Voters in the Democratic Primary in Jackson County must choose which of the four candidates profiled below should advance to the November election. Two other candidates, Mary Rock and Tim O’Brien, plan to run in November as unaffiliated candidates, but won’t be on the ballot for the primary.
Jimmy Ashe has been the sheriff of Jackson County for eight years, but has worked in the office since 1981 when he started his career as a jailer. Ashe served in a range of positions and worked his way up to Chief Deputy in 1997. He was elected to the office of Sheriff in 2002 and re-elected in 2006.
Ashe said his goals for the coming term include opening a new south central district substation to better serve the Caney Fork, Little Canada and Tuckasegee communities. He also wants to create a sheriff’s advisory committee with representation from each community in the county.
“Being from here and educated here, I know the community,” Ashe said. “This is my home. I know the needs then, now, and in the future.”
Ashe said he chose to run again because he is young and has more to offer the county.
“To settle for anything less than experience, education, background, and commitment would be going back in time in an ever-advancing society,” said Ashe.
For more information: www.asheforsheriff.com
Robin Gunnels is a small business owner with 15 years of law enforcement experience. Gunnels worked in the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office for seven years, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He left after Ashe made him a jailer and reduced his pay.
For the past eight years, he has run his own business, Custom Truck Covers in Sylva, and worked part-time as a police officer at Western Carolina University.
Gunnels said he is running for sheriff because he wants to incorporate his experience as a businessman with his experience as a law enforcement officer to provide better service to the citizens of Jackson County.
“The experience I’ve gotten in retail sales and service has given me a different view of the public,” Gunnels said. “That combined with what I learned in law enforcement gives me a good foundation for the work as sheriff.”
Gunnels said he would like to re-focus the existing personnel at the sheriff’s office in areas of special expertise –– like elder abuse, cyber crime, and drug enforcement –– to optimize service. He also said he was committed to changing the impression that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office is unfriendly.
“None of the officers look happy,” Gunnels said. “When you’re out dealing with the public, you have to go out there with that attitude that you’re helping people.”
For more information: www.vote4gunnels.com
Marty Rhinehart is the owner of an excavating business and also works as a floor technician for Westcare at Harris Regional Hospital. Rhinehart has worked for both the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and the Madison County Sheriff’s Office.
Rhinehart said he is running for sheriff because he wants to establish closer ties with the community.
“I believe if you dig deep into your community and serve the people of your county, the people will help you any way they can,” Rhinehart said.
Rhinehart likened Jackson County’s problem with drug dealers to a berry patch attracting bears.
“Drug dealers are like an old bear. They will hang around a berry patch, but if you take away that berry patch, that bear will leave,” Rhinehart said. “Jackson County has been a hub for drug dealers for years.”
Rhinehart said he intends to lead the sheriff’s office by example if he is elected.
Radford Franks has spent the last 10 years working as a bail bondsman and bounty hunter in Jackson County. Prior to that he spent 20 years working as a builder in the southern part of the county.
Franks said he is running for sheriff to make the office more accessible to the people of the county. He intends to implement a system that will redistribute sheriff’s deputies more equitably throughout the county, particularly to the Cashiers/Glenville area. Franks also said he intends to meet regularly with community groups throughout the county.
“I am not saying I can solve all your problems. I can’t,” Franks said. “But I am saying I will meet with the residents of each community, in their respective community centers, to discuss the problems or concerns they have for their community.”
Franks also said he would not tolerate preferential treatment in his administration.
“I believe everyone deserves fair and equal treatment regardless of race, political views, or social level in the county. I will strictly enforce this policy and hold my deputies accountable for their actions.”
Born in Macon County to parents from Jackson County, Rock has spent her professional career between the two counties. After serving with the Military Police from 1986 to 1988, Rock attended Western Carolina University and received her basic law enforcement certification. The 42-year-old Sylva native has worked as a bail bondsman in Jackson County for the past 12 years.
Rock said she wants to bring professionalism and equity to the sheriff’s office.
“Since I was a child I’ve seen a lot of things I didn’t think was the best way to run that office and I waited a long time to see if anyone would change that,” Rock said. “I decided this year that I wanted to do it myself.”
Rock said running unaffiliated was a way of de-emphasizing the political nature of the sheriff’s office. She said her experience has shown her that political influence can affect prosecution in Jackson County.
“It seems to be a highly political position and it should be a service position,” Rock said.
O’Brien has worked as a private investigator for the past two years. After growing up in Franklin, O’Brien got a degree in criminal justice administration from Western Carolina University and then spent eight years as platoon leader of a military police unit. He was honorably discharged in 1999 with the rank of 1st Lieutenant. O’Brien later served as a patrol officer in the Highlands Police Department, a detective with the Macon County Sheriff’s Department, and a special agent with the State Bureau of Investigation assigned to Western North Carolina. He has 17 years of law enforcement experience.
O’Brien said he wants to bring a new level of professionalism to the sheriff’s office that will take politics out of it.
“I have no political ambitions beyond being the Sheriff of Jackson County. I do not intend to serve on numerous political boards; my intention is to spend my time serving and protecting the citizens of Jackson County,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien said his experience as a business owner and law enforcement officer make him particularly qualified for the office of sheriff.
“I feel my seventeen years of law enforcement experience in patrol, investigation, and administration, combined with my business experience, makes me uniquely qualified for the office of Sheriff.
“Most of the thefts relate back to drug use, people stealing to pay for their drug habit, and I feel that it’s at a point now where it has to be stopped in its tracks.”
