Arts + Entertainment

By Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts

Beginning in 2009 with a series of protests focusing on what participants viewed as excessive government taxation, the TEA Party movement has grown into one of the most prominent political stories of the past few years. Because it is a relatively recent movement and in most places it is still impossible to register with the Board of Elections as a member of the TEA Party, hard data on TEA Party supporters are difficult to come by.

The New York Times produced one of the only surveys focusing on the TEA Party. It found that that 18 percent of Americans self-identified as TEA Party “supporters” and that these supporters tended to be white, educated, fairly well-off, ideologically conservative, and members of the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, the Times survey also found that TEAPartiers are distrustful of the federal government.

Although these findings are illustrative of the country as a whole, what about the situation in Jackson County? To learn more about the degree of TEA Party support among locals, Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News teamed up to poll about 600 registered voters in Jackson County on issues related to the TEA Party, as well as other political issues.

The survey data reveal that Jackson County registered voters are evenly split, with 42 percent holding a favorable view of the TEA Party, 40 percent holding an unfavorable view and the remaining 18 percent having no opinion. Although the question’s wording is different than that of the New York Times poll, it does appear that the TEA Party has more support here than in the nation as a whole.

Digging a little deeper into the data reveals that TEA Party supporters in Jackson County are more likely to be male, conservative and registered as Republican than those who do not support the TEA Party.  Given the national results, none of this is terribly surprising.

Considerably more surprising, however, is the influence of education. Recall that in the national sample, TEA Party supporters were more educated than the population at large. In the Jackson County sample, however, those with positive opinions towards the TEA Party have slightly less education than their counterparts.

The Jackson County poll also presents an opportunity to determine how TEA Party supporters feel about local as well as national government. Not surprisingly, TEA Party supporters do not hold a positive view off the federal government. What is more surprising is the size of this effect. A whopping 95 percent of TEA Party supporters hold an unfavorable opinion of the federal government, but among those with unfavorable opinions of the TEA Party only 36 percent hold an unfavorable opinion of the federal government.”

TEA Party supporters aren’t big fans of the Jackson County government, either, but the effect here is much smaller.

Approximately 70 percent of TEA Party supporters disapprove of Jackson County government, compared to 47 percent among those who do not support the TEA Party. Clearly the TEA Party movement, at least here in Jackson County, is much more dissatisfied with federal than local government.

Anyone who walked through the county on Tax Day knows that the TEA Party has some backing in Jackson County, and this polling information can tell us a little bit more about the nature and extent of this support. What our data cannot tell us, of course, is what the exact effect will be on the upcoming elections. The TEA Party has considerable support here in Jackson County, but a true understanding of the group’s electoral impact will have to wait until November.

Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts are associate professors of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, where Knotts also serves as department head and Cooper directs the Public Policy Institute.

By Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts

A creature once roamed the American South that many now presume to be endangered if not extinct — the conservative Democrat. For nearly a century following the Civil War, almost all white southerners were conservative Democrats. As late as 1978, more than a third of all Democrats in the South were conservatives. In most parts of the South today, however, finding a conservative Democrat is about as likely as spotting a bald eagle — they do exist but they are hard to find.

A recent survey conducted by the Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News, however, suggests that Jackson County resembles a refuge for conservative Democrats. Today almost as many Democrats in Jackson County identify as conservatives as liberals (23 percent compared to 30 percent — the remainder are moderates). These numbers are even more striking when compared to an analysis of Republicans in the county.  Two-thirds of Republicans in the WCU PPI/SMN poll claim to be conservatives, compared to less than 4 percent who are self-proclaimed liberals. The message is clear: Democrats do not mind being called conservatives, but almost no Republicans in our county want to be called liberal.

So what does this mean for political candidates in Jackson County? First — it pays to be a Democrat. Results of the survey as well as analysis of voter registration records in Jackson County clearly indicate that there are many more Democrats than Republicans residing in the county. In the WCU PPI/SMN survey, 45 percent of the respondents claim to be Democrats, compared to 32 percent who identify as independents and 24 percent who consider themselves Republicans. The actual voter registration numbers are identical for Democrats, but indicate slightly higher percentage of registered Republicans.

