Candidate for Congress Matt Coffay campaigns in Lenoir

Democratic candidate looks to take on entrenched and powerful incumbent Mark Meadows

By Michael M. Barrick

LENOIR, N.C. – With Donald Trump’s approval ratings at a record low, Democrats around the nation are licking their chops at the prospects of turning Congress back to Democratic control in 2018. The best evidence of that is right here in Western North Carolina in the solidly Republican 11th Congressional District. GOP Representative Mark Meadows of Cashiers, who is among the most conservative members of Congress and is chairman of the so-called House Freedom Caucus, has already had a Democrat file to unseat him.

Clearly getting an early start on the campaign, Matt Coffay of Buncombe County visited Lenoir on June 1. Coffay, 30, formally announced his candidacy on April 23 outside of Meadow’s office in Waynesville at a Medicare-for-All Town Hall organized by Coffay’s campaign. Coffay is the first Democrat in the district to file a Statement of Candidacy with the Federal Election Commission and has risen right at $30,000, almost entirely in small donations, according to his campaign.

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Congressional candidate Matt Coffay speaks at the Caldwell County Democratic Headquarters on June 1, 2017

Meadows was first elected to Congress in 2012 after the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly gerrymandered the district by drawing liberal-leaning precincts in Asheville out of the district. In addition to part of Buncombe County, the 11th District includes 15 other counties: Burke, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, McDowell, Macon, Madison, Mitchell, Swain, Transylvania, and Yancy.

In his visit to Lenoir, Coffay unapologetically invoked the names of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden in deeply red Caldwell County as he made his case to local residents. He held a two-hour town hall style event at Highland Coffee House on Main Street attended by about 30 residents; later, at Caldwell County Democratic Headquarters in downtown, Coffay spoke and fielded questions for well over an hour from about three dozen people.

Though the audiences were relatively small, Coffay confidently stated that he can beat Meadows through such retail politics. “I am really excited about what we’re doing.” He insisted that he is fully committed to going door-to-door. In fact, he said, even in places such as Henderson County – a place that traditional Democratic consultants say is a waste of time for Democratic candidates to visit because of its strong support for the GOP – he has heard residents complain about Trump and Meadows, and has seen a level of discontent that makes even the most loyal Republican consider voting for him. Hence, he promised, “I will not ignore any of the district when campaigning.”

We need more regular people in Congress, more citizen legislators, not career politicians.” – Matt Coffay

Yet, his campaign is not relying exclusively on retail politics. In fact, he pointed to the importance of social media; and, of course, cash. Lots of it. He explained, “With one phone call to the Koch brothers, Meadows will get all the money he needs.” So, Coffay insisted his campaign must – and will – raise $2 million.

A native of southern Appalachia – he grew up just a few miles south of the North Carolina state line in Blue Ridge, Ga. – Coffay moved to Buncombe County about a decade ago to venture into farming. After working “seven days and 80 hours a week,” he said it became clear that he simply could not succeed at farming because of unfair competition from corporations and the benefits they enjoy from the GOP-led Congress.

This experience, and his overall worldview that is informed by a concern for social and environmental justice, led him to help form an Our Revolution chapter in Asheville, which he said was the largest such chapter in the nation. Our Revolution is the outgrowth of the failed presidential campaign of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Its purpose is to continue the fight for the agenda articulated by Sanders during the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries.

The influence of Sanders and the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party is obvious for one reading Coffay’s campaign literature. He says, “The hardworking people of this region have been let down by both parties over the years. Politicians do favors for big businesses, but leave small-town America to fend for itself. We have to do better than that.”

At both events, Coffay explained how he planned to do better. At the first stop, he said, “We need more regular people in Congress, more citizen legislators, not career politicians.” Later, at Democratic headquarters, he offered a very specific example – Meadows’ leadership to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Coffay called Meadows’ replacement legislation “an abomination.” Under the Meadows bill, said Coffay, 23 million Americans would lose health insurance, including more than 100,000 people just in the 11th District.