Buchanan has more than 16 years of law enforcement experience, including six years as an undercover narcotics agent and five years in supervisory positions. Buchanan has also served as a Swain County jailer for about seven months.
Buchanan is running because he believes he has the law enforcement experience, especially in narcotics, to help reduce crime in Swain County.
“I think we’re at a crossroads now in our county...If we don’t elect somebody with experience in law enforcement, then our quality of life in Swain County is going to be affected.”
For more information: www.stevebuchananforsheriff.com.
“There is no substitute for education, and experience brings education. When you have experienced leadership, that education can funnel all the way down to the lowest man.”
Clifton retired from more than 27 years of law enforcement experience in 2003. Clifton served as interim chief of police in Florida, and he has supervised as many as 48 officers. Clifton has worked in everything from narcotics to investigations to agricultural crimes to patrolling.
Clifton has also taught at a police academy in Florida and would like to bring more education to deputies. “I would like to see the residents of Swain County be able to say I’m proud of our Sheriff’s Office. They are well-educated, they know how to handle things.”
John Ensley, 42, Bryson City resident, owner of Yellow Rose Realty
“Not only am I going to ask the people to be involved in our community, I’m going to expect it.”
Ensley has 17 years of experience as a business owner in Swain County, has been a Sunday school teacher and coached youth sports.
Ensley is also certified with the Florida Department of Corrections, a North Carolina certified law enforcement officer and president of his B law enforcement training class. He worked as a jailer in Florida and for Swain’s Sheriff’s Office for nearly two years.
He would like to bring a businessman’s approach to the Sheriff’s Office, especially when it comes to the $10 million jail that’s now sitting half-empty. “We need some entrepreneurship in there to grow that.”
Ensley’s first priority is to eliminate the drug flow into Swain County and into the school system. His second priority is to rebuild a relationship between law enforcement and the community and restart a community watch program.
For more information: www.ensley4sheriff.com
“If you’re going to put a badge on them, which in reality is a target for a criminal, you’ve got to pay them.”
Ford has 24 years of experience as a law enforcement officer in Florida, including as a deputy, investigator, sergeant and lieutenant.
Ford said he’s running because he sees a lack of trust between the citizens and the current sheriff’s office.
“I want to make sure that citizens know when they call in a complaint, no matter whether it’s a barking dog or a burglary, we’re going to respond.”
Ford would also like to set up a volunteer community watch team, and has already assembled a team of retired law enforcement officers in Swain County with more than 100 years of combined experience. With their expertise, Ford will pursue grants to work on the drug problem.
“You gotta know where to tap into the assets. Unfortunately, our taxpaying dollars in Swain County is not the right place for all of it.”
For more information: www.fordforsheriff.com
“I’d like to make Swain County be appreciative and proud of their Sheriff’s Department. I don’t feel like it is right now.”
Jenkins has nine years of law enforcement experience, including eight years as chief deputy in Swain County and one year in the Bryson City Police Department. Jenkins is running because he’d like to establish a better working relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and the public.
“The politeness of your officers when they’re addressing people goes a long way in getting people to confide and trust the department.”
Jenkins said he’d also respect the confidentiality of those who phone in tips to the Sheriff’s Office.
“You gotta earn that confidence...or you won’t get no information to operate on.”
“To make sure occupants are in there, always have the vacancy sign out and not take reservations.”
— On Swain County’s oversized jail.
Taylor has worked for the Cherokee Police Department for almost 16 years and has also worked for the Swain County Sheriff’s Office. His experience includes being a supervisor for 12 years and an administrator for three years. Taylor has had training from the U.S. Interior Department, the FBI, the SBI, and the North Carolina Justice Academy, where he has trained officers.
Taylor’s goal is to work together with surrounding communities to jointly combat the drug problem.
“When you enforce so hard in one jurisdiction, you push it from your yard into somebody else’s...It’s such a deep-seated problem, but all you hear are surface solutions...I’m not the surface solution type of person.”
“If somebody sued me, I’m not going to sit down and have lunch with them.”
— On the commissioners’ testy relationship with Sheriff Cochran after he filed a lawsuit against them.
Thomas has worked in law enforcement in Swain County under three different sheriffs for almost two decades.
“My priorities are to see if I can’t do something with the drug problem with our kids around here.”
Thomas would also like to work closely with local people as well as those from surrounding counties.
“You gotta get along with everybody...You gotta go out and talk to the people, talk to our other counties, get along with their sheriffs...You can only do what the people let you.”
*Democratic candidate David Franklin was unable to participate in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News for this article.
“We hear criticism every day. When it comes down to the final vote, we’ll see how the voters of Swain County act, if they think I’ve done a good job or a bad job.”
Cochran has worked in heavy construction for 22 years then served as the county facilities manager for 12 years until he was elected sheriff in 2006, narrowly ousting the sitting sheriff at the time. Since being elected, Cochran has attended a sheriff leadership institute, is a member of the North Carolina Jail Administrators’ Association, and has received certificates from a North Carolina Justice Academy identity theft seminar.
“My number one priority is to continue the fight on drugs that we’ve been very aggressive with.” Cochran said his office has a zero tolerance policy on drugs and has made 728 drug arrests since December 2006.
Cochran emphasizes that he’s the only candidate who has experience as Swain County Sheriff.
“I’m local, I know the people, they know me. They know they can come see me.”
“The sheriff is a political figurehead. If he surrounds himself with good officers, then his job is simple.”
Dover served as a Swain County deputy for four years, and has experience being a detention officer, a patrol officer, a dispatcher and part of courtroom security with the U.S. Marshal Service.
