Democratic Senate rivals differ on immigration, little else


RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The four North Carolina Democrats running for U.S. Senate differed on immigration policy but generally agreed on other issues and largely avoided pointing at each other in their only scheduled televised debate Thursday night.

Although former state Rep. Deborah Ross and Spring Lake Mayor Chris Rey told their TV audience they supported a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country unlawfully, Kevin Griffin of Durham and Ernest Reeves of Greenville wouldn’t go that far.

Griffin offered instead a comprehensive work permit program so these immigrants could take advantage of social services and other government benefits as they pay into the system through taxes. Added Reeves: “I do favor a pathway to stay.”

Ross, the likely front-runner for the March 15 primary based on fundraising and weighty endorsements, tried to keep the focus on Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, whom all of them would like to replace. She said she would back a bipartisan 2013 Senate bill that would have provided the citizenship pathway but also boosted security along the U.S.-Mexican border.

“Richard Burr voted against it,” Ross said at the WRAL-TV studio in Raleigh. “I would have voted for it.”

Others chimed in later with their unhappiness about Burr, who is seeking his third Senate tern. He’s got his own primary with three GOP rivals.

All four Democrats said they would bring Syrian refugees into the country provided that there is a comprehensive background screening process. Elected leaders, especially Republicans, have been anxious to delay or prevent those refugees from entering after November’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

“We have to lead the world in honoring every individual,” Griffin said. “We are the light of the world.”

Otherwise, the Democrats largely called for tweaks to President Barack Obama’s health care law and blamed many health care issues on North Carolina state legislators refusing to expand Medicaid through the law to hundreds of thousands of people now uninsured. They said they would push for mental health funding and work keep guns out of the hands of the most criminally dangerous.

On the economy, Reeves said he would work if elected to raise the minimum wage to $10.25 per hours. Griffin talked about internship programs to help veterans transitioning to civilian life find jobs.

Griffin, who runs an employment staffing company in Durham, has been most critical of Ross on the campaign trial but didn’t throw a verbal jab until the end of the half-hour debate. He said unanswered posts on her Facebook page shows she’s not paying attention to people.

“You have to be there, you have to be available, and that’s the difference in my approach,” Griffin said. Given a chance to respond, Ross replied only that she had been crisscrossing the state talking to voters in their hometowns and on the phone.

“I dedicated my legal and my legislative career to doing things that make people’s lives better,” Ross said in her closing statement.

Rey, a health care nonprofit director and Army National Guard officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, talked about his experience with all levels of government and the knowledge of how to work with other countries.

“It is critical that we have an individual who’s going to win and be able to make sure that the Democratic ticket wins in November,” Rey said. Reeves finished third in a three-candidate 2014 primary to then-Sen. Kay Hagan.

The rules of the primary changed last week when the General Assembly eliminated all 2016 primary runoffs while delaying the state’s congressional primary until June because of redistricting litigation. That means the leading candidate won’t have to get more than 40 percent of the vote to advance to the general election.

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