Congressional candidates DD Adams and Jenny Marshall pitched their ability to represent rural constituents during a 5th Congressional District candidate forum in Alexander County.

Two Democratic candidates from Forsyth County kicked off the political season on Tuesday night by making the case that they can represent the interests of the entire 5th Congressional District to a capacity crowd in a borrowed courtroom in rural Alexander County.

Jenny Marshall, a social studies teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Winston-Salem, and DD Adams, a three-term member of Winston-Salem City Council and retired quality engineer at Johnson Controls, both pledged to support their Democratic opponent in the general election if they don’t win the primary. The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx, a member of the powerful House Republican Conference who was first elected to the seat in 2004.

The district has traditionally leaned Republican, even before the GOP took control of the General Assembly and redrew the map to their advantage in 2011. But the General Assembly faces a court order to redraw the lines after the current plan was found to be an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, so it’s possible the Democratic candidate will have a better shot than in the past.

Speaking before a capacity crowd of more than 100 people at the event sponsored by the Alexander County Democrats, the two candidates addressed big national issues like healthcare, entitlements and criminal justice, and also tackled local concerns. With a population of only 37,428, Alexander County is among the smallest in the state and doesn’t have a single interstate running through it. One of the written questions submitted to the candidates noted that neighboring Hickory hosts “major multinational companies” and the city of Lenoir landed a Google data center.

“What can you do for Alexander County?” the questioner asked.

“The first major question is: What does Alexander County want and how are we going to put that into place?” Marshall responded. “I’m a huge proponent of green-energy jobs: solar, wind, geothermal. That is the future. Dragging our fossil fuels out of the ground and fracking? No. We need green energy. So, would you like a solar plant making solar panels?”

Adams, whose father worked for RJ Reynolds Tobacco, touted Winston-Salem’s reinvention through urban reinvestment.

“You got good, old buildings downtown?” she asked. “Old furniture factories? Something we can go and work with?” She talked about a “team of people I’ve been working with,” including Piedmont Triad Partnership President & CEO Stan Kelly, car dealer Don Flow and Forsyth Tech President Gary M. Green, adding, “That goes back to me strategically having teams in every county. But we can make this happen.”

Alexander is one of 10 counties in the current 5th Congressional District, which stretches from Winston-Salem in the east to Boone in the west. The two Democratic candidates told voters they plan to be more accessible than Foxx.

“I will be sure that we have a mobile office, not just one that’s stuck in Clemmons and not just one that’s stuck in Boone,” Marshall said, “but one that actually travels to the communities so that you can have access to your representative.”

Adams said she agreed that the district representative needs to have constituent services offices in more than two locations, but added, “You also have to look at the various technologies that are accessible to everybody today. Everybody’s not going to do a meeting. Everybody — if you talk to politicians now, they will tell you most of the communication is via technology or telephone.”

Marshall shot back: “Technology is great, but when you don’t have access to wifi and/or broadband access in the rural communities, you’re gonna be hard-pressed to find people that can send an email.”

The two candidates tussled over the issue of raising the minimum wage, although they expressed similar sentiments about taking a gradual approach and taking care to avoid burdening small businesses.

Adams predicted that the city of Winston-Salem will be paying all of its employees $15 an hour within two years. She said government and other employers have to be careful about instituting a dramatic wage increase all at once, although she said she would support a federal minimum wage set to $10 per hour.

“Fifteen dollars is going to take a plan, again, so you don’t see compression,” Adams said. “Because the person that’s been on the job for 10 years making $15, a person comes in five years and makes $15. Y’all know how it go — it don’t work that way. Yes, I believe in a livable wage, and I believe we can get there in the next five, 10 years.”

Marshall took the opportunity to make a swipe at the city.

“If you value the employees of Winston-Salem, you need to raise their wage,” she said. Marshall also said she favors a federal subsidy for small businesses to allow them to pay higher wages.

While both candidates said they would preserve Social Security, Marshall said she would go a step further.

“It doesn’t go far enough for those people who are self-employed because Social Security insurance doesn’t cover them,” Marshall said. “They don’t get a check when they retire. It doesn’t cover the stay-at-home mom that stays home for 40 years. She doesn’t have a work history. That determines how your Social Security gets paid — how many years you work and what was your salary? I would like to change that. Frankly, stay-at-home moms, you work. Self-employed people, you work. And I think you deserve to have your benefits paid by the federal government.”

Despite the friction on Adams’ record on city worker pay, both candidates found plenty of room for agreement, including on the issue of the minimum wage.

Marshall said the first two bills she would introduce in Congress would be establishing universal healthcare and raising the minimum wage.

“Same,” Adams said. “Those are things that are doable.” She added that most Democrats are on the same page on the two issues.”

The two candidates both said they favor greater investments in education, but Marshall advocated a universal approach while Adams pitched a more targeted plan.

“I think we need to catch up with all the other industrialized countries and make sure that colleges and universities are available free of tuition for our students to attend,” Marshall said.

Adams added, “We’ve got to move back to expanding pre-K. Give that child the start they need, that opportunity to have a great education and a great life. We need to provide free technical college or college at a reduced rate at such a way that everybody can afford to go to college who wants to go.”

On criminal justice, both said they oppose private prisons. Marshall said Congress needs to take a hard look at the laws on the books that are driving explosive growth in incarceration. Adams said she’s already made up her mind on one federal offense.

“I believe in the decriminalization of marijuana,” Adams said. Like Colorado, she said the 5th Congressional District in North Carolina could use legal marijuana as a tool for economic development and job creation, as well as providing an alternative to opioids as a pain medication.

“I feel like I’ve been prepared and I’ve been moving towards this ascension for many years,” said Adams, who also cited her professional work in manufacturing, and experience advocating for Winston-Salem in Raleigh. “I’m a three-term city council member in Winston-Salem. I’ve had primaries and general elections against Republicans.”

Marshall, who has not held public office, used her experience as a teacher fashion a biography of service.

“I can walk into a Stokes County farmer appreciation dinner and feel just as at home as I do teaching in my urban classroom back at JFK High School in downtown Winston-Salem,” she said. “Everybody means the world to me, and I want the best for our communities.”

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