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With the sign-up period now underway, candidate are throwing their names in the hat to run for various local and state offices. 

Election season is right around the corner, as candidates begin filing paperwork to run for a variety of partisan offices from the federal level on down to state and local races in North Carolina.

Local politics in Western North Carolina have long been dominated by the good ole boys. But like they say about winter in “The Game of Thrones,” change is coming.

I’ve spent much of my career as a journalist — the past 25 years — covering the towns and counties west of Buncombe County, watching as local civic leaders made decisions that have had lasting effects on the region. Aside from Sylva — which has a long tradition of female leaders in politics and business — it’s been a game dominated by old white guys.

To mark the start of early voting, The Smoky Mountain News will host a pair of free candidate forums in the towns of Canton and Maggie Valley.

A spate of early announcements by local candidates hoping to gain seats in the North Carolina General Assembly may have voters feeling like they’ve been here before — because the candidates certainly have.

UPDATED Nov. 4 , 2016 10:11 a.m.

Third-quarter campaign finance disclosures from state candidates were due by Oct. 31, and as the state board of elections slowly posts them online, they’re also slowly revealing who’s giving, and who’s getting.

fr meadowsrogersAlthough the candidates running for U.S. Congress remained cordial on the surface, neither passed up the opportunity to get in jabs here and there during a Macon County League of Women Voters forum last week.

Diversify is the buzzword in Cherokee, where candidates in the upcoming primary are facing off over how to move away from Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino as the tribe’s sole breadwinner.

With the primary just a month away, five candidates for principal chief and four for vice chief have been making the campaign circuit to local community clubs and other candidates’ forums. They’ve been pitching all manner of alternative revenue streams, from tribal stores to eco-tourism, to reduce the tribe’s dependence on revenue from Harrah’s. Currently, the casino is responsible for 87 percent of what the tribe takes in annually.

Patrick Lambert, who narrowly lost the chief’s seat in 2007 by a mere 13 votes, said that it was time for Cherokee to move on not only from sole reliance on Harrah’s, but also from the business model that sustained them in the decades before the casino’s arrival.

“We need to get away from these rubber tomahawk type shops,” said Lambert at a candidates’ forum last week, hosted by the Junaluska Leadership Council, a youth leadership program for Cherokee high school students.

He pointed to towns such as Asheville, Waynesville and even nearby Bryson City, where strip malls and kitsch shacks have given way to more upscale boutique and artisanal shops, attracting a wealthier and more modern clientele. This, he said, should also be the way of the future for Cherokee.

Sitting Principal Chief Michell Hicks suggested a similar path to diversified revenue, but proposed that Cherokee play to its strengths, namely their long history of producing unique, high-quality arts and crafts. It would be impossible to compete with tourist havens Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., both just over the mountain, said Hicks, so the wise path is to focus on what other tourist towns don’t have.

“We don’t have the land base to compete with these places across the mountain, so we have got to create a specific market. We have to display in the right way our abilities. That’s how we market Cherokee, that’s how we recreate who we are as a people,” said Hicks. “I think the arts and the crafts is where this town is going.”

Newcomers Gary Ledford and Juanita Wilson both advocated strongly for putting the local economy back into local — and even tribal — hands, stopping the influx of outside business onto the reservation.

“It’s time to stop trying to bring in retail businesses and people who don’t care about us. Why not invest into our people here?” asked Wilson.

Ledford echoed those sentiments, suggesting a tribal alternative to Wal-Mart, so shoppers could pump their money back into the reservation instead of away from it, or tribally run waterparks, zoos and other tourist attractions.

Though there are a multitude of answers to the diversification question, there’s no doubt that it will continue to be a central theme of this year’s election. On some level, all of the principal chief candidates have included it as part of their platform.

Nearly everyone advocated for bumping up the tribe’s participation in Section 8 contracting, a federal program that helps bring a range of contracts to Native American tribes.

And then there’s the debt.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee are in the hole for nearly a billion, and about 60 percent of that is tied up in the massive new expansion under way at Harrah’s.

Of course, a chunk of the debt was laid out on the new, state-of-the-art school complex opened last year, but it’s the casino that’s gotten the lion’s share of the money.

