be able to get votes there.”
(It was unclear why no one had noticed or attempted to expel a name-tag wearing Hendersonville Lightning reporter who had been seated since the start of the forum in the middle of the front row, taking photos and making notes in a reporter’s notebook.)
Asked for a show of hands, most of the candidates raised their hand. If any candidate objected to the press, none said so out loud.

Along with Burgess, Katie Wadington, news director of the Citizen-Times, and the news director and a reporter from Blue Ridge Public Radio were on hand to cover the forum.

“We were welcomed into the venue by several different people so we were surprised and disappointed when it came up the way it did,” Wadington said. Buncombe County’s Republican Party chair saw Burgess and “let him right in and gave him a wrist band.”

Wadington and Burgess had been seated in the auditorium from the start of the forum. Matt Bush, news director of Blue Ridge Public Radio, was also in the auditorium. A BPR reporter tried to get in and someone in the lobby barred her. When Bush came out to intervene, he was told the event wasn’t open to the press, Waddington said. Bush them told the officials there were already two reporters inside.

“They asked who the two reporters were,” Wadington said.

“I was certainly glad the people in the audience and the candidate spoke up and said the right thing to do was to have the press there,” she said. She and Burgess were there “because we knew there was Republican forum and since it had the majority of candidates we figured it was important to cover to tell voters what was on their minds. Just like two days before when we covered a Democratic forum. I was glad that they did the right thing in the end.”