BUCKHANNON - Two state Senate candidates got into a heated debate over a National Rifle Association survey rating during a candidate forum this week.
An audience member asked Steve Foster of Buckhannon, a Republican candidate for the 11th District's state Senate seat, to explain how he got an "F" rating on an NRA opinion survey about gun control.
"That's not true," Foster said at Thursday's forum. "I went back and asked them, 'Hey, I'm a supporter of the Second Amendment rights, why would I have a lower rating?'" He added, "A lot of these questionnaires that you receive, in fact, are nothing more than a specific group with a specific interest that want you to answer the things that they think are important."
Foster said he was told by the NRA that he could have given a better answer to the question "do you think the state laws that currently exist regarding concealed weapons is okay?" He said the laws require filing for a permit and taking a safety course before being granted the permit. Foster said the answer the NRA was essentially looking for was "just get a gun and wear it."
"I don't agree with that," Foster said. "I don't agree in large step with everything the NRA says."
Foster spoke at a public candidate forum sponsored by the Upshur County Landlord Association at the Buckhannon Moose Lodge Thursday. Jewel Marsh, a UCLA member, said the county has had 954 early voters cast their ballots, but "there's still some people who have not made up their minds" leading up to the May 13 primary.
Foster said the "F" was a mistake on the part of the NRA. He said his grade was changed about six weeks ago. Robert L. Karnes, of Tallmansville, a Republican candidate for the 11th District Senate seat, stepped up to the podium to say that he felt he was being called a liar by his opponent.
Karnes alleged that Foster changed his own survey rating on the NRA website from an "F" to a "C minus." Foster denied the allegation, prompting Karnes to allege that Foster was calling him, and NRA lobbyist Daniel Carey, a liar.
Karnes said a "screenshot" he has from his computer shows Foster's grade was an "F" on April 24. He said he placed a newspaper ad featuring the "F" rating about two weeks ago. Karnes said he will be running another ad with the updated "C minus" rating which he claimed Foster obtained by changing his answers on the survey.
"I called the NRA and asked," Karnes said.
After the forum, Foster said the grade was changed because of an NRA error. He said the NRA corrected the error. Foster said he did not have the ability to change the grade himself.
"You give me too much credit for power," Foster said.
"It was brought to my attention that I had an 'F' rating," Foster continued. "I immediately called the NRA... I called and I talked with a gentleman. I can't remember his name, but I have it written down. The first name is Terry, he's in charge of ratings...
"When he called me back, that very same day later that evening," Foster said, "he called me back and he said 'Mr. Foster, I pulled your questionnaire and we did make a mistake.'"
When Karnes reasserted that he believed Foster changed the rating, Foster said, "I didn't change a damn thing. It's (Karnes') word against mine. That's the truth of the matter."
Karnes played for the media a voicemail allegedly left on his phone by Carey, who Karnes said was "in charge" of the ratings.
"Yeah, we did change his grade to a 'C minus,'" a voice on the recording said. "There were some changes on the questionnaire and the re-evaluation of it."
Carey did not return calls from The Inter-Mountain by presstime.
The forum's other speakers included incumbent Circuit Court Judge Kurt Hall and challenger Jake Reger, the current Upshur County prosecuting attorney; Upshur County Commission candidates Kevin Hawkins, Terry Cutright and Mike Cowger; and Buckhannon City Council candidates Mary Albaugh, incumbent Tom O'Neill, Robert Osburn and Robyn Riggs Simons.
Robbie Martin and Carl Martin, two of the six candidates for the Upshur County Board of Education, both attended the forum, but were not able to speak before they had to leave due to an unexpected matter.