Dover would like to see stiffer penalties for drugs, including more jail time rather than probation periods. “If they’re found guilty of a drug offense, then we need to take their money, their cars, their homes — give them a reason to leave. If you take enough of their toys, enough of their money, they’re going to go somewhere else.”
Dover says he’d also like to set up an explorer program for young adults to ride with officers and learn about a career in law enforcement.
A fire at the business of a Jackson County sheriff candidate last week has cast a shadow over the race.
Robin Gunnels, owner of Custom Truck Covers in Sylva and a Democratic candidate for sheriff, believes the attack on his business was no coincidence.
“There’s things that led up to this that lead me to believe it was politically motivated,” Gunnels said.
The fire originated in a garage where Gunnels stored his campaign materials, which were destroyed in the blaze. With his signs gone and his business shut down, Gunnels is wondering how he will afford to run the rest of his campaign for sheriff. Gunnels insurance does not cover fire.
The Sylva Police Department confirmed last week that the fire is under investigation for arson.
“The fire is suspicious. There’s no doubt about that,” Sylva Fire Chief Mike Beck said.
The fire was discovered in the middle of the night on Sunday, March 21, when Sgt. George Lamphiear noticed water running out from under garage doors at Custom Truck Covers on East Main Street in Sylva. Lamphiear looked closer and saw heavy smoke inside the business. He called dispatch, and the Sylva, Cullowhee, and Savannah fire departments responded.
“The fire was about out by the time the fire departments got there, because it had taken out a water line or two,” said Beck. The fact that the fire had burned through the water line may have saved the building.
Gunnels said he got a call from Lamphiear notifying him his business was on fire. By the time he arrived at the scene, the damage was done.
Gunnels said he has no idea who started the fire, but after weeks of receiving harassing messages at his home and business, he is sure it is connected to the sheriff’s race.
Gunnels was once a lieutenant with the Jackson Sheriff’s Office but left the force soon after Ashe came into office eight years ago.
Gunnels estimates he lost $150,000 of property that include his election materials and parts he sells at his shop. Because many of the parts Custom Truck Covers sells were plastic, almost nothing was salvageable.
“I’ve lost a lot of equipment and I’m just trying to salvage what I can,” Gunnels said.
Gunnels said the fire would not deter him from pursuing the sheriff’s race, and he thanked the Sylva Police Department for their fast response.
“George was on top of his job. He saw something that wasn’t right, and he acted,” Gunnels said.
The Sylva Police Department has advertised a $2,500 reward for information.
There is, perhaps, no sheriff’s race as hotly contested as the one currently taking place in Swain County.
Sheriff Curtis Cochran’s volatile first term as sheriff has brought no shortage of issues — or candidates — to the Swain sheriff’s race this year.
Challengers were lining up and campaigning more than a year ago. The moment they’ve long awaited is now here.
Eight Democrats will battle it out during a primary this May, while Cochran will compete head-to-head with newcomer Wayne Dover for a spot on the Republican ticket.
Candidates spoke with the Smoky Mountain News on the myriad issues facing Swain’s sheriff office and on their vision for the next four years.
Among those topics: a suspected murderer’s escape from Swain County’s jail last year; Cochran’s ongoing lawsuit against Swain’s Democratic county commissioners for reducing his salary; a Swain detention officer purchasing a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; and a newly built $10 million jail sitting half-empty.
All or nearly all candidates say they want to bring more professionalism and training to the Sheriff’s Office, combat a growing drug problem in the county, and rebuild a relationship with the community, the commissioners, and surrounding counties.
Cochran sued the county commissioners after they took away a long-established “meal deal” shortly after he was elected. For decades, Swain County commissioners paid the sheriff a flat rate to feed jail inmates and allowed him to pocket any surplus. The off-the-books subsidy bolstered the sheriff’s salary, which was otherwise the lowest of any sheriff in the state.
Other jurisdictions had already gotten rid of the corruption-prone policy, and Swain commissioners voted to follow in their footsteps two weeks after the 2006 election. Cochran filed a lawsuit claiming the county reduced his salary because he was a Republican, while commissioners and most of his predecessors were Democrats.
Cochran asked commissioners to increase his salary from $39,000 to $80,000. The lawsuit is ongoing, while Cochran continues to receive much lower than average pay. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office is struggling to cope with a reduction in its budget and layoffs after the recession hit.
Meanwhile, the sheriff and the commissioners have been at constant odds over the sheriff’s operating budget, staffing levels and salaries for deputies.
John Ensley (D) would like to see a salary increase for deputies as well as the sheriff funded by a fee charged to criminals. As the owner of small business that’s still prospering amid a recession, Ensley said he’d do more with less at the Sheriff’s Office.
Steve Ford (D) said he’d work hard to justify every item in his budget to commissioners, backing them up with statistics if he had to. “You’ve got to justify your existence... [Cochran’s] lack of ability to prove to the commissioners the need for his budget is what created his cuts.”
Ford said the meal deal was borderline illegal. He’s in favor of having an increased salary for the sheriff, with a starting and ending income point, based on experience.
David Thomas (D) said since the county is often paying to train officers, it should also offer them enough pay to keep them working in Swain. “That’ll save the county money in the long run.” Thomas also supports a salary increase for the sheriff. He suggests using the money from the Road to Nowhere settlement to pay for raises.
Julius Taylor (D) said he has experience securing grant money for the Cherokee police. In a 15-minute presentation to the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security he was able to score $180,000.
