Half the candidates think the current commissioners are doing a good job. The other half think county government needs improvement at best, and is a disaster at worst.
The “right track or wrong track” question attempted to ferret out what camps the candidates might fall in, in hopes of bringing some structure and order to the maze of candidates on the ballot. Voters could have a confusing time of it, nonetheless.
Party lines in the Haywood County commissioners’ race are muddier than ever this year. With conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans on the ticket — often crossing somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum — voters can’t rely on party labels alone to help them sort out the candidates.
Democrat Robin Black, for example, says she is extremely fiscally conservative and for limited government. Meanwhile, Republican Kevin Ensley has voted in lock step with the Democratic majority on the board of commissioners during his 12 years in office, from capital building projects to a property tax increase to correct stagnating employee pay.
Democrat Terry Ramey isn’t a fan of the current Democratic commissioners, but Republican candidate Brandon Rogers has no major criticisms of the job they’ve done.
The chair of the Haywood County Democratic Party caught flack for a post on Facebook saying there were only three Democrats running for commissioner, and excluded Ramey as not truly being a Democrat.
That riled Ramey up.
“We got one little clique in the Democrat party and if it ain’t their way, it’s no way. I can’t help it that it don’t make the Democrats happy that I’m a Democrat. This is bullshit. We’ve got to get over this,” Ramey said.
Ramey admits he shares views with Republicans, but that doesn’t make him one.
“If you notice the old, old Democrats and the old, old Republicans are trying to switch places over the years,” Ramey said. “I’m a Democrat, don’t get me wrong. I just look at it as people. I got friends on both sides on the fence.”
Black agreed the lines have gotten blurry.
“There is a not a lot of difference between a conservative Democrat and a liberal Republican,” Black said.
Black said she is pro-choice, but believes welfare recipients should be drug tested, for example.
“So where do I fit?” Black said. Black is adamant she’s a Democrat though, because her grandfather would roll over in his grave otherwise.
Black was a surprise candidate on the Democratic ballot. She hadn’t let on to Democratic party operatives that she planned to run before filing, nor does she move in party circles, but she hasn’t been rejected by party insiders like Ramey.
Greg Burrell, a conservative liberty-brand Republican, said the country is ready for a third party because the labels of yore aren’t working anymore.
“People vote the way they vote because their daddy did. It makes me so mad,” Burrell said.
Adding to the party mash-up, a Tea Party faction of the Haywood GOP is not-so-quietly campaigning against Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a Republican.
Ensley has been rejected by factions of the party for not being conservative enough — even labeling him as a RINO, i.e. Republican in Name Only. But Ensley disagrees with that characterization.
“I am very socially conservative. I am pro-life and pro-family and pro-Second Amendment,” said Ensley, a devout evangelical Christian. “I plainly said at the forum these are the reasons I am a Republican.”
Ensley said one of his grandfathers was a Republican and the other a conservative Blue Dog Democrat. He sees himself as a Reagan Republican.
As for those who claim he isn’t a Republican, Ensley says you have to look at where those naysayers fall on the spectrum themselves.
“They are over here on the extreme,” Ensley said. “I don’t think they have any traction.”
There’s yet another way to bring some order to the race in the absence of party labels: where do they stand on a local government conspiracy theory?
A group of local government watchdogs — the same libertarian-leaning faction that controls the Haywood GOP — routinely take county government to task.
While it’s a noble undertaking to hold elected officials accountable and a fundamental tenant of democracy, the watchdogs try to sleuth out perceived corruption at every turn.
They have accused the county finance director of “cooking the books,” the county election director of rigging the last commissioner election, the commissioner chairman of taking bribes, the tax administrator of falsifying property tax values — and the list goes on.
The unsubstantiated claims are largely based on hunches with skewed information at best, and invented information at worst, but are circulated on email, social media and blogs.
“People hear these things that are unbelievable, because they are unbelievable,” Ensley said.
Burrell is active in the faction and believes in the conspiracy theories.
“I believe it is rigged as the day is long,” Burrell said of the last election. It’s the most logical explanation Burrell can think of to explain the election outcome.
