Rep. Madison Cawthorn calls for an end to mask mandates. (Photos by Greg Childress)

This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn was more than 300 miles from his congressional district on Tuesday, arriving in Smithfield to ostensibly speak against the school district’s mask mandate.

Opponents and supporters of the mask mandate began to gather on the lawn outside the Johnston County Public School administration building in Smithfield hours in advance of a scheduled rally. But the Johnston County School Board meeting quickly took on the tone of a political rally rather than a mask protest after Cawthorn, a Republican congressman from Hendersonville, arrived.  

“The people in my district want this state to stay red,” Cawthorn said, explaining his visit to reporters. “We have a very strong General Assembly and I think that we need to be mobilized all over the state; conservatives going on offense to make sure we get a good governor in the next election in 2024.”  

Chris Cooper, a distinguished professor of political science at Western Carolina University offered this assessment of Cawthorn’s visit in a column posted in Old North State Politics: 

“Cawthorn’s trip to Johnston County has been covered in media outlets across the state, and has spawned enough Twitter traffic to rival an early season Duke/UNC game. The attention is the point. And it’s working. 

“If the attention is both the means and the primary end, then fundraising is a secondary goal–and one that will likely be successful. Cawthorn raised over $1.7 million through June 30 of this year — a sum that dwarfs the receipts from established Republican members of Congress like Patrick McHenry and Virginia Foxx.” 

Cawthorn was the guest of Citizen Advocates for Accountable Government (CAAG) and JCPS Parents for Freedom. 

“This is about good and evil and beating the evil at whatever cost there is; beating these mask mandates; beating the numerous attacks on our personal freedoms,” said Dale Lands, co-founder of CAAG. “These are the things we have to fight for.” 

State and local Republican candidates each grabbed the microphone to weigh in on the district’s mask mandate, their views on government overreach and the GOP’s wedge issue du jour, Critical Race Theory.

Republican Sandy Smith

“I know we’ve got a lot of moms and dads at work but thank you for coming out to support our momma bears, our children and our teachers who do not want to teach CRT,” said Sandy Smith, a Republican who lost a 2020 congressional bid in North Carolina’s First District to Democrat G.K. Butterfield. 

Educators have consistently said that CRT, an obscure academic subject that examines how racism shaped American law and public policy is not taught in K-12 schools.  

Although outnumbered, a handful of parents resisted mask opponents.  

“I feel like this whole thing is a circus,” said Allen Hall, a JCPS parent. “We’re here to talk about things affecting our schools other than masks. I think we should all be coming together as a community to talk about why our schools are underfunded, why do we not have teaching assistants, why are we missing school bus drivers – things that are important.” 

Hall directed some of his anger at Johnson County commissioners for inadequately funding the school system. 

“The answer to why they’re not funding our school is because they feel like we’re teaching CRT in our schools,” Hall said. “I feel like our old, completely white board of commissioners is scared of Black history. They’re scared of offending white people. Those are their constituents, the ones who voted them in.”  

Parent Allen Hall

Stephanie Edmonds said she is homeschooling her three elementary school-aged children because of the mask mandate. “If we lose our ability to choose what goes in our body and on our body, there’s no freedom beyond that,” Edmonds said.  

Edmond said her terminally ill child could “die from the flu” but claimed doctors have never told her to mask the child or to wear a mask when around her. “So, now I’m supposed to say the science is settled?” she asked. “When was it settled?” 

On Tuesday, the JCPS board took no action on the mask mandate, opting to postpone it due to the absence of vice chairwoman Terri Sessoms, whose husband recently died. A special virtual meeting has been scheduled for 2 p.m., Monday to address the mask mandate. A new law requires school boards to vote on masking policies monthly.   

Cawthorn has traveled the state in recent months to attend such meetings as a way to energize the GOP’s conservative base. He has also promised to save his generation — he’s 26 — from “socialism” and to protect parents from government overreach, including masking and vaccination requirements. 

“It’s time to be fearless,” Cawthorn said. “It’s time to stand up to [Gov.] Roy Cooper and say that the family and individual freedom always comes for the government.” 

The congressman’s remarks about Cooper are odd. The governor has allowed individual school districts to decide whether to require masks. Most of the state’s 115 districts now require them.  

After initially making masks optional, several districts changed course amid surging COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. School leaders were concerned that outbreaks would force their districts to return to remote learning. 

Cawthorn argued that Democrats have used the pandemic to chip away at basic freedoms. “If we continue to allow them to have incremental victories over our liberties and our parental rights and our rights as Americans where they take inch after inch, year after year, that’s how we get to the point we’re at now,” he said.  

The congressman was joined Tuesday by Robby Starbuck, a Tennessee congressional candidate, and Bo Hines, a candidate for North Carolina’s 13th congressional district, which includes nine counties in west-central North Carolina, as well as other candidates vying for seats in local races. 

Hines said the message he’s receiving from voters is that they want government to “stay out of their lives.” 

“We’re losing the culture war; we have rampant illegal immigration; we’re watching our rights be stripped away right before our eyes,” Hines said. “This ends in 2022. This ends today.” 

Starbuck, who is of Cuban descent, said his family has experienced the shortcomings of socialism. He pleaded with supporters to fight against “tyrannical school boards run by Marxists” who are “trying to indoctrinate our kids to hate our country and hate what it stands for.” 

“Are we going to allow you parental rights to be stripped from you?” Starbuck asked.  

Cawthorn’s visit comes as the school district’s COVID dashboard shows 178 actives case and 782 quarantines among students. Meanwhile, there are 15 cases and 50 quarantines among staff. 

In mid-July, with infections and hospitalizations declining, Dr. Rodney McCaskill, the chief medical officer at Johnston Health said health officials “thought we were getting to the end of this.”  

But last night McCaskill told the board that there’s been a tenfold increase in the number of patients in the county’s hospitals who are on life support. 

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