Despite these positive numbers for Democrats, aspiring politicians in this county who align themselves with the Nancy Pelosi/Harry Reid wing of the Democratic Party will find little support. Nationally, Republicans tend to be conservative, and Democrats are most often liberal. As we suggested above, however, few Democrats in this county consider themselves liberals. Most are moderates, and almost a quarter are conservatives. Among members of all parties, only 18 percent are liberals, compared to 42 percent who are moderates and 40 percent who are conservatives.

Given these trends, it is perhaps not surprising that more than half of the respondents in the WCU PPI/SMN survey who expressed an opinion on Democratic Congressman Heath Shuler hold a favorable view of him (54 percent favorable, compared to 46 percent unfavorable). Shuler has distanced himself from the Pelosi/Reid wing of the Democratic Party by casting votes against the healthcare plan and the stimulus package.

In fact, an independent analysis of roll-call votes in the House by political scientist Keith Poole finds that Shuler is the fifth most conservative Democrat in the House. Perhaps as a result, further analyses of Jackson County survey data reveal that Democrats are no more likely to approve of Shuler than Republicans, and conservatives are more likely to support him than liberals.    This trend is most evident at the extremes where twice as many conservative Republicans as liberal Democrats approve of Shuler (60 percent to 30 percent).

All of this portends well for Shuler this fall, at least in this county. Sure he is not popular with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, but fortunately for Shuler, this is a fairly small part of the Jackson County electorate. Moderate and conservative voters of both parties as well as independents approve of Shuler in fairly high numbers. A lot can happen between now and November, but Heath Shuler can probably rest fairly comfortably in the conservative Democratic refuge of Jackson County.

Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts are both Associate Professors of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University where Knotts also serves as Department Head and Cooper directs the Public Policy Institute.

By Christopher Cooper and Gibbs Knotts

Confidence in politics, politicians and government is low. President Obama’s approval rating hovers around 50 percent as he deals with two wars and what may turn out to be the worst environmental disaster in the nation’s history.  Further down Pennsylvania Avenue, only 20 percent of Americans approve of the U.S. Congress, the country’s major legislative body and, for many, the very symbol of democratic government.

Although there is ample evidence about what the nation as a whole thinks of government, there is much less information about what people here in Jackson County think about the political system. Do residents of Jackson County view the federal government with the same level of disapproval? Does the lack of confidence at the national level translate to opinions of government here in Jackson County?

Fortunately, the Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll conducted last month provides some important clues about the vitally important relationship between citizens and government.

As reported last week in The Smoky Mountain News, Jackson County registered voters approve of the U.S. Congress at rates similar to, but slightly higher than, residents across the United States (29 percent favorable, 62 percent unfavorable and 9 percent not sure). A closer look at the results shows that self-identified conservatives, a group that makes up 40 percent of registered voters, displayed less support for the federal government than moderates and liberals.

Conservatives advocate smaller government, particularly when it comes to spending on public welfare, so it makes sense that they disapprove of the federal government with a Democratic President and Democratic majorities in Congress.  In addition to conservatives disapproving of the federal government at high rates here in Jackson County, college-educated respondents approved of the federal government more than respondents with lower levels of education.

For what is probably the first time in Jackson County history, there also is evidence about support for local government. This is a compelling time to investigate approval of local government given recent events in the county. In the last few years, commissioners passed countywide land use planning, mounted a legal battle against Duke Power over the removal of the Dillsboro Dam, and approved a controversial raise package for county employees. No matter your stance on these issues, most of us can agree that these events were controversial.

The WCU PPI/SMN survey found that a third of registered voters had a favorable opinion of Jackson County government. The question was designed to gauge an overall opinion of county government, but it is important to consider what respondents may have been considering when asked to approve or disapprove of Jackson County government. They could have been thinking about the county commissioners, the county manager’s office or some other agency in county government. As County Commissioner McMahan indicated in last week’s Smoky Mountain News, ideally the poll would have asked follow-up questions about why people felt the way they did. Unfortunately, given the time limitations of the survey and the many important issues to be covered, follow-up questions will have to wait for a future poll.

Looking behind the numbers, older respondents supported county government at higher rates than younger respondents. In addition, conservatives have a more negative view of Jackson County government than moderates or liberals, more highly educated respondents had higher levels of support than registered voters with less formal education, and residents of Cashiers expressed very low support for the county government.