“How can you put people in there who keeps raising taxes and digging us deeper in debt and then still get elected?” Burrell said.
County debt is actually lower today than it was a decade ago. But Burrell doesn’t believe that either.
“Anybody can push a crooked pencil,” Burrell said.
Ramey has also been affiliated in recent years with the faction. Ramey has appeared at commissioner meetings wearing a T-shirt with the words “Tyranny Response Unit,” signaling a philosophical alignment with the limited government activists.
But he said he is not in their clique, despite the fact they are supporting him. He’s more of an adopted son.
He said he would be coming to county commissioner meetings anyway to hear what’s going on, and they just happen to be there, too, he said.
Monroe Miller, a local GOP party leader and mastermind behind many of the local government conspiracy theories, recently switched his party affiliation from Republican to unaffiliated.
Miller publicly supports Ramey, but he couldn’t have voted for Ramey in the primary as a registered Republican.
Ramey said he isn’t a foot soldier for Miller, however.
“I don’t follow him, I don’t lead him, he don’t lead me,” Ramey said. “Me and him disagree on a lot of things but I respect him because he is man enough to stand up if he feels like people are being done wrong.”
Voters sorting out the mixed-up party affiliations won’t be able to mix-and-match candidates from different parties in the primary. That won’t be possible until November, after candidates have been narrowed down to two from each party.
In the primary, voters registered as Democrat or Republican are locked in to voting on their own party’s ticket.
Those registered as unaffiliated, however, can pick which primary they want to vote in, but not both. Nearly one-third of county voters fall in the unaffiliated category.
“If there is a good Democrat and good Republican it would be a close race,” Ensley said. “I don’t think there are any partisan issues at the local level.”
That’s one thing almost all of them agree on.
“This should be nondenominational race. You should just put the best people forward, most qualified to protect and continue the great things that Haywood County has done for the past century,” said Steve Brown, a Democratic candidate. Brown added, however, he is more of a true Democrat than some of the other Democrats on the ballot.
“I think two of the four candidates on the Democratic ballot are more progressive than the other two,” Brown said.
As for where candidates stand on the performance of the current board of commissioners, here’s what they had to say:
Kevin Ensley, Republican candidate and sitting commissioner
Ensley said he wants to continue the momentum he’s been a part of for the past 12 years on the board of commissioners and keep moving the county “in a positive direction.”
Ensley is a socially conservative Christian. But fiscally, Ensley doesn’t believe in stifling progress or forgoing initiatives that would better the community simply in order to cut the budget and lower taxes.
Ensley doesn’t apologize for a capital building plan that’s been carried out over the past several years, a campaign that in some ways smacks of progressive-ism.
“I think we have been proactive in taking care of the needs of the county. Past boards kept kicking the can down the road and we didn’t do that. We took care of it. It will pay off in the future, because the next generation won’t have to deal with it,” Ensley said.
Nor does Ensley apologize for voting in lock step with the Democratic majority on the board. Despite the other commissioners being Democrats, the board has been fairly conservative in their budgets and policies, Ensley said.
Rather than being a lone “no” vote in the minority, Ensley said his cooperation with the Democratic commissioners has allowed him to craft compromises and move the needle in a more conservative direction by working with the board rather than against it.
The budget is lower, debt is lower and there are fewer county employees today than in 2008.
Greg Burrell, Republican candidate
Burrell is a conservative Christian candidate with anti-government leanings who believes the county is being run into the ground by liberal bureaucrats.
“The county is heading the wrong direction. The people in charge of the county commissioners now, they act like the people work for them. They go buy whatever they want to and put the cost back on the people,” Burrell said.
Burrell said he thinks Ensley isn’t really a Republican.
“The only thing we got in common is we both live in Haywood County,” Burrell said.
That will change soon, however, as Burrell is moving out West. He won’t be around to take office even if elected. Burrell said he feels free out West.
“I feel like I can be myself and be how I am. Here it is an oppressed feeling I have,” Burrell said. “The government believes we are the cows and the sheep and they can herd us whatever direction they want to go.”
Burrell said the county budget should be cut and property taxes lowered, period.
Brandon Rogers, Republican candidate
Rogers could best be described as a moderate Republican. He’s socially conservative and devoutly Christian.
