Matlock, Weston agree, disagree in forum

Michael Thomason

Monday night was the first time in 10 years that candidates for Tennessee’s House of Representatives for the 21st District had met to answer questions in a forum setting, and while both Republican incumbent Jimmy Matlock and Democrat challenger Pamela Weston showed a mutual respect for each other, they did not see eye to eye on many issues.

The forum was sponsored by The Advocate & Democrat and WRKQ Radio and was held at Sweetwater City Hall in front of a full board room.

Matlock introduced himself by saying he ran for office 10 years ago because he wanted to convince everybody in the district that a businessman from another county (Matlock lives in Loudon County) could be in Monroe County as much as he has been.

“I wanted to know what your wishes are,” he said. “I wanted to represent you and your views.”

Weston said she was excited to be at the forum. “It’s important not only that people be informed,” she said, “but that they vote in an informed manner. Running for office is the hardest job you’ll ever do. But it allows you to meet people and know what matters to them.”

The difference in the two candidates was shown in the way they answered the first question about education. Weston said the educational curriculum can be left alone and that school vouchers are a horrible idea.

“The funds are there to give our students the best education possible,” she said. “We just need to send them in the right direction.”

Matlock said the voucher proposal, in which parents of children at low-performing schools could use taxpayer money to send their children to a school of their choice, hadn’t been voted on yet, but he felt education is something that should be dealt with locally.

“There should no federal involvement in education,” Matlock said, which drew a gasp from a surprisingly pro-Democrat crowd. (As far as) money for education, the only thing the Legislature is required to do is pass a budget, which we do, and education got a big boost this year. In fact, Tennessee was voted best in growth when it comes to education.”

Weston shot back it wasn’t hard to climb when you’re starting from the bottom.

“And vouchers for special education did pass,” she said. “But there’s only enough state dollars for the program to last for several months.”

Matlock said he had been referring to general education when he said vouchers hadn’t been voted on. “I’m all for parents of special need students being able to pick the best situation for their child using vouchers,” he said.

Along the same line of questioning, Matlock said he didn’t have any problem with private schools being paid with vouchers, but such an issue hasn’t arisen in the 21st District, as the schools in Loudon and Monroe County were not on the list of low performing schools.

Weston said parents already have the option of using private schools, but state dollars shouldn’t be a part of it.

The recent controversy over having parts of Tennessee history removed from the curriculum to speed up classes had Matlock saying, “I voted for parents to go online and look at the proposed text books. They need to do that and let their concerns be known.”

Weston said of the things proposed for removal include Cherokee and African-American history, child labor and women’s suffrage.

“It’s important,” she said, “for students to know what happened, to know what people lived through and know that it’s possible it could happen again.”

Leaving education behind, both candidates stay along party lines when it comes to Medicaid expansion and Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure Tennessee program.

“We should have both things,” Weston said. “We have a lot of uninsured people in our area and they’re using the ER for medical treatment and that only adds to everybody’s health care cost.

“We’ve lost several rural hospitals in Tennessee,” Weston added, “and Insure Tennessee would have funneled money into all areas.”

Matlock said health care is an obvious need but recent government attempts hadn’t worked. “Obamacare is an utter failure,” he said. “Everything that was predicted about it has come true. The governor did a lot of work to bring his program to the state, but it wasn’t perfect. Suggestions were made to fix it, but those suggestions weren’t included in the final plan.”

Weston retorted by saying, “The Affordable Care Act isn’t a complete failure. You can’t be turned down for a pre-existing condition. We can’t afford to be perfect, but we have to do something.”

Both candidate believe tourism is a big and important industry for Tennessee. They both said infrastructure work, including highway repair, is needed, and Matlock said there is evidence in Sweetwater of what tourism can do for a community.

The question of how refugees from Europe is affecting Tennessee, the candidates once again stayed with themes you might expect from the party they represent.

“Those coming from Europe are alarming,” Matlock said. “The president has thrown the door wide open without proper vetting. There is a proper way of doing this and Tennessee will be part of a lawsuit against the federal government over the refugee issue.”

Weston said the influx to Tennessee hasn’t been that large. “I think it worked out to 12 refugees per county,” she said. “They’re mainly women and children. We can’t turn our backs on those who need our help.”

Weston added that refugees only get assistance for 18 months, then they’re on their own.

When it comes to veteran’s health care, both candidates felt the ball had been dropped.

“Insure Tennessee would have taken care of them,” Weston said. “They need access to health care. I know one veteran who had to wait so long to get care that his intestines ruptured. But the federal government handles a lot of veteran’s care, so I’m not sure what Tennessee Legislature could do.”

Matlock took a more practical approach, saying the Veterans Administration is such an absolute failure veterans need to be able to seek out local care. “The VA needs to allow their centers to treat everyone,” he said. “Now veterans in this area have to drive to Johnson City for treatment. That’s ridiculous when you have a great hospital (Sweetwater Hospital) 100 yards behind us.”

The question of whether or not the state can do anything to provide health insurance, Weston said three plans had been proposed and all shot down by a Republican legislature.

Matlock said it was an issue across the state and across the nation, but that people treat their health badly and that’s a personal issue.

Matlock also said a health savings account could help people put aside money for future problems, but Weston said that wasn’t a viable idea when most don’t have any money left after paying for everything else.

As for illegal drugs, both candidates said while the meth problem has leveled off, pills are quickly becoming a major problem, with Weston saying heroin was making a new appearance.

Matlock said he wanted to go on the record as being against marijuana legalization as he considered it a gateway drug that lead to harder drugs and more drug abuse.

Weston said he considered alcohol abuse to be a bigger problem than marijuana use and Matlock said he had voted against all pro-alcohol bills he had seen.

A question about disgraced State Rep. Jeremy Durham, who was ousted from the House last month after allegations of sexual misconduct, did not draw sharp differences from the two candidates.

Weston said the situation showed that state policies about such things were archaic and there needed to be more house cleaning. Weston also said she was glad Durham was voted out before he got his pension.

Matlock simply said Durham should have been expelled from the state government.

When it came to guns on campus and background checks, the candidates fell back into disagreement with Weston saying she doubted anyone on any campus had asked for the Legislature to debate such a thing.

“But I can guarantee the NRA was there asking for it,” she said. “One college administrator I talked to said they had to triple security after guns were allowed on campus.”

Matlock said he had no problem with guns on campus, but that felons or people with past problems should be looked at carefully before a gun purchase is allowed.

Closing out the forum, Weston said she had talked to many people on the campaign trail who might not normally be reached, asking them to tell their stories. She said she’s ran the gamut of experiences in her life, from living in a small trailer to getting a masters degree.

“People can be confident I will listen and serve them,” she said.

Matlock closed out by saying that even though he and Weston disagree on many issues, she works hard and he has utmost respect for her.

Matlock said service is in his business’ name and it’s always been a part of his family.

“I believe I’ve done a good job at law making,” he said, “but what I really do is serve you.”

Matlock hopes to not only be re-elected to the 21st House District seat, but also is seeking to be the speaker of the House. He handily defeated Weston when she ran against him two years ago. Early voting for the Nov. 8 election starts today (Oct. 19).

An Independent candidate challenging Matlock this time, William James Vandever, did not attend the forum.