The attorney general of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians appointed during the administration of Principal Chief Patrick Lambert has decided to resign from his position, his last day Sept. 22 coming just 17 months after his April 2016 appointment.

Two weeks after the primary election, an official winner has finally been declared following a recount in an insanely tight race between two prominent Waynesville Democrats for the N.C. House of Representatives.

Joe Sam Queen beat out Danny Davis by a mere 17 votes — less than 0.002 percent of the 9,969 votes cast in the race.

“It definitely shows that one vote can make a difference,” said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, the director of the Jackson County Board of Elections.

While Democrats were clearly torn on which man they wanted to send to Raleigh, Queen said he is pleased to win.

“I want to pull together because this is an important year,” said Queen, who will now face the Republican opponent Mike Clampitt from Swain County come November.

Queen and Clampitt are vying for the N.C. House seat currently held by retiring Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva. The seat represents Jackson and Swain counties and the greater Waynesville and Lake Junaluska area of Haywood County. The district leans strongly Democratic.

The race between Queen and Davis came down to the wire on election night, with Queen emerging as the top vote-getter by a mere 11 votes. Queen’s margin widened to an 18-vote lead the following week after a few dozen provisional ballots and late absentee ballots were added to the results.

Provisional ballots are cast when poll workers can’t find a voter’s name on the roster of registered voters. They are given a provisional ballot, which is then set aside in a special stack until election workers have a chance to research whether the ballot should be counted.

A few late absentee ballots usually trickle in after the election as well, but as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, they get counted.

Davis then called for a recount — a right entitled to any candidate under state election law when a race is within a 1-percent margin.

In today’s era of computerized voting terminals, however, recounts rarely change the outcome. But, Davis did pick up one extra vote in the recount, discovered by election workers in Jackson County when hand counting a handful of paper ballots from voters who mailed in absentee ballots.

“They just didn’t do the bubble correctly,” Lovedahl-Lehman said. “The scanner wouldn’t read it, but the board members could look at it and see the voter intent was for Davis.”

Queen said he and Davis both ran fair, clean campaigns.

“It is by far the most pleasant election I have been through,” said Queen.

The race for N.C. House of Representatives between two well-known and prominent Waynesville Democrats, Danny Davis and Joe Sam Queen, came down to the wire Tuesday night.

Queen emerged as the top vote getter by only 12 votes. But, Davis said he was not prepared to concede the race. Results are considered “unofficial” on election night and are not certified for another two or three days, after the county election boards are able to verify provisional ballots, a process that can result in a shuffling of few votes here and there.

“Twelve votes is just too close,” Davis said Tuesday night. “I want to wait until we know more about these other ballots.”

Davis spent 26 years as a District Court judge in the seven western counties, what he calls a “front row seat” on the issues affecting people’s lives. Meanwhile, Queen, an architect with a side business managing a vast inventory of rental property, points to his six years spent in Raleigh as a state senator.

While Queen and Davis are both from Waynesville, the candidates had the most at stake in Jackson County — clearly the largest bloc of Democratic voters compared to much smaller Swain County and the fraction of Haywood that lies in the district.

Queen and Davis both spent the day campaigning in Sylva.

“We had a very pleasant day together at the same precinct all day long in the rain and in the sun. We had good sensible conversation, intermittent with shaking hands and trying to win our share of the votes,” Queen said.

Queen said Democratic voters were torn, witnessed by the close vote.

“We are both well-known, well-like Democrats with significant records of public service and loyal constituents,” Queen said.

Queen has been a state senator representing Haywood County but has never been on the ballot in Jackson.

Queen campaigned actively in Jackson County, attending community functions and hosting meet-and-greet receptions with voters.

“Jackson County is half the district, and it was new to me, so it was certainly my battle ground,” Queen said.

The winner will run against Mike Clampitt, a Republican from Swain County, come November.

Two well-known Waynesville Democrats running against each other for a shot at representing mountain people in Raleigh so far are playing fair and keeping the race clean.

But their similar platforms, progressive rhetoric and measured campaigns mean voters deciding between Joe Sam Queen and Danny Davis will likely be left to size up the man behind the race rather than the policies they stand for.

“There is little he wouldn’t say in his stump speech that I wouldn’t say ‘Amen’ to,” Queen said of Davis. “This is a Democratic primary, and Democrats have to choose among their friends. I have heard ‘I like you both’ more than once.”