Steve Buchanan (D) said he’s taken a look at the sheriff’s budget and could not target any areas to cut. He said he’d have to see a further breakdown of actual spending to make a decision. Buchanan said the budget is a joint effort and that he’d work with the commissioners to come up with the best solution for all.
Chuck Clifton (D) said he’d like to see salaries brought up to where they should be. Clifton has heard of deputies whose families are eligible for food stamps. He says he will support the county in actively pursuing a commercial tax base for the county. “Without a tax base, we’re not going to be able to increase anything.”
Mitchell Jenkins (D) said the commissioners’ decision to cut the meal deal just had bad timing, and that they should not have jerked the rug out after Cochran took office. “They made it look political to the public.”
Considering all the duties that the sheriff carries out, Jenkins agrees that the sheriff should get paid more.
Jenkins said he’d work within the budget that is made available by commissioners.
Wayne Dover (R) said the commissioners’ timing was off, but Curtis knew what his salary would be before running. Dover said deputies need a raise before the sheriff because Swain is unable to compete with the salaries offered in Jackson County and Cherokee.
Dover said he’d apply for every grant that’s available, and would hire a full-time grant writer in-house to support the effort.
Curtis Cochran (R) would not comment on the ongoing lawsuit or the meal deal. Cochran said his department is always on the lookout for grants. He added that he disagreed with the commissioners cutting three deputies and a secretary from his department in last year’s budget.
“I feel that was very unfair for the people of Swain County, that their safety could be jeopardized by not having enough people on patrol.”
Curtis said he’s asked for the positions to be filled again in this year’s budget. Cochran pointed out that he’s had experience working on Swain County budgets since 1994.
No matter how well they get along with Sheriff Cochran, candidates claim that Cochran lacks the law enforcement experience to serve as Swain County’s sheriff. When Cochran was elected in 2006, he had no previous law enforcement experience.
During Cochran’s first term in office, a female jailer helped a man charged with murder in a double homicide escape from the Swain County jail. Cochran was allegedly warned by employees of a cozy relationship developing between the jailer and inmate. In another incident, an inmate escaped from a holding room in the Swain County courthouse. The search ended with a high-speed chase down U.S. 74, during which Cochran shot at the tires of a getaway van the inmate had stolen.
Also during his term, a detention officer used the county’s Sam’s Club card to purchase a big-screen TV. The officer was later fired.
John Ensley (D) says he’s been trained to work in a correctional facility and has experience on the job. “I know what red flags to watch for, and how to manage issues.”
To prevent more escapes, Steve Ford (D) plans to review hiring practices, look at his employees’ job performance, and make sure there’s standard operating procedures in place. In the case of the big screen TV, Ford said he would have charged the employee with theft. “Did they use a credit card that wasn’t theirs? Why weren’t they charged? Fired is far from being charged.” Ford said Cochran has done the best he can do for a man with no prior law enforcement experience.
David Thomas (D) said he would not have female jailers working with male inmates and vice versa. “I don’t think that’s right.” Thomas said he never saw mishandling of county credit cards when he worked at the jail. “Curtis didn’t have no experience when he went in, I think that hurt him.”
Julius Taylor (D) said the escapes and credit card use show that Cochran did not have the right people in certain positions. Taylor said he would be a better supervisor if elected and make sure there is an official policy and procedure for the jail.
Taylor pointed out that Cochran had to learn from scratch, and even though he now has three years of experience in law enforcement, it doesn’t compare to Taylor’s 16 years. “Not saying he’s a bad person, he’s had three years of rough luck with it.”
Steve Buchanan (D) said the county should hire an experienced sheriff to stop crime in its tracks.
Buchanan claims he knows exactly what needs to be changed at the jail since he worked as a jailer there for seven months. He would not elaborate, however, because he had promised Cochran, his former boss, to not reveal problems in the jail during his campaign.
Buchanan believes he was unfairly fired from his night shift at the jail after he decided to run for sheriff. According to Buchanan, the county cited the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity, as justification for the firing. However, Buchanan was not a federal employee.
Chuck Clifton (D) said escape was caused by lack of education and mismanagement. “Sheriff Cochran has minimal law enforcement experience, none when he was elected, and that shows.” Clifton said he would use his education and experience to prevent similar incidents in the future.
Mitchell Jenkins’ (D) only comment on the issue was that in his view, Cochran has not established a good working relationship with his employees and with the community. “I don’t feel like people confide in him the way I’d want them to me.”
Wayne Dover (R) said the escapes resulted from a failure to listen to employees who warned Cochran about the jailer’s inappropriate relationship with the inmate she helped escape. “It’s not really, per say, his fault. It is still his responsibility.”
Curtis Cochran (R) said the jail escapes had nothing to do with him being sheriff. “If you got a person on the inside that’s going to help somebody escape, they’re going to do it.” Curtis said the jailer who helped the prisoner escape went through a background check and received state certification as a detention officer. “You’d have to have a crystal ball, I guess, to see what people are going to do, and I just don’t have one. And neither do the other candidates.”
Swain County opened its 109-bed jail aiming to receive overflow prisoners from other counties, raking in revenues that would help pay for the $10 million facility. Instead, surrounding counties built their own new jails, leaving Swain’s jail half-empty on most nights.
Cherokee prisoners make up the vast majority of out-of-county inmates helping to fill the jail and offset costs, but the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians now plan on building its own jail as well. Swain’s jail is 75 percent larger than what it currently needs for its own inmates.
Cochran recently signed a deal that will bring back federal prisoners from the U.S. Marshal Service, which pulled out from Swain’s crumbling old jail because it lacked a fire sprinkler system. Still, that agreement has failed to bring in a significant flow of inmates, while the jail continues to cost taxpayers $610,000 every year.
