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What should voters know when a candidate is ill?

Ned Barnett
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Ned Barnett


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

State Sen. Louis Pate has lived a public life. The 82-year-old Republican is a former mayor of Mount Olive, served several terms in the state House and has been in the Senate since 2011.

But about a month before the Nov. 6 election, Pate dropped off the political radar. He didn't participate in campaign and other public events. He was absent from October's special legislative sessions after Hurricane Florence. Now political observers will be watching to see if he appears when the legislature meets Monday.

The Goldsboro News-Argus covered Pate's race, but couldn't get responses from him. It ran an Oct. 31 story containing only the views of his Democratic opponent, David Brantley, a former Wayne County clerk of court and chief district judge. The report was headlined: "Brantley talks issues; Pate silent." The newspaper reported that Pate had said earlier in October that "an unspecified health issue has forced him to curtail his campaigning."

Brantley said Pate has asked people to respect his privacy and people have. Pate, a retired a Air Force major who served in Vietnam, is a cordial and thoughtful politician who is respected by Republicans and Democrats alike. But his extended absence is raising questions about what voters should be told when a health crisis hits a candidate.

Pate and Republican Party officials haven't said how serious the health issue is and whether Pate will be able to serve in the office he was too ill to finish running for.

If voters had had a clear idea of Pate's health issues, they may have reconsidered Brantley, 66. As it was, Pate won handily with nearly 55 percent of the vote.

State Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin said candidates and parties should be clear when a health issue incapacitates a candidate or an office holder. "Transparency is always the best policy," he said, but he acknowledged that health issues are delicate. He said, "You try to strike a balance where the public's interest is met, but privacy interests are protected."

A recent Wake County case illustrated that balance. Sydney Batch, the Democratic candidate in state House District 37, in August announced she was taking a break from her campaign after being diagnosed with early, non-invasive breast cancer, but she remained in the race and won on Nov. 6.

If Pate is sworn in in January, but declines to serve, the executive committees of the counties in his district will name a replacement who will serve the full two-year term.

Gerry Cohen, the unofficial historian of the General Assembly, said, "There's no constitutional requirement that you campaign." Whether it's fair to voters not to disclose serious health issues isn't a matter of law, he said: "It's not a legal question. It's a political one, I guess."

For Brantley it was more of a political riddle: How do you run against a candidate who can't campaign? Brantley didn't make an issue of Pate's fitness. Instead he argued for more public school funding and Medicaid expansion.

Once Pate stopped campaigning, Brantley said, the NC Senate Majority Fund came after him with a heavy dose of negative mailers and TV commercials. Some mailers blamed him as a retired judge for favoring large court awards against hog farms even though those cases were in federal court.

"It seems like after (Pate) got sick, they doubled down since he wasn't able to get out and campaign himself," Brantley said. "It was frustrating."

Any Democrat would have trouble defeating an incumbent Republican in District 7 representing Wayne, Lenoir, Craven, Carteret and Pamlico counties. But Brantley regrets that the race came down to a contest against outside funding while his opponent was mysteriously absent.

Ned Barnett is associate opinion editor for The News & Observer.


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