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N.C. Senate primary features rare diversity

Voters looking for diversity in a county bereft of diversity in its politics need look no further than the Democratic primary for state Senate.

The contest for the Senate District 48 nomination features a rare balance of color, gender and youth.

School Board Chair Blair Craven is the only African-American currently holding countywide elective office in Henderson County and state Sen. Tom Apodaca was the last elected official of Hispanic descent to hold office from Hendersonville. The District 48 seat is held by Apodaca’s successor, Chuck Edwards, who is running for re-election.
Democrats in the March 3 primary (for which early voting is under way) are Najah Underwood, a 24-year-old African-American; Cristal Figueroa, a 26-year-old Mexican-American; and Brian Caskey, 48, who stunned Mills River when he defeated Mayor Larry Freeman in the 2017 municipal election.


Najah Underwood

A native of Henderson County and the youngest candidate on the local primary ballot, Underwood asks voters, “Which candidate looks like change?”
“My platform stands for the low-income households,” she said. “We need sustainability on both sides to make a bipartisan agreement. My mission is to break down barriers in Henderson County by advocating for the youth, the women. I’ve been here all my life. I’ve talked to many people. But the one thing that really sticks to me is how Henderson County is a family. This is a tightknit community and we need everybody to work together so we can get policies that work for everybody. … We always talk about change but do we really want that change?” she told Democrats at a Feb. 1 forum. “I’m a voice of the voiceless and the voice of our future and when you leave out of the building, make sure you’re doing everything for the good of society and the good of the people in our community. We need new ideas and we need to keep everybody in line for how we’re going to face tomorrow.”
“I grew up with a strong woman in my house,” Underwood said at a Democratic forum on women’s issues last week. Strong women, from Rosa Parks to Michelle Obama, have been her role models. “We know what we’re doing. We need to be in office because we make good decisions. … The fact that the ERA hasn’t been passed, people say we already have rights. No we don’t. We don’t have rights at all. We don’t have equal pay. We get discriminated on our hair, on the way we dress, even in how we talk. ‘Why are you not smiling?’ We get that all the time. The ERA would do so much for the community in general.”

 

Brian Caskey

Caskey reminds people that four Republicans on the Mills River Town Council unanimously elected him mayor pro tem last December, two years after he was seated as the first Democrat ever to be elected to the board. Caskey and his wife, Stacey, own Biltmore Tutoring in south Asheville.
A single father after his first marriage fell apart, Caskey raised a daughter on his own. “I even took her with me to the food stamp office, so we could make ends meet,” he said. “That’s not something I put on my resume but I fully understand how hard it is for single parents, including women, to get up off the deck.”
“I’m running because I know I can make a difference. It might surprise that Mills River is the economic powerhouse of Henderson County.” He favors preserving green space while bringing in high paying jobs and opportunities for investment. In Mills River, “we also happen to have the largest fund balance in the town’s history,” he said, prompting him to call for a tax cut. “Adding services and reducing taxes. That seems like pretty effective government, doesn’t it?”
“I will bring my relentless pursuit of what’s right and what is good for District 48 to the North Carolina General Assembly. Chuck Edwards has been complicit in the dismantling of our public school system. Chuck Edwards doesn’t care about the environment.” He favors expanding Medicaid, restoring the earned income tax credit, “because it’s the easiest way to lift people up out of poverty,” better teacher pay, and “pre-kindergarten services that provide literacy skills to our youngest learners.
“I will fight to make sure companies clean up after themselves and that they pay their fair share. And you can bet that I will make sure our kids are not going hungry. People will say that the Democrats can’t win here. Let me remind you that they said I had no chance in Mills River.”
People have struggled to label me — am I nontraditional, anti-establishment, a progressive. I am all of these things.”
He strongly supports abortion rights.
“The reality is the Republican Party and the evangelicals who prop them up are pro-fetus, not pro-life,” he said. “If they were pro-life they would want to take care of children. They wouldn’t want to cut their lunch money. They certainly would not put them in cages. The decision to terminate a pregnancy is quite often one of the most heart-wrenching and personal decisions that a woman will ever have to make. As a man I don’t need to be involved in that conversation at all. Women are smart. They can make their own personal medical decisions.”

 

Cristal Figueroa

When people ask why she decided to “take this crazy adventure and run for state Senate,” Figueroa responds with no hesitation. “I am running because I am a woman, I am a daughter, I am Mexican American and I am tired of being under-represented in North Carolina,” she says. “I am one of us. I was born and raised in Hendersonville, where we are community. My dad was a successful farmer for a long time” until the economic crisis of 2008. “My mom said, ‘Enough is enough.’ She said, ‘I’m going to clean houses,’ so she opened up her own cleaning company.” Her father started a business, too, and together her parents helped pay for her education at UNC Asheville, where she earned a degree in political science.
“We need to expand Medicaid,” she said. “Medicare for all is the way to go but we have to start somewhere. We have to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. … If you send me to that seat, I will bring perspective and voice to the needs of everyday North Carolinians, because together we stand against the corruption in Raleigh, together we stand for families.”
“Nobody tells you that in order to have diversity we actually sometimes have to stand up alone. Women have to take the baton and run with it,” she said. “Together, fight for a quality education. Together, stand for our families. Together, stand for our women. And together, we can switch this district so a woman can be heard in Raleigh for all of us.”

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Profiles and Q&A’s of Republican candidates for Congress and the Board of Commissioners ran in the Feb. 12 issue and are available at hendersonvillelightning.com.