John Ensley (D) denies that the jail was overbuilt since it will accommodate future growth in the region. Ensley said he’ll take part in an aggressive outreach effort to state, federal and local agencies. A good rapport will help lure prisoners to Swain’s jail in the future. “These other counties, they may have not built their jail as big as ours. Eventually, they’re going to reach capacity...I think we’ve got it, we’ve got to be positive about it.”
Steve Ford (D) says the brand new jail should pay for itself instead of costing taxpayers money. He supports charging those who are arrested a book fee and a $5 fee per day to offset the cost of their housing.
David Thomas (D) said he’d work with everyone in the community and county government to figure out a solution for the jail. “I think you’ll get more prisoners if you’re in the good grace of your surrounding counties that don’t have their own jail.”
Julius Taylor (D) said having a customer service attitude will greatly help the jail. Taylor said instead of reserving bed space for state or federal prisoners, he’d have a first-come, first-served approach.
Taylor, who has worked with the Cherokee police department for almost 16 years, said he’d also work aggressively to change Cherokee’s mind about building its own jail. “We run the jail, let us do what we’ve done for hundreds of years.”
Steve Buchanan (D) said he’s talked to Graham County’s sheriff, who has expressed interest in shutting down the antiquated jail there. According to Buchanan’s research, if two counties work together to operate one jail, it is considered a regional jail and may receive more federal funding. Buchanan insists that Swain’s commissioners would retain control over the jail if the arrangement comes to fruition. Graham currently sends its prisoners to the new jail in Cherokee County.
Chuck Clifton (D) said he’d try to work with federal agencies to entice prisoners to Swain’s jail. “We have a state of the art jail...There is no reason why we cannot entice or encourage outside agencies to house their prisoners in our jail.”
Mitchell Jenkins (D) said he needs to further study the jail to come up with the solution. Jenkins plans to sit down with commissioners to work on the problem. He said the county government should have surveyed surrounding counties about their plans to build jails. “If they had been aware of the situation, I feel like they went overboard with the size of the jail that was established. I feel like they got a bigger facility than they’re gonna need.”
Wayne Dover (R) said he’d rather have a jail too big than not big enough. He says if there are stiffer penalties, with more jail time, for those who are charged with crimes, the jail will pay for itself. Dover said he’s worried about Cherokee’s plans for a jail. “Steps need to be taken now.”
Curtis Cochran (R) said all surrounding counties except for Graham County now have their own jails. If the tribe builds its own jail, Cochran said the county will soon be at the mercy of the U.S. Marshal Service for inmates. Cochran pointed out that he inherited the jail problem when he took office.
Every so often a dissatisfied electorate injects a third current into the country’s two-party dialogue.
It’s happening this year with the Tea Party movement, and it’s also happening spontaneously in Jackson County.
Four Jackson County residents who want to be on the ballot in November are gathering signatures to qualify as unaffiliated candidates. Two who are running for commissioner are indeed unaffiliated, according to state voter registration records.
The other two are running for sheriff, but voter registration shows them listed as a Democrat and a Republican, so the unaffiliated route may simply be a strategy to earn a spot on the November ballot.
People who don’t want to run under the banner of a particular party have to beat the bushes with a petition drive in order to get a spot on the ballot in North Carolina. Unaffiliated candidates must collect the signatures of 4 percent of the voting public by June 25. The number comes out to 1,051 signatures out of Jackson County’s total 26,295 registered voters.
Jack Debnam, a Cullowhee-based realtor, intends to challenge County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan. Ron Poor, a faculty member at Southwestern Community College, will vie for the seat of sitting Commissioner Tom Massie. And both Mary Rock of Sylva and Tim O’Brien of Cashiers want to run against Jimmy Ashe for sheriff.
The aspiring candidates are choosing an unorthodox route to the general election but have the advantage of bypassing the party primaries in May.
None of the candidates said the Tea Party movement or the national election climate prompted them to run as unaffiliated, but Poor cited some of the key principles of the country’s independent temperament –– fiscal conservatism and defense of the Constitution –– as he explained why he wants to run.
“I have not yet found a party which I can believe in,” Poor said. “I am a fiscal conservative, government at all levels is larger and more expensive and intrusive than it should be and has nearly become choked off from the everyday citizen. My goal is to see it cut back, to see it opened up, to see it operate more efficiently and at lower cost.”
Rock and O’Brien, as sheriff’s candidates, enter a race with a crowded Democratic primary that includes an entrenched incumbent in Jimmy Ashe and three others.
Rock, who is technically registered as a Democrat, said her bid as an unaffiliated candidate was partly strategic. “There’s an advantage to doing the petitions that I saw,” Rock said.
The May primary narrows down the field to just one Democrat and one Republican who then advance to the November election. But in a county where Democrats reign, Republicans often don’t have a chance come November.
“In Jackson County, we always have a Democrat as sheriff, so the primary has always decided it,” Rock said. “Only one person comes out of the May primary with a nomination.”
But Rock could beat the system by advancing straight to the November ballot.
Another advantage of circumventing the party primary is that there is no limit to the number of unaffiliated candidates on the ballot, so anyone who succeeds in gathering the proper amount of petitions makes it.
O’Brien said he is registered unaffiliated but state records show he has been registered Republican. He called himself a “fiscal conservative” who intends to de-politicize the sheriff’s office.
Debnam also said he was registered unaffiliated, so he had no choice other than to go through the petition process.
“I’m not a Tea Party person. I’m a small business owner in Jackson County, and I’m really frustrated,” Debnam said.