And so far in the campaign, the question has been asked more than once, how and when will the tribe get rid of it?

Most of that grilling, of course, goes to the current chief, Hicks. He’s a two-term leader, so much of the debt has been racked up in the eight years since he took office.

And when asked about his plans in the candidates’ forum, he laid out the bold claim that he would eradicate the debt entirely in the next four years, leaving the tribe debt free when he left office.

Though he didn’t get into specifics about how he planned to dispatch the debt, he did note that part of the plan included diverting more of the casino’s cash to pay its own and other debts.

“As we roll through and increase the expansion, addressing the debt is going to be done through the cash flow,” said Hicks.

But when asked why he didn’t put large-scale projects such as the casino expansion and school complex to a referendum, Hicks didn’t directly answer the question.

“If you look at the things that we put on the ground, in my mind, that’s not spending money, it’s investing in our future. We’re making the services better, we’re making sure that jobs say intact,” said Hicks.

Meanwhile, challenger Lambert said that the way out of debt was fiscal conservatism, avoiding debt increases, softening the regulatory environment to entice in new businesses and possibly even creating tribal utilities like wind and solar power to offset the debt.

The primary election, which will whittle the field to two for both principal and vice chief, is set for July 8. And in a still-troubled economy, it may be the two heralding the best financial future that make the cut.

Meet the candidates

Three District Court judge seats are up for election in the seven western counties. The race for judge isn’t partisan, so candidates aren’t distinguished as Republican or Democrat on the ballot.

Candidates have to designate which of the three seats they are running for. The top two candidates for each seat will advance to the November election.

Seat 1

There are only two candidates running for this seat. Both will automatically advance past the primary. In-depth profiles and coverage of these candidates will appear in the run-up to the fall election.

Danya Vanhook, a sitting judge based in Haywood County

Vanhook currently serves as a judge. She was appointed to the seat just last year by Gov. Beverly Perdue to fill a vacancy.

Donna Forga, Waynesville attorney in solo practice

Forga has practiced all manner of law, mostly criminal and family law, including child custody, divorces and the like. She has also worked with Legal Aid, which provides free representation to victims of domestic violence.

Seat 2

Greg Boyer, 60, attorney in Franklin with Jones, Key, Melvin, & Patton

Experience: Boyer hails from Florida originally. He moved to Franklin part-time in 1999. He became a full-time resident and began practicing here five years ago. Boyer has done all types of law: criminal, family “pretty much the things we see in District Court.”

Why run: “I’ve always enjoyed practicing law. I really enjoy it. I love it.”

Boyer is particularly fond of District Court.

“I have always enjoyed that type of practice which is heavy on people and spending a lot of time with different folks ... This past year I started thinking about giving a little bit back.”

Philosophy: “The members of the practicing bar here are good and honest and try very hard to do a good job. If a lawyer said something to me, I could normally trust that. In big cities, there is not that flavor. I appreciate the caliber of the people I get to work with here ... The key thing I have seen is a caring about people in the court system. They aren’t just a number or a cog in the wheel. That is what I really think District Court is about.”

Kris Earwood, 32, Sylva attorney with firm Lay and Earwood

Experience: Earwood went to law school at Regent, Va. She interned with the district attorney’s office for a few months while in school.

Upon graduating, she joined the firm of Frank Lay, where she is now a partner. She focused on criminal defense for three years, then spent two years doing family law with the Department of Social Services. She briefly served as a prosecutor in tribal court in Cherokee.

Lay said in her seven years, she has had vast “in the courtroom” experience.

“I spend more time in District Court than in my office,” she said.

Why run: District courtrooms are regularly packed to the gills with all walks of life, with all manner of violations and every type of dispute imaginable.

“Either you love District Court or you don’t. I really love District Court. There are a lot of attorneys who don’t ... I love the case law. I love the precision of it. I love the statutes. I hope the ultimate goal of any judge is to seek justice.”

Philosophy: “District Court is the place where a judge can really have an impact on someone’s life, whether it is a criminal defendant or a DSS case ... The average voter isn’t well-versed in what goes on in District Court, but it’s where you go if you get a speeding ticket or are getting a divorce. It is the meat and potatoes of our court system.”