The two men are vying for a seat in the N.C. House of Representatives representing Jackson, Swain and the greater Waynesville and Lake Junaluska area of Haywood County. The winner will run against Mike Clampitt, a Republican from Swain County, come November.

The seat suddenly came open this year when Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, announced he would retire. Haire has served seven terms. Queen and Davis quickly emerged as Democratic contenders following Haire’s decision.

Both men lament the budget cuts witnessed under Republican leadership as being too harsh and decry Republican leadership for taking the state in a regressive direction.

But those arguments will play out in excruciating detail come the general election in November when facing an opponent from the other party. For now, in this civil race between two Democrats, Queen and Davis are left trying to convince voters they have the experience needed to get the job done.

Davis spent 26 years as a District Court judge in the seven western counties, what he calls a “front row seat” on the issues affecting people’s lives.

“There is no better training than being a District Court judge when it comes to seeing the problems people in our community face,” Davis said. “If there is a new drug on the street, we are the first to see it. If the economy is bad, we are the first to see it. People lose their jobs and can’t pay their child support.”

Davis has even witnessed the struggle over health care, when people’s insurance runs out, and they turn to credit cards to pay medical bills only to end up with collection agencies after them.

“I wish members of the General Assembly could come to court and see how people really live,” Davis said. “What they do down there has repercussions.”

Meanwhile, Queen, an architect with a side business managing a vast inventory of rental property, points to his six years spent in Raleigh as a state senator.

Queen said it’s easy for first-time candidates to draft legislative wish lists and sweeping campaign platforms. But once in Raleigh, reality sets in, something he learned the hard way his first time around.

“I have been proud, forceful and green before, and you don’t get much done,” Queen said. “I got my pocket picked plenty. There is a learning curve. Experience matters.”

Queen lost his seat in the Senate in 2010 after several hard-fought elections that saw the seat flip-flop back and forth between Queen and his Republican opponent each election cycle. Thus, his six years in Raleigh were served intermittently during the course of the past decade. Nonetheless, Queen said he can get right to work for the region thanks to the experience and relationships he’s already built in Raleigh.

“I know where the landmines are and how difficult it is to pull things off,” Queen said. “We need to have experienced legislators serving us because you get better every year. That is just a fact.”

But, Davis isn’t easily assuaged.

“I don’t think I will miss a beat when I go down there,” Davis said. “I think my experience as a judge gives me instant credibility. I think I have a much stronger background thinking through how legislation is going to affect people.”

Davis says he is familiar with the legislative process and has honed the art of approaching problems with critical and rational thinking.

“Having to sit down with folks and say, ‘Here’s where we are and here’s where we need to get,’ it doesn’t mater if you are a judge or a legislator, the art of negotiating is the same,” Davis said. “I think the best thing I have learned from being a District Court judge is how to listen. No one is ever 100 percent correct, and no one is ever 100 percent wrong.”

Davis also points to the decorum it takes to run a courtroom in a civil, respectful manner while still staying in charge.

Queen countered that his experience doesn’t stop at the steps of the legislative building, but he knows what it means to work in the private sector business world.

“I am an architect, a farmer, a businessman. I have employees and make payroll and deal with business cycles,” Queen said.


Do or die county

While Queen and Davis are both from Waynesville, the race will likely be fought and won in Jackson County — clearly the largest bloc of voters compared to much smaller Swain County and the fraction of Haywood that lies in the district.

Jackson accounts for half the likely voters who will cast ballots in the race. Swain accounts for less than 20 percent. Haywood’s partial territory accounts for slightly more than 30 percent.

The breakdown, an analysis by Queen, factors in registered Democrats as well as unaffiliated voters who typically vote in the Democratic primary.

Davis believes he has strong name recognition in Jackson County, where he served for two-and-a-half decades as judge, a post that spanned all seven western counties. Likewise, he has been serving in Cherokee as one of the three justices on the Cherokee Supreme Court and as a substitute tribal court judge.

Queen said his name is known outside Haywood from his years in the state Senate. Even though his Senate district extended to the north and east of Haywood — and did not include Jackson or Swain — his name was still out there. Queen said he partnered with other mountain legislators to get regional projects accomplished, including initiatives in Jackson even though he technically didn’t represent that county in the senate.

