Western North Carolina found itself in an unflattering national media spotlight a year ago when a reporter from The New Yorker picked the state Senate race between Jim Davis and John Snow to illustrate a masterful takeover of national politics by conservative special interest groups.
John Snow dreads his daily trip to the post office these days. It’s just two blocks from his home outside Murphy, but the whole way there he wonders what will be waiting for him this time.
Once inside, he heads for the trash can and peers inside. And more often than not, he finds his own face staring back, perhaps flanked by a cartoonish cutout of Obama’s head, or alongside a drowning pink piggy bank, or — the worst yet — as an accompaniment to the menacing face of a child rapist behind prison bars.
Verbal sparring over key campaign issues in this fall’s state senate race was lively and pointed between N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and former Democratic state Sen. John Snow at an Aug. 9 forum the Macon County League of Women Voters hosted in Franklin.
Two well-known Democrat senators from the mountains who lost in 2010 and hoped to reclaim their seats this year faced a conundrum.
Joe Sam Queen of Waynesville and John Snow of Murphy both wanted to run for the Senate again, hoping to take back the seats they lost to Republican challengers two years ago. But they found themselves at a stalemate after suddenly landing in the same political district when new legislative lines were re-drawn following the Census.
Queen’s home turf of Haywood County — once part of a jumbled legislative district that reached as far north to Mitchell and as far east to McDowell County — was grouped into a new district neatly comprised of the seven western counties. It put Queen and Snow in competition in their bid for office.
The upshot: only one of them would ultimately have their name on the ballot come November. Their choice: former political allies would have to run against each other in the May primary or one of them would have to gracefully concede.
As the clock ticked toward the opening day of candidate registration in February, no easy resolution was on the horizon.
“I think we are both electable,” Queen said as recently as last week. “I am not going to run against John and he is not going to run against me. We will evaluate which one of us should run.”
But the two political allies found an easy out after all. The unexpected and sudden news that Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, would retire after 14 years in the legislature presented a solution.
Queen called it a “game changer.”
Rather than make a bid for the Senate, he would instead run for Haire’s old House seat.
“If (Snow) really has the fire in his belly and wants to do it, I will support him and run for Phil’s seat,” Queen said. “It is an attractive choice. It is serendipitous. It keeps experienced legislators in the game with the opportunity to serve.”
The Democratic Party is likely relieved by the development. At a regional meeting of the Democratic Party leaders from 12 counties last week, Brian McMahan from Jackson County cautioned against wasting political energy and money in a primaries against their own.
“Let’s harness our energy,” said McMahan, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Jackson County. “We don’t need to worry about primaries. Nov. 6 is Election Day. That’s where we need to make a difference.”
Queen said the party needn’t have worried.
“I assure you we were going to work it out because that’s what kind of guys we are,” Queen said. “I certainly would not have run against him.”
In the end, had it not been for the Haire “game changer,” it appears Queen would have had to be the one to acquiesce regardless. Snow said that he was committed to run for the Senate regardless of what Queen decided, however.
“To be real honest with you, I was willing to go through a primary if I had to,” Snow said. “I think it is obvious I would be the stronger candidate.”
Snow believes he has better name recognition in the seven western counties than Queen would have had. As a judge, Snow presided over court in those same seven counties for 30 years, plus served for six years in the legislature representing those counties already.
Queen, 61, pointed out that he is nine years younger than Snow. He believed he likely had more years of political service ahead of him — and in Raleigh, tenure can be everything.
“The biggest difference between John and I was our age. Who is going to claim this seat for a decade?” Queen asked last week.
Snow, meanwhile, pointed to his record as a more socially and fiscally conservative Democrat, a leaning that squares with voters in the seven western counties.
“Anybody that looks at my record can see I am probably one of the more conservative Democrats in the Senate,” Snow said.
Just as Rep. Heath Shuler is one of the more conservative Democrats in Congress, Snow said.
“That is a reflection of the people we represent,” Snow said.
Queen’s decision clears the path for Snow to emerge as the Democratic candidate in a November rematch against Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who squeezed out a narrow victory over Snow by just 161 votes two years ago.
Queen, however, will face a primary election against long-time judge Danny Davis of Waynesville, who has also announced plans to run for the seat formerly held by Haire.