What else: Earwood wants to uphold the tradition of even-temperament and sound decisions the 30th judicial bench is known for.

“Everybody we have had up there had common sense life experience and legal experience.”

www.earwoodforjudge.com

Justin Greene, 30, Bryson City attorney with Moody and Brigham law firm

Experience: Greene went to law school at N.C. Central. He did an internship with Moody and Brigham while still in school and came back to his hometown to work at the firm after graduation in 2006. Greene said he has handled the full gamut of case work.

“We are a small firm in a small town so you do what needs doing.”

He has also been an attorney advocate for the guardian ad litem program.

Why run: “I have always had an eye for the bench since I was a little kid.” He remembers a field trip to the local courthouse in second grade. All the students took turns sitting behind the judge’s bench. Ever since, he’s wanted to be a judge.

Philosophy: “I think I can help people. I think I can understand the way people are and what some of the problems are that people in this area have ... I can see both sides of issues. When you can relate to the people you are serving that is a huge help.”

Greene said his youth, or the age of any candidate, isn’t an issue.

“It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” But he admits there are big shoes to fill.

“I have always had great pride about practicing where I practice and being an attorney in WNC. It is the best bench in the state and always has been.”

What else: Unlike the heavy concentration of candidates from Haywood County, Greene hopes “one thing that might set me apart is I am from the western part of the district.”

David Sutton, 34, Waynesville attorney with Kirkpatrick law firm

Experience: Sutton went to law school at N.C. Central. He has practiced law for five years at the firm of James “Kirk” Kirkpatrick.

Sutton has practiced in most areas that come up in District Court, but has done less on criminal and more on the civil side and domestic arena, including family law, divorce, child custody, child support, and the like. He also has done many property disputes, a big item in District Court.

Why run: Sutton was an elementary teacher for two years before he decided to go back to law school. Once in law school, he decided fairly quickly he wanted to be a judge one day.

“One day arrived,” he said.

“The majority of the cases in District Court affect families and children, be it criminal or domestic cases. I think it is a good opportunity to provide a safe, neutral environment for families to resolve their differences.”

Philosophy: “I feel like I can be fair and objective in applying the law. Those who know me in the legal community know I won’t get out of control on the bench and would maintain an even keel, that I am fair I would listen to all sides before making a determination. Those are promises I will make.”

When it is necessary I will not hesitate to send somebody to jail if it ensures the safety of the public.”

What else: Sutton’s father died when he was a baby, and his mother remarried. He grew up in a blended family with half-brothers and sisters and step-brothers and sisters, allowing him to related to the mixed family dynamics of those landing in District Court for domestic issues.

Sutton is active in the Haywood County Democratic Party. While the race is non-partisan, Sutton has used the normal routes within party structures to garner support for his candidacy.

www.suttonforjudge.com

Caleb Rogers, 30, Waynesville attorney in solo practice

Experience: Rogers went to Wake Forest for law school. Upon graduating in 2005, he practiced at the firm Brown and Patten for four years before starting his own practice last year with his wife, who is also an attorney.

Rogers says he has done all the types of cases that would come before the district court bench: criminal and civil, including wills, estates, elderly guardianships, property disputes, and landlord-tenant fights. He has done family law, though not a whole lot. He estimates that he has done hundreds of real estate closings.

Why run: “Being a judge is being a servant. It is one of the highest forms of public service...I can do the job. I have the intellect, the knowledge of the law and strength of character necessary to serve on the bench.”

Philosophy: “A judge must be able to listen to and comprehend the breadth of every case before him and listen to all the facts and treat each case as important and then apply the law in a way that is fair to both sides. That promotes the equality of our system and protects the freedoms we all enjoy.”

Rogers advocates “severity where needed and second chances where appropriate.”

What else: He was valedictorian of his class at Pisgah High School. He is president of the Haywood County Bar Association.

www.rogers4judge.com

Seat 3

Steve Ellis, 60, Waynesville attorney in the firm Brown, Ward and Haynes

Experience: Ellis went to law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. He worked for three years as a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office. He spent several years as an attorney for the Department of Social Services doing all manner of family law, including child custody, child abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, child support, etc.