Debnam is the owner of Western Carolina Properties, a real estate firm with offices in Dillsboro and Cullowhee. He has never run for political office and said he was inspired to run because the Jackson County board has not represented small business well.
Ron Poor, Sylva, running against sitting Commissioner Tom Massie
Poor is a registered real estate broker who also teaches electronics and computer engineering at SCC. Poor cited his opposition to tax increases and development regulations as reasons for running.
Poor accused the current board of a “draconian knee jerk reaction” when it passed a moratorium on new subdivisions and considers the current steep slope regulations too stringent.
The 42-year-old Sylva native has worked as a bail bondsman in Jackson County for the past 12 years. She served with the Military Police and got her basic law enforcement certification from WCU.
“Since I was a child I’ve seen a lot of things I didn’t think was the best way to run that office and I waited a long time to see if anyone would change that,” Rock said. “I decided this year that I wanted to do it myself.”
O’Brien has worked as a private investigator for the past two years. He has a degree in criminal justice administration from WCU. He served in the military police, as Highlands Police officer, a detective with the Macon County Sheriff’s Department, and an SBI agent.
“I will serve as a sheriff who will dedicate himself to the issues important to our county and not to political ambitions or re-election. I will be fiscally responsible, remembering at all times that we are spending the peoples’ money. All crimes will be properly investigated, phone calls will be returned, and funding will be used appropriately on those things for which it is intended,” O’Brien said.
It’s a watershed year for the legal community in Western North Carolina as attorneys gear up for a hotly contested election for three open judge seats.
There’s at least nine and possibly 10 candidates running for the three seats. Two of three seats are being vacated by retiring judges. The third has been occupied for less than a year, so the sitting judge doesn’t have an entrenched toehold on the seat yet.
“There is a bit of leveling of the playing field that is attractive,” said Judge Steve Bryant, who is among those retiring.
A competitive race for judge is rare occurrence, let alone for three seats the same year. Candidates realized it was a “now or never” moment.
“This is a confluence of events that might not come back at another point in my career,” said Justin Greene, a young Bryson City lawyer running for judge.
Sitting judges tend to step down in the middle of their term. The Governor appoints a new judge, who has a de facto leg-up as the incumbent by the time a real election rolls around for the seat.
Challengers to sitting judges have a slim chance — so slim that elections usually go uncontested. Judge Bryant never faced an opponent in 24 years, and Judge John Snow was challenged just once in 28 years. As a result, judges typically park themselves in a seat for a quarter century, making 2010 all the more unusual.
“This is something that I will not see again in my legal lifetime,” said Donna Forga, a Waynesville attorney joining the race.
Two seats are wide open due to the pending retirement of long-time judges Danny Davis and Steve Bryant. The third seat up for election isn’t quite so cut and dry.
The seat is currently held by Judge Danya Vanhook, who was appointed last May by the Governor to fill a vacancy. Her short tenure on the bench — along with the fact that she hasn’t won an election — isn’t enough to give her a true incumbent’s edge, and the race promises to be competitive.
The result: three judge’s seats are in flux.
“I don’t think that has ever truly happened where we had three open seat elections at the same time,” said Caleb Rogers, a Waynesville attorney running for one of the seats.
The legal community has been spoiled by years of relative stability, with only the occasional turnover at digestible intervals. But now, in a six-year span, the district will usher in five new District Court judges. (see A history of District Court judges).
“The biggest concern that anyone would have is how will it affect the judicial temperament and the judicial abilities?” said Bob Clark, a Waynesville attorney. “How does one as an attorney best represent his or her clients in front a judge they are not familiar with?”
The election is marked by a plethora of young candidates with only a few years of law experience under their belts.
The majority of candidates are in their early 30s. Others went back to law school later in life. Either way, the majority of the candidates have just a few years of legal experience. It’s making some attorneys a tad nervous.
Steve Ellis, a Waynesville attorney running for judge, is the only candidate who’s been practicing law in the state longer than a decade.
“We had a period of extreme stability for a long time,” said Ellis, 60. “It was clear there would be an enormous change in the court system. I saw a need for an experienced person on the bench.”
Of course, those long-time judges now retiring were young when they took the bench. Bryant was 34, and Davis was only 31. Judge John Snow, an esteemed judge who retired in 2004 after 28 years on the bench, was just 31 when he was appointed.
“We’ve had several judges over the past 25 years that have been appointed in their late 20s and early 30s, and I think they have been outstanding judges, and I think the legal community would agree we have been very lucky to have them serving on the bench,” said Roy Wijewickrama, a candidate for judge with nine years of legal experience, which actually places him at the front of the pack.
There’s an important difference in the current concatenation of events. Over the past three decades, a new District Court judge joined the bench every five years or so. Now, there will be five new judges in nearly as many years.
“There is a wealth of experience that is going to go away,” Snow said. “I am sure these young folks getting in there are going to do fine, but I can see how people will be a little nervous with the things they are used to going away.”
The two judges retiring this year have 49 years of experience between them.
“I think it is monumental just because those years are leaving the bench,” said Earwood, who is running for Bryant’s former seat. “There is no way that anyone could fill his shoes.”
Come next year, all six judges combined will have less than 30 years experience — the majority falling solely to Judge Richie Holt, soon to be the senior District Court judge. He’s known for his fair decisions, thoughtful hearings and approachability. Holt has 15 years of experience, a respectable number. But tenure declines rapidly from there. Second in seniority is Judge Monica Leslie with just six years on the bench.