The Democratic Party has lost its way. … The biggest issue here is that the party does not have a message that resonates with the middle class and working class. What we need to be talking about it what values we are going to embrace for the 99 percent.” – Matt Coffay

His progressive outlook was also very evident in his remarks about the vital issues of the day, as he spoke about income inequality, education, infrastructure, healthcare, the influence of big money in politics, the environment and more.

Coffay supports a single-payer universal health care structure for all citizens based on the model of Medicare – a position now favored by a majority of Americans, according to recent polls. That is why Coffay stated with confidence, “There are no more safe districts. This is not a safe district (for Meadows).”

Coffay did not limit his criticism to Meadows. He also said, “The Democratic Party has lost its way.” He added, “The biggest issue here is that the party does not have a message that resonates with the middle class and working class. What we need to be talking about it what values we are going to embrace for the 99 percent.” That, he said, is why he favors the more progressive agenda set by Sanders.

Responding to a question regarding his stance on a possible war with North Korea or other nations, Coffay first responded, in exasperation, “I can’t believe we’re talking about this.” Several folks sitting in the room responded, “Yes, but we have to.”

Coffay replied, “We can’t ignore domestic issues. We have 43 million people living in poverty.” He pointed out that a war with North Korea would be costly in human lives and to the U.S. Treasury, arguing that a war would divert desperately needed money at home. He was critical of proposed cuts to the Veterans Administration in wartime. Still, he acknowledged, “If America is attacked, then of course we would have to respond somehow.” That led to a nuanced conversation with many in the audience regarding NATO and treaties with other nations that the U.S. pledges to support should they be attacked. He said that the U.S. should honor its treaties and commitment to NATO, but in light of the fact that NATO is based on a Cold War treaty nearly 70-years-old, that it is worth revisiting.

Still, he argued, the military must be used intelligently. “We are destabilizing the world with our military activities.” He noted also, referring to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, “Saudi Arabia provided the terrorists, yet we went to war with other nations.” So, said Coffay, terrorist attacks could be used again as an excuse to wage war based on the whims of the president, not strategic U.S. interests.

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Congressional candidate Matt Coffay shares his views at the Caldwell County Democratic Headquarters on June 1, 2017

Returning to domestic priorities, Coffay called for a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure; transitioning from fossil fuels to sustainable, alternative energy sources such as solar; maintaining clean air, water and land for ecological reasons and to help ensure the region retains its appeal to tourists that visit Western North Carolina because of its natural and pristine beauty; lauded the working class and was relentlessly critical of corporate executives, saying, “Those people don’t do actual work. It’s time we have the discussion about these people who nearly destroyed our economy.”

Public education, too, must be a priority he said. “We have plenty of money. It’s just a matter of will.” He criticized efforts by the GOP to kill the public service provision for students who take out federal loans for college and can “pay” them off over 10 years by working in the public or nonprofit sector. Taking that incentive away will lead many college graduates to avoid those low paying jobs so that they can pay off their student loans, Coffay argued.

After Coffay and his campaign manager packed up to head to their next meeting, the mood in the Democratic Headquarters was much more upbeat than the night of the presidential election last year. Yet, some shared they felt that the voters of the 11th District are simply too conservative and committed to the GOP for Coffay or anyone else to have a chance against the powerfully entrenched Meadows. Others were more optimistic.

The split in the Democratic Party last year because of the Clinton-Sanders race seems to have abated. Winning, not ideological purity, is the goal, said many. Indeed, many said that so long as Coffay remains true to his values and the goals of Our Revolution, he would have their support. The losing campaign of Hillary Clinton seems to have convinced Democrats – at least in Caldwell County – that the worldview of Bernie Sanders and Matt Coffay are more aligned with traditional Democratic principles. And, that sticking to them will lead to victory in 2018.

Time will tell. Last November, nearly 360,000 people voted in the 11th District, with Meadows getting 64 percent of the vote. So, as Coffay said, “We have a lot of people to talk to.”

© The Lenoir Voice, 2017.

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