But to make sure, Queen is campaigning heavily on the ground in Jackson and Swain counties. He is pulling out all the stops with a series of meet-the-candidate events, complete with free food and a line-up local bluegrass bands at each. His events have run the gamut from a waffle brunch at an outdoor park in Sylva to an upscale restaurant in Cashiers.

“I have really enjoyed this primary. It has been fun, and I try to make it fun,” Queen said. “I try to have good music, good food and a good vision — the vision excites people.”

The kind of campaign Queen is running also takes money, between hiring bands and feeding anyone who shows up. Queen has a history of tapping his personal finances, spending well over half a million of his own money his later Senate campaigns.

Davis is hosting two campaign events compared to Queen’s eight.


Primary factors

There’s more than sheer population that makes Jackson a heavy-hitter in the Queen-Davis race.

Jackson County might see higher voter turnout than its neighbors thanks to a ballot measure on whether to legalize alcohol sales countywide (see article on page 12).

Democratic voters in Jackson County also have a primary contest for county commissioner, unlike Haywood or Swain.

It’s hard to predict what kind of voter turnout Davis and Queen can expect. Primaries generally don’t draw a lot of attention.

While there’s not likely to be nearly the interest as in 2008 when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were duking it out in the Democratic primary, it’s not exactly a sleeper either.

For starters, there’s the referendum on a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages and civil unions that is bound to turn out voters who otherwise would sit out the primary.

Democrats also face the task of picking their nominees to run for governor and congress, in the wake of the political retirement of Gov. Beverly Perdue and Congressman Heath Shuler.


Do I vote in this race?

Yes, if you live anywhere in Jackson and Swain counties. Also yes, if you live in the greater Waynesville area, Lake Junaluska or Iron Duff in Haywood County.

The answer gets tricky if you live in Maggie Valley, as the Ivy Hills precinct lies in two different N.C. House districts. The best bet for Ivy Hills voters is to call the board of elections at 828.452.6633 and ask them to check your address. But as a rule of thumb, the Dellwood area of Maggie votes in this race. Residents of Maggie Valley proper and Jonathan Creek do not.


The primary is upon us

The Smoky Mountain News begins an information-packed month of election coverage this week. Stay tuned for coverage of county commissioner races, U.S. Congress, the same-sex marriage amendment and Jackson County’s alcohol vote.

Early voting starts April 19. Election Day is May 8.

Voters can cast ballots in either the Republican or Democratic primary but not both. Unaffiliated voters can chose which party’s ballot they want when they show up to vote.

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


Any other takers?

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.

Attorneys in the state’s seven westernmost counties sent a message to the governor this week that they don’t want a temporary fill-in as judge before the November election.

The retirement of longtime District Court Judge Danny Davis would typically trigger an appointment. But with a contested election for the judge’s seat just three months away, members of the N.C. Bar Association didn’t recommend anyone for the post.

Fifty-five of the 242 bar association members gathered Monday night at the Swain County Administration Building to vote on potential nominees. None of the lawyers, however, submitted their names as potential candidates, said Elizabeth Brigham, a Bryson City-based lawyer who serves as the bar’s current president.

Rather than using secret written ballots to select their top three candidates for Gov. Bev Perdue to review, bar members instead voted by a show of hands to accept a motion they make no recommendation.

“We really didn’t see any point in filling the vacancy for such a short amount of time,” Brigham said. “It didn’t make any sense.”

Davis, who served as judge for 26 years, stepped down July 31. Steve Ellis and Roy Wijewickrama, both Waynesville residents, are vying to fill the post in the nonpartisan race.

Perdue has the final say-so on whether there will be an interim judge named. Even if bar members had recommended candidates, the governor could have selected someone else not on their list. The timing is tight, however. It seems unlikely that Perdue could — even if she wanted to — find a lawyer willing to shut down their legal practice for the short time the post would remain unfilled.

Neither Ellis nor Wijewickrama wanted a nominee. They had both asked fellow bar members to leave the seat vacant until the November elections.

Brigham plans to send the results of the bar vote to Perdue this week. If the governor, as expected, doesn’t name a stand-in, Davis will continue to fill the vacancy as needed in the capacity of “emergency” judge.

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