New judges often lean on and draw from the experience of other sitting judges, but the bench could lack a critical mass of experience to make that possible. Clark said a new judge with less experience must be willing to accept advice from the more experienced attorneys trying cases — without being defensive.
“You have to be the type of individual that realizes ‘I am a brand new judge and I need to get to work.’ If you are willing to do that, you can overcome a lack of experience and boost your knowledge quickly, but you will have to be willing to accept help and seek others advice when you have a thorny question,” Clark said.
Bryant and Davis are breaking ranks from tradition by retiring the same year their seats are up for election. Usually, judges step down in the middle of their term, paving the way for a handpicked predecessor by the local legal community. While the governor ultimately makes the appointment, local attorneys vote on the slate of nominees and forward their pick to Raleigh.
It’s a far easier route to the bench. And it allows those in the legal community a high degree of influence, rather than the wild card of voting booths.
Despite the milestone year for the bench in the region — and the requisite media attention the race will garner as a result — voters have their work cut out.
Snow said only voters who care enough to ask around will learn enough about the candidates. Others will walk into the polls clueless.
Snow will be only slightly better off than the average voters this year.
“The problem I have is some of these folks who are running, I really don’t know them,” said Snow, who retired as a judge in 2004 to run for the state legislature.
A changing of the guard in the greater legal community hit home when Snow recently attended the Bar Association’s annual Christmas Party for the region.
“When I got there, I was kind of astounded at how few people I really knew,” Snow said.
Candidates share the problem of how to reach voters with their message.
“Certainly the challenge will be to separate yourself from the other candidates,” Rogers said.
But that’s easier said than done in a seven-county district where voters likely haven’t heard any of the names before. It’s also non-partisan, so voters don’t have the benefit of Democrat or Republican labels to guide them.
“The voters should become invested in it even though it is not party politics, because the decisions of the District Court judges effect citizens’ day-to-day lives,” said Judge Danya Vanhook. “We are deciding who is out driving on the roads. We are deciding where to put a child when two parents can’t agree in a divorce.”
Thousands of people filter through District Court in a year.
“It is the meat and potatoes of our court system,” Attorney Kris Earwood said of District Court.
The 30th Judicial District will witness 85 percent turnover in a six-year period with the passing of this year’s election. Of six District Court judges, five will be new to the bench since 2004.
• 2004: Judge John Snow retired after 28 years. Judge Monica Leslie is appointed to the vacancy, won a subsequent election, and still holds the seat.
• 2006: The region scores an additional District Court judge seat, bringing the total number from five to six. It is filled by Judge Richard Walker.
• 2009: Judge Brad Letts leaves the District Court bench to fill the seat of Superior Court Judge Marlene Hyatt, who retired. Judge Danya Vanhook is appointed to the vacancy.
• 2010: Judge Danny Davis and Judge Steve Bryant announce their retirement the same year their seats are up for election, triggering a free-for-all.
• 2011: With the election over, Judge Richie Holt will become the longest serving judge with 16 years on the bench. The other five judges will have less than that combined.
The Swain County board has four commissioner seats and one chairman. All five seats are up for election every four years. A party primary in May will narrow down the field of candidates on the ticket to four Democrats and four Republicans for commissioner, and one from each party for chairman.
There will be at least two new faces on the Swain County Board of Commissioners following the 2010 elections.
Chairman Glenn Jones and Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay will not run again after each served eight years on the board.
“We need some good people to step up and fill that void,” said Commissioner Steve Moon, who will run for re-election.
Commissioner Philip Carson will run for chairman instead of commissioner this election, but that will merely leave his commissioner seat wide open along with Lindsay’s — still resulting in at least two new faces on the board.
Lindsay consistently ranked first or second in vote totals in past elections. But she said the last four years have “been very stressful to say the least.”
The Swain County board has been dogged by persistent critics on several issues. A handful of activists have served in a watchdog role that at times has been quite zealous. They tape county commission meetings, make frequent public records requests and regularly speak out during the public comment period at commissioner meetings.
“It is really hard to do things for the county and concentrate like you would like to when there is always opposition regardless of what decision you make,” Lindsay said. “So I felt like it was time to hang it up.”
Lindsay said, however, that she is very concerned about the needs of the county and wishes the next board well.
Jones chose not to run again because that was always his plan.
“I always said I was going to run for two terms and would step down after that regardless and give the ball to someone else,” Jones said.
As chairman Jones has advanced several projects in the county, including a new jail, expanded recreation facilities, a new senior center, and buying property for a new middle school. He is poised to accomplish one of the biggest goals of his tenure just in time: a cash settlement for the North Shore Road, which incidentally was the biggest source of contention among the critics.
Carson said he is running for chairman to help the county maintain continuity during a critical economic time.
“For a brand new person, it would take several months to bring them up to date on exactly what has been going on,” Carson said.
In Swain County, the elected chairman takes an active role in running county operations alongside the county manager, far more than in most counties.
“I had the time to do it. I am by there every day. I am not in every meeting, but I at least know what is going on,” Jones said.
While Carson could parlay his past four years as a commissioner into the greater responsibilities that come with chairman, it’s not to say he will be without challengers. There are a few rumors running through the mill, but none confirmed as of press time.
Commissioner David Monteith said he is running again but did not specify what seat on the board he will run for.
One candidate who performed very well four years ago, missing election by just a few votes, is Ben Bushyhead, a Swain resident and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Bushyhead will not be running again this time, however. He is now retired and enjoys the flexibility to pay frequent visits to grandchildren out of state.
Carson is looking forward to the next four years being better than the last.