Why run: “This is as close to the people’s court as we have.”

Whether it is a speeding ticket or divorced couple trying to split their assets, “it is the court that probably affects the lives of more citizens” more than any other realm.

Ellis also wants to help fill a void being left by long-time judges.

“It was clear there would be an enormous change in the court system. I saw a need for an experienced person on the bench ... I have always been drawn to public service. This is a chance to step forward and do that.”

Philosophy: “Be courteous to everybody, starting with the people who come before you as the parties in the case and their attorneys, but also including the clerks, bailiffs, and witnesses.”

Ellis said a judge should not berate those who come before the bench or look down on others in the courtroom.

“If the judge acts courteously toward everybody, it creates an atmosphere for the courtroom.”

What else: Ellis was the top nominee for a vacant judge seat that opened up last year. When there is a vacancy on the bench, all the local attorneys come together and vote for three nominees, whose names are sent on to the governor to make the final selection. Ellis overwhelmingly received the support of attorneys in the seven western counties comprising the judicial district. He got 54 votes, while the attorney who came in second trailed with 25. However, the governor opted for the second runner-up.

“It was puzzling to a lot of people,” Ellis admitted.

Rusty McLean, 63, Waynesville attorney with solo practice

Experience: McLean went to law school at N.C. Central University. He has had law partners over the years, but mostly has operated a solo practice. McLean has 34 years experience in the civil and criminal arena. He says he has tried more than 2,000 criminal and civil jury trials and twice that number of non-jury trials.

“That is a pretty substantial difference from some of the candidates,” McLean said.

Why run: He decided to join the race again this year partly out of concern over the high turnover of experienced judges the bench has seen in the past few years, and with this election in particular. McLean said he is concerned about the level of acumen some of the younger candidates have.

“Judges don’t need to have on the job training.”

McLean said civil experience is just as important as criminal.

“Most people don’t end up in criminal court but they do have business disputes and collection disputes and property disputes, and those issues are important to people all over Western North Carolina.”

Philosophy: “A judge is not an advocate for either side. A judge has the duty and responsibility to listen to both sides and render a decision solely based on the evidence and apply the law correctly.”

What else: McLean ran for judge four years ago but lost in the primary.

McLean said he has taken more than 500 cases to appeal, the grounds for which are perceived mistakes by the judge. McLean said he became so tuned in to detecting potential judicial mistakes when trying cases that he would be less likely to make them himself if he was on the bench.

McLean has taken two cases all the way to the Supreme Court.

Roy Wijewickrama, 34, Waynesville attorney serving as prosecutor in Cherokee

Experience: Wijewickrama went to law school at Cleveland State in Ohio. He was a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office in the seven western counties for seven years. He went into private practice for a year to spend more time at home following the birth of his first child. And for the past two years, he has served as the prosecutor in tribal court run by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

While his expertise is clearly on the criminal side as a prosecutor, his year in private practice gave him experience in family law and civil cases.

“By no means do I consider that to be a lifetime worth of experience handling family law cases, but nevertheless, I am familiar with them and the law surrounding family law.”

Even as a prosecutor, he was involved in family law if allegations of child abuse or domestic violence were a part of the case.

Why run: “Most importantly I feel I will be serving my community, the community I was raised in. But also I feel like given my experience and given the fact that as a prosecutor especially I’ve had to make very difficult decisions, I feel I am well-suited to serve on the bench.”

Those decisions include when to offer a plea bargain, what evidence is admissible, whether charges are likely to stick, and how to deal with cases where children are serving as witnesses.

Philosophy: Wijewickrama said there are two primary qualifications for judge.

“Experience, and by that I mean time spent in court and the number of trials they have taken part in. And also temperament. That is very important.” Judges need to be tough and firm, but they also need to treat people with respect.

What else: Ellis does not see age as a strike against a candidate for judge. The long-time judges stepping down were young themselves when they were seated on the bench.

“We’ve had several judges over the past 25 years that have been appointed in the late 20s and early 30s, and I think they have been outstanding judges and I think the legal community would agree we have been very lucky to have them serving on the bench.”

www.royforjudge.com

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