In addition to a question about approval of county government, the WCU PPI/SMN survey also asked respondents’ opinions of the Jackson County school system. Attitudes toward the school system were generally positive (49 percent favorable, 27 percent unfavorable, and 24 percent not sure) and rated considerably higher than opinions of both the federal government and Jackson County government. Looking more closely at the numbers indicates higher support from older respondents — even though these individuals are less likely to have school age children.  In addition, support for the Jackson County school system was highest among residents with a Sylva address, indicating higher levels of support for schools in this area.

Politicians and readers can debate whether these numbers are higher or lower than expected. There are no other polls of Jackson County with which to compare these baseline results, so it is impossible to know for certain whether these numbers are increasing or decreasing in our county. Nonetheless, most observers would probably agree that more approval of government is a good thing, and these numbers indicate that it could be higher.

So, how does a government increase citizens’ confidence? Some issues are certainly out of a politician’s control. Factors such as the economy and increasing divisions between Democrats and Republicans in the electorate may be next to impossible for any politician — especially a local one — to solve. Given these constraints, the best way to address the lack of confidence in the political system is to enhance the dialogue between elected officials and the electorate.

Local politicians should create more opportunities for citizens to learn about county government and for citizens to communicate with their elected officials in a safe and partisan neutral environment. Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie’s recent suggestion to televise commission meetings is an excellent start.  Of course, Jackson County citizens must take advantage of these opportunities for them to be successful. If politicians reach out to the people, the people must reach back. If citizens and politicians meet each other halfway, the result will benefit Jackson County, no matter the specific outcome.

Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts are associate professors of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, where Knotts also serves as department head and Cooper directs the Public Policy Institute.

 

Government approval ratings are low all over the country. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re also low in Jackson County.

“The state of the economy is the strongest predictor of trust in government that I know of,” said Chris Cooper, director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute.

According to a recent WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll of Jackson County registered voters, 46 percent of the respondents had an unfavorable opinion of county government and a whopping 62 percent had an unfavorable opinion of the federal government.

The flip side of those numbers shows that county government’s approval rating was only a bit higher than the federal government’s. Thirty-three percent of the voters polled had a favorable opinion of county government as opposed to 29 percent for the feds.

The poll questioned nearly 600 voters and has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percent.

At the same time, Gallup polls showed the national approval rating for Congress is 20 percent — as low as it’s ever been.

Cooper said without tracking the approval rating of county government over a period of years, it’s difficult to make any generalizations about what the numbers mean. But he still believes there is some cause for alarm at the county’s approval rating.

“I want to be cautious, because we don’t have a baseline, but the number strikes me as low,” Cooper said. “The one thing I’m comfortable saying is it’s lower than I thought it would be, and it’s lower than I’d feel comfortable with if I were an elected official in Jackson County.”

Negativity or fair criticism?

Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie is one of the five men who have to take county’s low approval rating on the chin. Massie said the numbers concern him, but without more detailed questions, it was hard to know how to read the causes.

“I’m disappointed. I’d like to see some follow up questions as to why. Is it something specific or is it a general feeling about government?” Massie said.

County Chairman Brian McMahan had a similar reaction to the results. He questioned how significant the data could be with the poll asking such generic questions. According to McMahan, the approval rating could be a measurement of the quality of services delivered, or of the popularity of the commissioners, or of the county’s stance on a particular issue.

“I’m not just going to stab in the dark to try to come up with why they responded the way they did,” McMahan said. “Those are the questions that should have been asked.”

Jackson County government at least fared better than the federal government in the poll — which is typical and to be expected.

“We’re the closest level of government to the people, and they know us,” Massie said. “They see us in the restaurants and in the streets and so they feel a little bit better about us.”

Rep. Phil Haire, who represents Sylva in the 119th District of the North Carolina Assembly, doesn’t put much stock in polls and, like McMahan, said more narrowly defined questions would be more useful.

“I’m not a big fan of polls,” Haire said. “A lot of the questions that were asked are what you could call knee-jerk questions.”

Haire said for poll data to be useful, it has to target a specific population and asked detailed questions about issues that are on the table for decision-makers.

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe sees the poll results against the broader backdrop of national opinion.

