Shane Burrell’s idea was simple: create a Web site where political candidates can talk to directly to voters about issues.
“I knew that a lot of the candidates just weren’t able to get out there and online is an easy way to do it,” Burrell said. “I wanted to know for myself what the candidates were about before I voted.”
The co-owner of Metrostat, a Sylva broadband provider, Burrell had the technical know-how to build the site. His challenge has been getting the candidates to participate.
Burrell launched WNCDebate.org at the beginning of the primary season with the hopes of creating a lively forum for candidates in county races throughout Jackson, Swain, and Macon counties.
With primary elections a few short weeks away, the site still doesn’t have enough candidates to create the exchange Burrell was hoping for.
“A lot of them haven’t even responded,” Burrell said. “I don’t know if they are afraid of participating or they’re not technically savvy or what.”
For instance, in the race for Jackson County commissioners’ seats, only Tom Massie has submitted a profile and interacted with voters.
Massie is well known for his willingness to speak his mind, but his support of WNC Debate’s project is based on his desire to tell voters about who he is.
“Any way we can get this information to the public is useful,” Massie said. “How do you make an informed decision if you don’t know who you’re voting for? What kind of democracy do we have if we don’t have an informed electorate?”
Massie’s open attitude has made him a de facto star of the site despite fielding a sometimes unpleasant barrage of questions — from controversial salary raises doled out last year to top county brass to defending Sheriff Jimmy Ashe’s use of drug money to support youth sports teams outside accepted government accounting protocols.
But supporters and critics alike have responded favorably to his willingness to get down to the nitty-gritty on issues.
A registered user named “JacksonCountyCorruption” had this to say to Massie:
“Although I entirely disagree with the decision made by the commissioners, I completely respect your answer Mr. Massie. Furthermore, I would like to thank you for being willing to answer such questions in an ongoing public forum.”
Massie said he wasn’t sure why more candidates weren’t using the forum, but he guessed it was a combination of political savvy and a lack of understanding about the online platform.
“I guess people are scared things could be taken out of context,” Massie said. “Or it’s that you don’t really know who’s running the Web site. I don’t even know who Shane is, but I feel I’ve been treated fairly.”
The site is essentially a tricked-out blog that allows the candidates to post profiles and then respond to comments, which are tallied chronologically.
Burrell says the site gets about 1,000 visitors per day, but only 73 people have voted in the staw poll for Jackson sheriff and 43 in the poll for Swain sheriff. Burrell acts as system administrator and enforces a few simple rules. Any previously published materials relevant to the races like newspaper articles, communications directly from candidates and comments from registered users are fair game and will be posted, as long as they aren’t offensive or salacious.
Massie said he has heard from some candidates that they believe the site has been put together to support a particular ticket or group of candidates. Burrell thinks people haven’t really come all the way around to the concept.
“A lot of people don’t understand that anybody can participate,” Burrell said. “Any one of the candidates can create their own space (on the site).”
Burrell said he has reached out to anyone and everyone he could think of to let them know the space he built is an open forum for the community.
The site has arguably had the most participation from people interested in the Jackson County sheriffs’ race. Two candidates, namely Robin Gunnels and Mary Rock, have posted and interacted with voters. The heated nature of the race and the fact that Gunnels’ business was victimized by arson have fed the interest in the interaction.
Rock wrote a candid post condemning the crime and indicating that she thought it was politically motivated, a sentiment Gunnels also has expressed openly. His campaign signs were stored in the building, and he did not have fire insurance.
“In my opinion, this was a cowardly act carried out by a person who is trying (and obviously desperate) to manipulate the outcome of the election,” Rock wrote, saying it “threatens to undermine the freedom of the people to choose from the candidates whom they want to serve them.”
While Burrell may not yet have succeeded in creating a paradigm shift in the way political candidates interact with voters, he has certainly injected a new element into the conversation. Besides, it’s only primary season and Burrell said he’s in it for the long haul.