“A lot of the projects we wanted to see done had to be put on back burner until the economy improves,” Carson said. “This past year has been sort of difficult.”
The Macon County board has four commissioners and one chairman. This year, the seats of two commissioners and the chairman are up for re-election. A party primary in May will narrow the field to one Democrat and one Republican for each of the three seats. Each commissioner represents a geographic district in the county, but the county chairman is elected at large.
With three seats on the Macon County board up for grabs this year, all three of the incumbents have said they will run again. Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale, Franklin-based Commissioner Bob Simpson, and Highlands-based Brian McClellan will seek re-election.
Beale said he wants to finish work the current board has started.
“I’ve been a part of implementing a lot of things from the mental health task force to the completion of the new school, and there’s still some things I want to see through,” Beale said.
Beale said the economic development commission is working well in Macon County and taxes have remained among the lowest in the state. He is concerned about the impact of declining retail sales tax revenue on the county. Beale said has taken pride in the capital projects completed during his last term –– including the new early college building at Southwestern Community College, a series of school upgrades and the modification of the old library into a center for the elderly.
Commissioner Bob Simpson has also said he will seek re-election to a third term on the board.
“In this economy we’re going to have to have experience on the board to keep taxes low,” Simpson said.
Commissioner Brian McClellan was reached briefly just prior to press deadline and confirmed he intends to run again.
In an unusual election storyline, voters in Webster cast ballots for a total of 21 write-in candidates because too few candidates signed up to run for the five available seats on the town council.
When the new town council convenes, three write-in candidates — Mark Jamison, Alan Grant and A.J. Rowell — are expected to be sworn in along with incumbents Billy Bryson and Jean Davenport. Larry Phillips will replace long-time mayor Steve Gray, who also did not run for re-election.
Jamison, the Webster postmaster and a former member of the Jackson County Planning Board and the former chairman of the county’s smart growth task force, was among the write-in candidates who won a seat. Although he did not actively campaign, Jamison was asked by several citizens if he would agree to serve if elected.
“Several people had asked me to run for either mayor or a council seat, and I felt because of my job that I didn’t necessarily want to file. But they asked if I would serve if I was a write-in winner, and I said yes,” Jamison said Tuesday night.
“I’m looking forward to serving. I’ve been active from the sidelines for a while, so I’m looking forward to the opportunity to address some of the issues,” Jamison said.
Jamison is a federal employee, but he said that since the town election is non-partisan there are no issues with the Hatch Act, which governs the political activities of federal employees.
While Jamison and Grant were clear winners with 23 and 20 votes, respectively, fifth-place finisher Rowell collected six votes, and two others tallied five. All results are unofficial until canvassing by the county board of elections.
Larry Phillips 35
Seats up for election: 5
Total seats on board: 5
Billie Bryson (I) 26
Jean Davenport (I) 26
Mark Jamison (write-in) 23
Alan Grant (write-in) 20
A.J. Rowell (write-in) 6
Registered voters: 445
Voter turnout: 40 (9%)
Faced with a collapsing tourism marketplace caused by a national recession and the pullout of its featured attraction — the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad –– Dillsboro’s voters elected a new leadership team to steer the town towards an uncertain future.
David Gates, one of the winning candidates, wants the tourist railroad to resume operations in Dillsboro.
“I would like to work real hard to re-establish our relationship with the railroad and try to get them back into Dillsboro. It was our number one draw, and it was a win-win situation,” Gates said.
All five positions on the town board and its mayor’s seat were up for grabs during Tuesday’s election with eight challengers and only one incumbent vying for the spots.
While attracting tourism and increasing its revenue base are the most pressing local issues, Dillsboro has also been at the center of one of Western Carolina’s most contentious environmental fights.
Jackson County is battling Duke Energy in federal court to prevent the Fortune 500 company from tearing down the historic Dillsboro Dam. Depending on who wins the court case, the dam could be taken down by Duke or turned over to the county to be included in a riverfront park development.
Going into the election, most of the candidates said attracting tourism and re-building the town’s economic base were their focus, and, while the dam fight was close to their hearts, its outcome was out of their hands as a result of a stakeholder settlement agreement signed years ago.
The mayoral race pitted local business owners Teresa Dowd and Michael Fitzgerald against one another. Fitzgerald –– who has served as the vice mayor for the past four years –– won election with nearly 75 percent of the vote.
Fitzgerald said a key component in planning for the town’s future will be expanding and formalizing its relationship with Western Carolina University, which is helping the town create a long-term vision and brainstorm on how to boost a local economy slammed by the recession and the train’s departure.
“We don’t have a formal arrangement but we will have someone working with their departmental liaison to look at all the possibilities,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said it was important to harness the university’s resources and ideas before determining the best way forward for the town.
“If a business person were going to open in our town it would be good to see what kind of businesses are likely to succeed beforehand,” Fitzgerald said.
Jimmy Cabe, the only incumbent to run for re-election to the town board, was the leading vote-getter in the race.
Cabe also emphasized the importance of pursuing a partnership with WCU that would benefit the town’s merchants and its residents.
“I’m kind of looking at the partnership with Western benefiting the whole town, not just the merchants,” Cabe said, adding that he hoped the college would help the town develop its use of alternative energy production.
Michael Fitzgerald 53
Teresa Dowd 16
Seats up for election: 5
Total seats on board: 5
Jimmy Cabe (I) 57
Tim Parris 56
David Gates 51
K David Jones 50
Joseph Riddle 32
Walter Cook 25
Emma Wertenberger 22
TJ Walker 18
Charles Wise 18
Registered voters: 175
Voter turnout: 26%