“I think it’s a nationwide trend where society has become frustrated over the economic situation, and they’ve become anti-government and anti-authority,” Ashe said.

For Ashe, the confusing thing is that while government approval is at its lowest, voter turnout in this year’s mid-term primaries was abysmal.

“When we have a 14 percent voter turnout, we have a problem,” Ashe said. “It’s up to the people to take back the government.

For Cooper, whether or not the polls create a clear angle on issues, they are a starting place for improving the quality of communication between the public and elected officials.

“I would hope elected officials would take this and think about what they could do to communicate better with the public,” Cooper said.

 

Jackson County issues

 

County politics and federal politics are different. One of the things they have in common, though, is the economy.

“At the local level, we’re not as interested in partisan issues as pocketbook issues, but when the economy’s bad, we still need to raise money to provide the services that people ask for,” Massie said.

When the economy is bad, county voters look to government to explain their taxing and spending habits in greater detail. In Jackson County, a number of high-priced decisions by the county board have created a starting point for criticism.

The county’s drawn-out court battles with Duke Energy over the fate of the Dillsboro Dam, which ended last year, resulted in half a million dollars in legal fees and failed to produce their desired results.

Last year, commissioners awarded steep raises for the county’s highest-paid employees, a highly controversial move in a recession. The raises were recommended by a firm contracted to analyze the county’s pay structure, but that didn’t sit any easier with some members of the public.

This year, Sheriff Jimmy Ashe came under fire for his alleged misuse of a narcotics seizure fund while he was fighting a high-profile legal battle with Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn.

The county has also been embroiled in protracted struggles to reform its economic development commission and restructure its airport authority after controversial upheavals left both in disarray.

Mark Jamison, a member of the Webster town board who has also been active in county politics, said the cumulative result of those events has created bad feeling in the voting public.

“Whether or not there are legitimate concerns related to each and every one of these issues may not be as meaningful as the totality of their weight,” Jamison said. “Combine that with a county government that doesn’t have a very pleasant or helpful face and that generally doesn’t seem to communicate well and you have a prescription for disenchantment.”

Massie said all of the same issues may be playing a role, and he put some of their impact at the feet of the way they’ve been handled in the media.

“I think it’s a combination of all of those things,” Massie said. “The pay raises, the dam, the lawsuit against the sheriff’s office –– that’s all about the news media grabbing attention, and negative attention grabs more attention than what you’re doing well.”

Jamison acknowledged that the county might be getting the blame for a more general ill ease in the voting public. He also agreed that the local media coverage focuses on outspoken critics of certain county decisions. But he still believes the county hasn’t done a good enough job of communicating with voters around its decisions on key issues.

“One has to at least acknowledge that the presence of our local gadflies has somewhat poisoned the political dialogue,” Jamison said. “Still, communication and advocacy for local interests seems lacking.”

Cullowhee business owner Jack Debnam, who is running against McMahan for county chairman in November, focused his criticism of county government on its spending. Debnam said this board has been slow to recognize the recession and plan for it.

“The majority of the reason people are unhappy is the spending that’s been done and how it’s been handled,” said Debnam. “I’ve been angry and other people are angry and I believe they’re ready to do something different.”

McMahan takes issue with the idea that the county doesn’t communicate well with voters and at the same time wonders if people really know what the nuts and bolts of county government are all about.

“Most people don’t come to our meetings,” McMahan said. “How do they know what kind of decisions are being made?”

Massie, who is also running for reelection in November, said the county lacks a forum for issue-based dialogue. Without a League of Women’s Voters or the chance to debate at the Rotary Club, Massie said county politicians take the path of least resistance.

“All the candidates say is ‘I’m honest. I’m a good person. I’ll do a great job,’” Massie said. “You really don’t have the opportunity to discuss issues. We don’t have enough chances to go head to head with the public.”

For Massie, the lack of a forum for discussion combined with low voter turnout make it hard to figure out how to take the criticism of the public constructively. He wants to begin televising county meetings on cable so interested voters can see how the commissioners work.

“We’re human beings not mind readers,” Massie said. “If we don’t hear from the public, what are we supposed to do?”

 

The Cashiers question

 

Perhaps the most glaring statistic generated by the poll is that only 15 percent of Cashiers voters have a favorable opinion of county government — lower than even the federal government.