Snow said that he would back Davis in the primary race as he and Davis both served on the judicial bench together for years and are personal friends.
Republicans aren’t the only ones who will have a reason to head to the polls in the May primary.
While Republican voters sort out who their presidential nominee will be, Democrats have a race of their own to narrow down, although with a much-more homegrown flare.
Two well-known Waynesville men are vying for the seat soon to be vacated by long-time N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva. Joe Sam Queen, an architect by trade, and Danny Davis, a former District Court judge, both formally announced their candidacies this week.
The 119th House district includes all of Jackson and Swain counties, as well as Waynesville, Lake Junaluska and part of Maggie Valley in Haywood County.
The political rumor mill has been churning in the two weeks since Haire announced he would retire. But so far, only Davis and Queen have committed. No other candidates have emerged.
When it comes to politicking, Queen has plenty of experience. He served six years in the state Senate and has five elections under his belt, each of them hard-fought races. He is looking forward to what he calls “on-the-ground retail politics,” which puts him in touch with the people of the mountains.
“I like to give stump speeches and shake people’s hands and ask them for their vote,” Queen said. “I like to have some barbeques and square dances and the whole nine yards.”
Queen’s former sprawling Senate district extended as far north as Mitchell County and as far east as McDowell, making a horseshoe around Buncombe County. He became a seasoned road warrior in such a vast district. He also had to raise lots of money to campaign across so many counties, spending around $600,000 or $700,000 each race.
Queen estimates spending only a fraction of that in the House race.
“I don’t think this will be a high-dollar campaign,” Queen said.
While Davis is new to politics, he says there is no better experience than his 27 years as a District Court judge in the seven western counties.
“It is like a front row seat to the picture window of society,” Davis said of his judgeship. “I see how drugs affect families. I see what happens when they lose their job, and they start drinking, and we have to take their kids. I see what happens when they don’t have enough money to pay their bills or child support even though they are working two or three jobs.”
As a judge, Davis couldn’t make position statements or voice concerns over the issues that he felt affected the people of Western North Carolina. Now, he will finally be able to speak out, and his ideas for improving the lives of people and fixing the inner workings of government are voluminous enough for a dissertation, he said.
“I can finally say this is what we need to do and how we need to help these folks,” Davis said.
Davis said he had already been thinking about running when Haire retired.
Davis contends that he is better known in the district than Queen, since he served not only in Haywood but also Jackson and Swain as a judge for so many years.
Queen disagrees, saying he is equally well known outside Haywood.
“I am a homegrown mountain fellow,” Queen said. “I have as strong a name recognition as any politician in the west. I have the polling data to show it.”
Besides, the district is his “own backyard,” compared to the sprawling Senate district he had to work.
Queen, 61, and Davis, 58, both played up their ties to the region. Both men come from a long Haywood County lineage. The Davis and Queen names are both established and prominent Haywood families
For now, Davis and Queen seem to have the primary race to themselves. Many initially looked to Troy Burns from Bryson City as a possible candidate, as he ran against Haire 10 years ago. But, Burns said this week he has decided not to run. Burns said both Davis and Queen called him over the past few days to find out where he stood on a possible candidacy.
“It is a mutual thing out of respect,” Burns said of his decision not to run.
From Jackson County, the chairman of the county Democratic Party Brian McMahan was also bandied about as a possible candidate, but McMahan said he won’t be running. He has a one-year-old and doesn’t want to spend the time away from home.
The primary between Queen and Davis could prove a tougher battle than the general election in November.
Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 in the district. So on paper at least, whoever wins the Democratic primary could have an advantage over their Republican opponent in November.
“It is a solid Democratic seat,” Queen said.
Davis, however, isn’t so sure.
“I don’t think they are going to concede this seat,” Davis said of Republicans. “In this day in time, I don’t think it can be politics as usual. I think you are going to have to work very hard to retain the Democratic votes you have.”
Only one Republican has formerly announced his candidacy. Mike Clampitt of Bryson City stepped up to run within hours of Haire’s announcement.
The race for the state’s 50th Senate District, a seat currently held by Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, is shaping up as a potentially epic political battle next year in Western North Carolina.