When asked whether he is running because he thinks the current commissioners are doing a bad job, he said no.
“No, nothing like that. I don’t have an agenda,” Rogers said.
That puts Rogers more in line with Ensley than with Burrell.
“I don’t feel like there’s been a lot of wasteful spending, but there are things I have looked at that I feel like is maybe not a priority,” Rogers said.
Rogers said his biggest goal would be to make county government more streamlined and efficient, to in turn free up more money that could be spent on economic development and education without raising taxes to do so.
“I feel like you can run it efficiently and get just as much accomplished,” Rogers said.
As for taxes, “I definitely don’t want to raise them. I’d like to lower them.” But he didn’t promise that it was possible.
Terry Ramey, Democratic candidate
Ramey didn’t have a “yes” or “no” answer when asked whether the commissioners have done a good job or if the county’s on the right track. It’s both, he said.
“A lot of people aren’t happy with the way things are going on. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good things going on,” Ramey said. “My pet peeve is I don’t think they research stuff enough before they make decisions.”
As for the capital building campaign over the past decade, Ramey isn’t patently against the projects, but thinks they may have been too luxurious.
“It’s not necessarily they have built too much stuff but I think they could have streamlined it,” Ramey said.
On property taxes, Ramey is also on the fence. He isn’t sure it would be possible to cut the county’s budget in order to lower taxes.
“That’s one of the hardest things in the world to do once taxes has been raised, to lower it back again. My biggest thing is that we don’t need to raise taxes,” Ramey said.
Steve Brown, Democratic candidate
Brown believes the current board of commissioners has been doing a good job.
Brown said he wants to “protect and continue the great things that Haywood County has done for the past century.”
“I want to keep Haywood County progressive and protect the same great life experiences we had when we were growing up,” Brown said.
Robin Black, Democratic candidate
Black said she believes the current board of commissioners has done a “mediocre job.”
“I am not sure there is a whole lot more we can cut. I think they have cut and cut and cut,” Black said.
But she hopes to dive into the budget line by line and find out.
Black questions whether the county’s capital building campaign has been too extravagant.
“I don’t understand why we keep buying land and building buildings,” Black said, citing the empty buildings and land the county isn’t using. “We keep giving and buying, giving and buying.”
Coming next week
The Smoky Mountain News sat down with candidates running for Haywood County commissioner over the past week. See next week’s paper for in-depth bios on the candidates and why they are running.
Primary Election Day is March 15, but early voting starts March 3.
Who’s on the Haywood commissioner ballot?
Two of the five seats on the Haywood County Board of Commissioners are up for election this year. The primary will narrow down the field of candidates to two Democrats and two Republicans.
• Greg Burrell, general contractor.
• Kevin Ensley, owner of Ensley Land Surveying and long-time county commissioner.
• Brandon Rogers, owner of Rogers Express Lube and Tire and former production manager at Day International in Arden.
• Robin Black, certified public accountant who owns her own accounting firm.
• Charles Boyd, owns WNC Landscaping and serves on the Haywood Community College board.
• Steve Brown, director of the nonprofit Arc of Haywood County, past director of Haywood Regional Medical Center Foundation and Haywood County Schools Foundation.
• Terry Ramey, retired from the towing and mechanic business.
A note to voters: one candidate is moving away, another is MIA
Republican County Commissioner Candidate Greg Burrell announced this week that he is moving out West after his wife got a job in Wyoming, but it is too late for Burrell to take his name off the ballot.
Burrell said he wouldn’t have run had he known at the time of candidate sign-up in December. While Burrell is not actively campaigning, he is still encouraging voters to support him. Burrell said a vote for him would at least send a message that people in the county support his conservative stance and libertarian views.
Meanwhile, Charles Boyd, a Democratic candidate, is not represented in this week’s coverage because he did not participate in an interview. Boyd was initially hesitant to commit to an interview at all, but after finally agreeing to one he failed to show up or call.
Boyd also missed a commissioner candidate forum two weeks ago hosted by The Mountaineer newspaper. Boyd said he has been battling an illness that has prevented him from participating in media campaign coverage.