“The big question we’re trying to get at is why?” said Gibbs Knotts, one of the poll’s creators. “That could be for many reasons. If there’s a way to engage people in the southern part of the county, then that could be one take-away.”

Jackson County Commissioner Mark Jones, who represents Cashiers, said he believes the dissatisfaction in his part of the county has a concrete cause.

The county began the construction of a new $4.3 million recreation center in 2006 but construction delays, mainly the result of unforeseen environmental engineering costs, have seen the completion date pushed back over and over again.

“I’m frustrated, too,” Jones said. “People up there feel like their tax dollars aren’t being utilized for them and that recreation center is an example.”

Jones said Cashiers voters often think of themselves as a sort of cash cow for the county, since the area contains many high-priced homes that add to the property tax base.

Jones thinks if the economy has turned around and the recreation center is finished when he comes up for election in 2013, he’ll stand a good chance of surviving the current approval rating.

“I think the people of Cashiers want to see visually what the county is doing for them,” Jones said.

Jones also acknowledged that the high-profile coverage of the legal suit between Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe and Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn took its toll on the voting public.

Finn and a group of supporters ran a negative ad campaign through a political action committee called Taxpayers Against Ashe for Sheriff during the May primary.

“People read the stuff and if they don’t know what’s going on, they believe it,” Jones said. “Negative campaigns can be very successful.”

Ashe was cleared of allegations that he used his position to hinder Finn’s private security business, which has strong ties to many of the developments in and around Cashiers, but the lasting effects of the animosity between the two men could continue to affect public opinion there.

And then there’s the archetypal divide between the mountains and valley, a gap Jones feels is narrowing slowly.

“The distance from Sylva to Cashiers is a barrier that even the press has a problem with,” Jones said.

 

A new polling project developed by Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News aims to get data that is the meat and bread of political scientists into the hands of the voting public.

“As academics, we’re pretty good at using rigorous methods to find things out,” said Chris Cooper, the institute’s director. “We’re not as good at showing our results.”

Cooper and his colleague, Gibbs Knotts, were interested in partnering with a media company to help disseminate the results of a poll measuring Jackson County political opinions and in turn instigate a larger conversation. They hatched the idea during the debate over tearing down the Dillsboro Dam. Because there were so many strong opinions on the issue, it was hard to get a feel for the sentiment of the majority.

“Most people like people who like them,” Cooper said. “Consequently they hang around people who think like them. The idea was to get a representative sample, so people could have some idea what others were really thinking about the issues.”

Smoky Mountain News publisher, Scott McLeod, saw the project as an opportunity to explore a partnership that could get to the crux of what is on readers’ minds.

“This is what good journalism and good newspapers are about,” McLeod said “We want to provide our readers with information about this region they can’t find anywhere else and present it in a way that’s interesting and useful. These polls and the subsequent stories we do will fulfill that mission.”

By combining accurate polling data and a platform for discussion, the first poll in the project is designed to create a baseline for Jackson County voters to discuss issues in the run-up to the November election. The project is called “Creating a Regional Policy Dialogue.”

“Anytime you can get people to discuss their views on government and on elected leaders, there’s a chance it will lead to better decision making and better leadership,” McLeod said. “Maybe a frank dialogue in the media about leadership and politics — one based on actual poll results from mountain voters — will contribute some solutions to some of our problems.”

 

The poll

 

Cooper contracted Public Policy Polling in Raleigh to conduct a random sample survey of Jackson County registered voters. The polling firm has had great results with its relatively low-cost phone survey method. SurveyUSA’s report cards rated Public Policy Polling the most accurate pollster for South Carolina, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Indiana and Oregon during the 2008 election cycle.

The Jackson County poll, which was administered through a computerized phone call, asked 11 questions. In the end, just less than 600 respondents from all parts of the county offered their views on questions that asked what they thought of county and federal government; whether alcohol sales should be allowed outside incorporated areas; and how they felt about Congressman Heath Shuler, Governor Bev Perdue, the TEA Party and their local school system. It also measured political persuasions and collected demographic data.

Some of the results were surprising, like the fact that 95 percent of the respondents had an opinion about alcohol sales outside of Sylva and Dillsboro.

Cooper is quick to point out what the poll results — which canvassed registered voters only — can and can’t show.

