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Wood kicks off education-centered campaign

Rick Wood addresses the crowd at his campaign kickoff. Rick Wood addresses the crowd at his campaign kickoff.

MILLS RIVER — Backed by a team of advisers with more than 100 years of combined teaching experience, Rick Wood kicked off his campaign for state Senate on Saturday, promising to reverse decisions he said have crippled North Carolina schools.

"We must not sit idly by as our public education system is dismantled," Wood told 200 supporters who drove in a hard winter rain to Mills River United Methodist Church for the pancake breakfast, bluegrass music, fundraiser and kickoff rally. "Join me in the fight to save it and to make it even stronger for the future. One person can make a difference. One vote can make a difference. One senator with the right priorities can make a difference."
Wood and his campaign managers, Paul Goebel and John Whitmire, are all veteran schoolteachers and coaches. All three acknowledged that the campaign faces a stiff headwind in the makeup of the district, which is heavily Republican, and in money. Wood's presumed opponent, six-term incumbent Sen. Tom Apodaca, has risen to the second most powerful post in the Senate leadership. He raised $476,000 for a 2012 race against a little-known Tea Party opponent, distributing most of the campaign cash to the Republican Party or to candidates in tighter races than his own. This time, Apodaca has vowed to spend as much as he needs to win.
Given the Democratic Party's recent record of futility — no Democrat has won a countywide partisan election in 10 years in Henderson County — the turnout Saturday was impressive. The standing room only crowd of current and retired schoolteachers, state employees and a few administrators joined stalwart Democrats in chanting "Rick Rick Rick Rick" and applauding his pledge to make education a top priority. A silent auction raised $735.
Wood and his wife, Beverly, also a retired schoolteacher, have lived in the N.C. mountains for 32 years. A native of Alabama and graduate of Auburn University, Wood taught and coached for 40 years, the last 24 in Henderson County. He has served on the School Board since 2008.
"In my five years on the board, I have seen the North Carolina General Assembly starve our school system of the financial support that it needs to maintain a quality education for our young people," he said, reading from a prepared speech. "I've seen class sizes grow. I've seen teacher assistant positions cut. I've seen the popular Teaching Fellows scholarship program eliminated. Bad decision.
"Money budget for basic items like textbooks has been cut to the point where some students don't even have a textbook to take home with them at night. Tragic. It's never happened. At the same time the General Assembly found money to start a voucher program that would use tax dollars for private school tuition. Given the range of unfunded need, it makes no sense to me to divert public funds to private schools."
By failing the state's schools, he asserted, the General Assembly is failing the state on the whole.
"The two pillars of a successful North Carolina are quality public schools and a sound economy," he said. "They go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other. No company would choose to move to North Carolina knowing that the public schools are weak or mediocre. No company would choose to move to North Carolina knowing there would not be a trained, educated workforce."

Campaign rented church hall

Wood addressed the question of holding the event at his church. That had drawn criticism from people that felt uncomfortable with politics in a house of worship.
"Before I get into my speech, I want to clear up something about today's event," he said. "Mills River United Methodist Church does not endorse political parties or political candidates, nor should they. The reason this event is held here today is simply because our campaign rented this fellowship hall, following the policies set out by the church council several years ago. The reason I chose this place is because it is centrally located in the Senate district, it has a large fellowship hall — and we need it today, didn't we? — and our volunteers are familiar with this facility. I take sole responsibility for the selection of this site, and if that has bothered anyone I am sorry because I love this church and I would never intentionally do anything to hurt it."

Pledges positive campaign, hard work
Wood closed with an appeal for voters to work for him to change the direction of the General Assembly.
"If you have the same vision for North Carolina that I do I'm asking you today for your support," he said. "I pledge to you the following things: I will run a positive campaign devoted to the issues. I will reach out to all voters in this campaign regardless of their party affiliation. And you can count on me to work extremely hard during the next 300 days to run a campaign and to be the kind of candidate you can be proud of."
Wood said after the event that he did not have campaign finance goal.
"No goal, just raise as much as we can, get enough so we can get our message out," he said. "It cost a lot of money to run a campaign. We'll raise as much as we can and hope it's enough to get the message out."

The campaign fed about 250 people during the pancake breakfast, Wood said, estimating that about 275 people all told turned out.
Goebel, a retired Hendersonville High School civics and history teacher, mock trial coach and basketball coach, lost a bid to unseat state Rep. Carolyn Justus, R-Dana, in 2008.
"Let's have a little honest talk for a moment," he told the crowd. "Every person in this room knows that we are underdogs. There's no getting around it. It's what it is. But Rick spent his life as an underdog every time he started on Nov. 1st to coach his team. We learned one thing from it if we learned nothing else and it is that underdogs always work harder than the other guy. ...
"I would imagine if there were any opinion polls it would show that we have a very small chance to win. But what those opinion polls will not show and do not show is no. 1, he's a bulldog, and don't underestimate bulldogs, and no. 2, he has assembled an amazing group of people who are also bulldogs. And also opinion polls don't show that we're in the right this time. Righteous is on our side."