“I plan on getting right to work,” Queen said. “I’ve had an agenda on hold for two year’s that’s been building steam.”
Queen reclaimed the Senate seat from Sen. Keith Presnell, R-Burnsville, who defeated Queen in 2004. During his campaign, Queen focused on his legislative record compared to Presnell’s. Presnell failed to get a single bill passed during his time in Raleigh or secure any funding for the region. Queen referred to his opponent as a stuffed suit warming a seat.
“It feels good to get out of the political wilderness and back to working for the people of Western North Carolina,” Queen said in a speech to supporters at his campaign headquarters following the final vote tally.
Queen wasted no time getting to work. Following his victory speech, Queen stepped outside on the porch to call Senate leader Mark Basnight. Queen made plans to meet with Basnight in Raleigh to discuss the legislative agenda. As the state senate leader, Basnight largely calls the shots in the Senate. Few bills get passed without his blessing.
Queen’s ability to build the right alliances was the key to his success in steering funding to the mountains and getting favorable legislation passed for the region.
“He is an incredibly effective legislator in Raleigh,” said Sara Evans, 62, of Waynesville, who camped out at Queen’s campaign headquarters to watch the results come in. “I think Joe Sam is a genius at bringing people together and finding common ground to work together.”
Queen said the line-up of mountain legislators will be a force to reckon with. In the Senate, Queen will be joined by Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, and a new Democratic senator representing the Boone area.
“For the first time in a generation, we have a mountain coalition in the Senate of Democrats,” Queen said.
Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, said he is excited to have Queen back in the Senate. Rapp said Presnell was not an effective partner to work with the past two years. Both the House and Senate have to pass a bill for it to become law.
“You can get a bill passed in the House, but that’s only half way home,” Rapp said. “Now I will have someone to hand it off to the Senate, which I did not have up until this point.”
Specifically, Rapp got a bill passed at the request of Haywood County commissioners to provide funding for Haywood Community College through a local half-cent sales tax. Presnell would not support it in the Senate, however. Rapp said he will go for it again, this time with Queen’s help.
In exit poll interviews, voters said Presnell has not been attentive enough to important issues in the region. For example, when a proposal was floated to close the small minimum security prison in Hazelwood, Presnell did not speak up to keep it open and preserve the jobs. As a result, Barbara Turner of Canton, whose husband works at the prison, voted for Queen.
Queen has campaigned tirelessly in the region, which paid off in securing the vote of Rose Coffman, 50, of Waynesville, who met Queen when he paid a visit to the dialysis center while she was undergoing treatment.
“He came around to each person and shook their hand. I thought that was really nice that he took the time out to do that,” Coffman said. “If he would go out of his way to do that, I thought he would go out of his way to help us on other things.”
Queen also impressed Tiffany Matthews, 23, of Waynesville as a politician who genuinely cares about people.
When Matthews met Queen, she told him she was having a hard time paying for college and couldn’t afford health insurance.
“I work two jobs yet I am still lagging behind,” Matthews said in an exit poll interview. “He seemed really concerned about that. I like his answers.”
Queen’s lead in Haywood made up for Presnell’s two-to-one lead in the Republican leaning territory of Mitchell and Avery counties.
“The people of Haywood County came through for us,” said Robin Smith of Waynesville, a campaign volunteer.
At a fund-raising event in Haywood County last month, Queen told supporters that if he was going to win the seat back he would need to win Haywood and win big. While Haywood’s voting power clearly secured the win, Queen inched up in Mitchell and Avery compared to two years ago.
“We’ll continue to build on that base and on relationships,” Queen said. “We will work for all of them. I am genuine about all joining hands in one big circle. I have a wonderful district.”
Queen said the district has some hard-rock Republicans and yellow-dog Democrats, “but I will serve them both. They are my people, from Banner Elk to Balsam to Lake James.”
Queen said the Republican Party has spent more than $1 million dollars backing Presnell in the 2004 and 2006 elections. Queen expects the same kind of dough to be pumped into the race again in 2008, but he is prepared to fight.
“I plan to serve the district for a while,” Queen said.