“We can generalize about voters in Jackson County, but we can’t generalize about the people in a broad sense,” Cooper said.

Voters are, in general, more educated, more liberal and older than the public at large. They are also the people most likely to engage in the political process.

“The downside is we’re not getting the opinion of a whole group who by definition are disenfranchised and disconnected from the political process,” Cooper said.

Knotts estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of Jackson residents aren’t registered to vote.

The poll functioned with a plus or minus 4 percent margin of error. Cooper said he only recognized one peculiarity in the results: more than 61 percent said they graduated from college, a larger percentage than normal for the voting public.

“We over-represented educated people, but it’s not because we called more, it’s because more of them answered the call,” Cooper said.

In the end, the survey provides a starting point for the discussion of what’s really on the mind of Jackson County’s voters. Past public opinion surveys in Western North Carolina have focused on the region so broadly that voters in Asheville or Boone have been lumped in with those from Cashiers and Whittier.

The newest poll hopes to lend badly needed specificity the conversation.

“We were very interested to see how it came out to, and I feel really good about the results,” Cooper said.

 

Reading the mind of Jackson County

Gauging public opinion can be a tricky proposition, but for the elected officials who run Jackson County, it can also provide a glimpse at what matters to the people who elect them.

County Commissioner Tom Massie is up for reelection in November, and he likes the idea of the poll.

“I think we genuinely need to know where there are issues of concern in the public, and people ought to participate more in their government at all levels,” Massie said.

Vicki Greene, director of the Southwestern Planning Commission, has conducted numerous polls in Western North Carolina aimed at getting information on how people are employed. Greene, who grew up in Sylva and Dillsboro, said it could be hard to get good, accurate information from people through an automated phone call.

“My initial reaction is it’s a waste of time, because I’d be real surprised if you can get somebody to stay on the line for seven minutes,” Greene said.

The poll called voters on the list six times before moving on to another name. The short duration of the poll and its touch-key response system limits the complexity of the questions, but it greatly enhances the chance that people will respond.

Greene acknowledged how important good data can be in informing the larger policy discussions that shape the region.

“Assuming the questions are asked in a neutral format, the results of the polls should be beneficial to elected officials in their decision making capacities,” Greene said. “When you do a random survey, you are getting the voices of folks that don’t often participate in the discussion.”

For Knotts, who helped design the list of questions, the poll is a starting place.

“We see this as a way to put some numbers out there and use them as a starting point for a regional dialogue,” Knotts said.

At a moment in history when the economy is still mired and approval ratings of government at all levels are low around the country, the Jackson County poll is a chance to find out why voters are so frustrated and what can bring them back to the table.

For Cooper and Knotts, gathering data is the best place to start.

“The goal is to get the word out there, get out of the academic silo and communicate data and empirical results to the people who make decisions,” Cooper said.

For Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod, the polling partnership is the first step in creating a broader regional dialogue around issues.

“I can’t recall there ever having been scientific polling data from citizens in the counties west of Asheville,” McLeod said. “If we can continue this project for a year and do a half dozen or so polls, we’ll have some great information about our region that no one else has ever made the effort to gather.”

By Chris Cooper

Kea was a filthy, grease-covered little miscreant when she was found by In Your Ear Music Emporium owner Lauren Calvert some 16 years ago hiding in some random machinery (in the snow, no less). Sixteen years ... that’s enough time to make an impression on some kids that aren’t exactly kids any more. Some of whom wound up on the receiving end of Kea’s — ahem — somewhat notorious lack of patience in regards to unruly children, and still carry the “scars,” if you will. Legend has it that there were actually two cats living at IYE in the early days, one significantly larger than Kea. Apparently, she made it clear — through all manner of fur flinging and claw-flailing butt kickings — that she wasn’t sharing such an ample space with another feline. The other cat, fortunately, found a new home before she got really angry.

At one point, Kea was kidnapped. Yes folks, abducted in an act of revenge by an irate shoplifter that managed to get himself caught. But of course, she was found and brought home.

Before IYE had actual benches out front, there were hay bales that provided a convenient perch for Kea. Sometimes the act of watching Sylva’s passersby got a little boring, so she would head up to Spring Street to see what was happening, inciting a bit of panic in the music store staff.

