During the primary, Democrat Ben Bushyhead led all candidates by snagging more than 17 percent of the vote. Bushyhead was followed up by fellow newcomer Danny Burns, with just more than 16 percent. That left surviving incumbents Steve Moon and David Monteith — incumbents Donnie Dixon and Robert White lost their seats in the primary — trailing a considerable distance behind, with 11 and 10 percent respectively.
And while conventional wisdom in Democrat-heavy Swain holds that the commissioner race was sewed up with the primary, there are two Republican candidates eyeing the general election as well. Lance Grant II and Carolyn Bair skipped primary season but will meet their Democrat counterparts on November’s ballot.
This field of candidates represents varying takes on how best to lead Swain County into the future. The hopefuls are also approaching the contest from different directions.
Incumbents — like 16-year veteran David Monteith — intend to continue work already begun.
“I just hope the people will stand behind me and we’ll keep pushing away,” Monteith said.
Others, like Bair, are looking to shake up the status quo. She’s hoping voters agree with her that “we need some new people on there.”
“I not educated as much as some of them,” Bair said, “I don’t have a bachelor’s degree and all that, but I have common sense.”
For his part, Bushyhead is shooting for a somewhat loftier goal. Describing his open-door, open-dialogue approach as “no more business as usual,” the candidate is hoping to reset the bar, to redefine the qualities and priorities voters consider in the future when deciding on their county commissioners.
“What I hope is how I model being a commissioner, the community will say, ‘OK, we have one commissioner doing that, why can’t they all do that?’” Bushyhead said. “I want them to see it in action so they better understand.”
Recently, commissioner candidates spoke with The Smoky Mountain News about a few of the issues they will be dealing with if elected to the board. They discussed the county’s need for jobs — Swain’s unemployment level is about double the state average — and how best to secure them; the educational needs of an area that ranks last in the state in its per-pupil funding of schools, and the dream of a new library that will require significant financial support; their campaigns; their reasons for running and their hopes for the future of Swain County.
Carolyn Bair, R, 66
Retired fast food worker
Why you? “I feel it necessary to have somebody in there of another opinion. I have standards, I was raised poor, I know what these people go through on a limited income.”
Jobs: “If we could just lure a little industry or somebody who worked to put up a store that didn’t just sell souvenirs. We need something industrious, our teenagers don’t have any reason to stay — they leave for jobs.”
New library: “If they do that they’re going to have to raise our taxes and I don’t want to face that. We’re just going to have to wait and see. It’s a down-the-road kind of thing.”
On the status quo: “These commissioners are doing a good job, but we need some new people in there.”
On the future of Swain County: “I’m hoping to see it rise a whole lot above where it is right now.”
Danny Burns, D, 58
Pepsi Cola employee
On general election: “November will be here pretty soon. I feel pretty good about it.”
Jobs: “Large business isn’t going to look at Swain County very much — it’d be great to get another ConMet — [but] I think we need to concentrate on small businesses.”
Education needs: “I think we need to do as much as possible to help education in any way we can. I think there’s some talk about some meetings with the board of education, I think there’s talk of a little closer relationship with the board.”
New library: “I think the county can help with that. I think that’s going to depend on the county. It’s going to be a whole community effort, but I think the county needs to work as close with the library as we can.”
In 10 years: “I would like to see Swain County out of debt.”
Ben Bushyhead, 66
Retired Methodist pastor
On an open dialogue with the public: “There seems to be no public forum to allow people to address their county commissioners. I intend to have pubic forums. That’s what I’m promising people. Once a commissioner wins a seat you don’t see them until the next election.”
Jobs: “I think there are small and probably medium-sized businesses that are looking for a good workforce. It’s hard work, but we just have to get out and find them.”
New library: “I think it’s a realistic possibility. It’s not an overnight thing.”
On the will of the people: “I understand elected officials have to make decisions, but you still have to listen to constituents and see which direction they want you to go.”
Lance Grant II, R, 42
Engineer, RT&K engineering
On motivation for running: “‘Cause I’m tired of the ways things are run and people not looking out for my tax dollars.”
Jobs: “Bring in businesses as opposed to bringing in hamburger joints — not everyone can work at McDonald’s. The way you get businesses into your county is you offer tax breaks if they employ so many people.”
New library: “Do we need a new library? I would say it’d be nice to keep up with the times. Do we have the money? I don’t know if we have the money.”
On a Republican’s chances in Swain: “I think I stand a pretty good chance. I’m a registered Republican, but I’m active in the county. If I don’t have any Democrats vote for me I won’t win, but I have Democrat friends that tell me they’re going to vote for me.”
On his vision for Swain: “[I’d like to see Swain become] a place you wanted to go to spend the remainder of you life. I understand that for a lot of people that’s a dream. Do I think that will ever come true? I think it will.”
David Monteith (I), D, 67
Retired market manager at Ingles; school bus driver
Jobs: “I wish everything that we bought was like it use to be — made in America. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about jobs.”
On attracting small industry: “Building canoes and backpacks, or jet boats, we’re all pushing for these because it’s all we can get. We take the industry we can get and we’re thrilled to death to have it.”
On relationship with Swain County School Board: “We have a good relationship with ’em and we proved that the other night [when commissioners entered into an agreement to help secure a loan to fund capital improvements at East Elementary School].”
New library: “I promote what they’re trying to do at the library, OK, and if we can get the dollars that’ll be fantastic, but I will not support raising taxes to make it happen.”
On the tourism economy: “We have got to use what we have — the boat that floats — and right now it’s tourism.”
Steve Moon (I), D, 63
Retired tire shop owner
On reasons to reelect: “We’re on the verge of a lot of good things ahead of us.”
Jobs: “[Conmet] is always looking for more good people. And, of course, the casino is always hiring. If people want a job in Swain County I think they can find one.”
Education needs: “Our county continues to grow and our schools continue to expand. It all costs a lot of money.”
New library: “I look forward to a new library. We’re just waiting on the money. We can’t really put a timeline on that right now.”
On the future of Swain: “I like it the way it is, and I would like to see it stay the way it is.”
About the election
The Swain County Board of Commissioners has four seats up for grabs this year. Four Democrats — including two incumbents — will join two Republicans on November’s general election ballot. Current Commissioner Chairman Phil Carson already locked down the chairman’s seat during primary season and will head into another term unopposed.
This is the last time that all four Swain commissioners seats will open up simultaneously. Going forward, the terms will be staggered, with two seats on the ballot at a time. This year’s election sets the stage for the staggered terms, with the two top vote-getters serving four year terms and the other two winning candidates serving two-year terms. A four-year term, with alternating election cycles, will then start.