The only question for Democrats is whether the party’s choice to try to dethrone Davis will be former Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, or former Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville.
Davis beat Snow in last year’s election; state political newcomer Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, ousted Queen. Hise now represents the 47th Senate District, which currently includes Avery, Haywood, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell and Yancey counties.
Snow and Queen confirmed they each want to run, but the two friends said they would not compete directly against one another in a primary. Instead, it will be one man or the other, decided somehow in a yet-to-be-determined manner.
“That’s sort of the gist of it right now,” Queen said. “We are both willing to run, and are both available to run, but we have to come up with the best solution.”
Snow said he and Queen have agreed that “whichever way the decision is made, the other will help the other.”
Snow, however, a longtime judge whose district encompassed the exact political boundaries now comprising the 50th Senate District, is cautious about getting ahead of potential court challenges.
“Our district would be upheld without question, but if others are in contest, you won’t go forward on any of the changes,” Snow said. “It would revert us back to the old district. And that has happened before.”
In other words, the 2012 race could take place using current boundaries while court challenges play out.
Snow brightened when talking about the possibilities, however, of campaigning in this new Senate district.
“I think this does create a better district for me,” he said. “It is exactly the same district I held as a judge, and I’m familiar with the people.”
Sen. John Snow, a Democrat from Cherokee County, first won N.C. Senate District 50 by beating longtime incumbent Sen. Bob Carpenter, a Republican from Macon County, by fewer than 300 votes in 2004.
Snow took over a district made up of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, part of Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Transylvania and Swain counties — the southwestern tip of North Carolina, as far from Raleigh in the Tar Heel State as it gets. Snow defeated Republican challenger Susan C. Pons in 2008 to keep the seat.
Jim Davis, however, believes voters in the 50th District are ready to elect a GOP candidate again, a conservative from Macon County, no less.
He might be right.
This part of the state — particularly Macon County — is increasingly right leaning. And Davis is campaigning ferociously and running a hard-hitting advertising campaign accusing Snow of fiscal waste. He surged to a 16-percentage point lead earlier this month in a poll conducted by SurveyUSA for the Civitas Institute (a conservative public policy organization in Raleigh).
“Davis has greatly increased his lead over Snow since May when the two were virtually tied, and continues to garner more support from Republican and unaffiliated voters who are abandoning the Democratic party this election season,” said Chris Hayes, Civitas Institute senior legislative analyst, in a recent news release.
Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, said he believes the tight race, as evidenced by polls, is more a function of national and state trends than individual actions by the candidates.
Davis, an orthodontist, has become familiar to voters in Macon County for a decade or so of service on the county’s board of commissioners. The Franklin resident is an unabashed supporter of local — and not state — control, and acknowledged a certain irony in his seeking a state Senate seat.
But, Davis said, being a state senator would give him the ability to help return some of that control to local hands, exactly where he believes decision-making truly belongs.
The economic problems North Carolinians face are directly attributable to the Democratic party, Davis said, which has controlled the state Senate for more than a century and the state House for all but four of those years.
“And what do they have to show for their century of rule over North Carolina?” he asked, answering the question himself: out-of-control cycles of taxing and spending, job scarcity, and an unfriendly business environment. Because of these problems, he said he’d be a better choice for senator than his competitor.
But Snow isn’t rolling over and playing dead, regardless of his challenger’s strong hand and surging lead in the polls.
Snow, a former prosecutor and district court judge, is intimately familiar with his eight-county district, where he heard thousands of legal cases in three decades of legal work. He believes voters know him, too, and what he stands for.
“In this last Senate term, we have had to make tough decisions faced with the worst recession since the Great Depression,” he said. “We have made the deepest budget cuts in the history of North Carolina, and per-capita spending under the budget stands at a 14-year low.”
Still, Snow said, the Democratic-controlled legislature worked to protect teaching jobs, and K-12 education. He said the key to recession recovery will be education, and that the most important issue is to create new jobs.
Snow cited university and community college funding, small-business refundable tax credits, restored funding for small business centers in the community colleges, job training programs and more as reasons voters should return him to Raleigh.
Sen. John Snow, D- Murphy, had a whopper of a week last week.
He had four bills on the table he hope to push through committee, the Senate and the House in a matter of days.