Whether she was an effective mouser I couldn’t say, but she had an unusual fetish for cardboard (well, paper products in general) and more often than not the morning opening process included sweeping up the remnants of what used to be a box, newspaper, magazine, and so forth.

And so it was: over a decade and a half of morning friskies, gravity-defying leaps onto CD racks and counters, scratches behind the ears from literally thousands of customers, and the earning of a place in the heart of every single IYE employee and many Sylva locals. Tourists would make a point to stop in each year to check on “that little store kitty.” That’s enough time to make anybody with a soft spot for animals decide that immortality is a viable option.

In the five years I spent with Kea, the aging process didn’t seem to kick in until the last year or so. At 11, she acted and looked all of 3. Once she knew you, you were guaranteed a tail flick/grunt greeting almost every day. I had the honor of being one of the few that she let flip over on her back and carry around like, well, a baby I guess. Except that I’m terrified of babies ... but that’s a whole different thing.

Around the end of 2008, things began to go wrong. Kea was diagnosed with a tumor that affected her kidneys. She began to have seizures that started with “mild” and grew to “not so mild.” Her cognitive functions seemed affected by these seizures; she would stare at a spot in the distance for unusual amounts of time, appeared confused and lost in the place that had always been her home. But never was she cranky — the purr motor was functioning perfectly. If the stars were aligned properly and she had the energy, she would go into one of the silliest kitty soccer games ever with a little balled up piece of paper. But her pace was slowing. There was no denying it. Everything that could be done to keep an animal Kea’s age as healthy and happy as possible had been done, but by the beginning of the new year there simply was nothing more we could do.

“Is that a real cat?”

“Is that cat deaf?”

“Did you know she’s got one green eye and one blue eye?”

These were the questions we fielded every day. “Yes, it’s a real cat.” Occasionally, the answer was “No, she’s a robot. I’ve got the remote control right here.” No, Kea was not deaf. She did exhibit a talent for ignoring people that didn’t interest her, however. But cats with differently colored eyes apparently have a propensity for deafness. Who knew?

It’s the next question that’s the hardest to imagine crafting an answer for over the next few weeks,

“Where’s the kitty?”

Little Kea, we’ll miss you terribly. Here’s to hoping there are copious amounts of freeze dried shrimp, plenty of cardboard to keep your claws sharp, an endless supply of gentle scratches on top of the head, and a sunny spot to nap in that never fades ... wherever it is that you are now.

Chris Cooper

In Your Ear Music Emporium

Sylva

In the studio...

You start a band. The band writes material, rehearses, and plays some shows. What’s the next step? Merchandising? A world tour? Possibly a big fat record deal and huge cash advance from the label? Wait a minute; the record industry is currently dying a slow and painful death, so ... maybe not.

By Chris Cooper

In guitar circles, certain names are spoken in hushed, respectful tones. Players like Mike Stern, Allan Holdsworth and Scott Henderson — among others, of course — represent the best of the best in regards to the modern jazz/rock genre. These musicians absorbed the nuances of the jazz language and married these ideas to rock’s grittiness and attitude. The result is music that, when it’s not leaping over the head of most listeners, can at one moment inspire and the next make you want to take that six-string plank you noodle around on occasionally out back and burn it out of sheer intimidation.

This one's for Rob

By Chris Cooper

Last summer I wrote an article titled “I Played In A Classic Rock Cover Band And Lived To Tell About It.” It was a semi-humorous account of some friends getting together under the moniker of Alpine Taxi, banging out a batch of tunes in rehearsal, and performing them live at Mill & Main and Guadalupe Café. It was fun and sloppy, and noisy and exhilarating and ... it was a lot of things, some of which weren’t apparent to me until now.

Gems from the used bin

By Chris Cooper

Ah, the joy of finding good stuff in the “undeservedly discarded disc” section of any music store. Here a few recent scores: pop melodrama from Bleu and a superb album from the most underappreciated — and one of the best, in my opinion — bands in the country.

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Reading Room

  • A strange mix of books crosses my desk
    A strange mix of books crosses my desk The first weeks of 2018 have seen some offbeat books shamble across my desk and into my fingers. First up is John Buchan’s Mr. Standfast, also known as Mr. Steadfast. Buchan, a Scottish novelist and politician who served as Governor General of Canada from 1935…
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