Jackson race outcome may depend on party turnout

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

• Mark Jones, 47, a Democrat, has been the general manager of High Hampton Inn since 1997. He began working there in 1987 as a bellman. He is divorced. He graduated from Western Carolina University with a degree in land planning.


• Geoff Higginbotham, 61, a Republican, retired from the Marine Corps as a Major General and is now a Senior Fellow with Western Carolina University where he is helping the school create a long-range plan for regional growth and pursue business opportunities for the new Millennium Campus. He is married with three grown children. He graduated from East Tennessee State University.

As the race for the fifth and final Jackson County Commissioner’s seat closes in, candidates Mark Jones and Geoff Higginbotham are divided on whether or not the race is garnering much attention from the public.

“As I go around the county and I talk to people, there are a lot of people that quite frankly aren’t aware of the issues,” Higginbotham said. “When I talk to them about issues they get very interested.”

Four of five Jackson County commissioner seats were decided six months ago in a primary election amongst 12 Democratic candidates. And now with several other hotly contested races spanning the region on the ballot, it would seem only natural for the race to get lost amongst the political fray.

“The feedback I get is ‘nothing,’” Jones said, of the reply he gets when he asks local voters what they’ve heard about the commissioner’s race. “The general public, I think the attention is on (Sen. John) Snow, (Heath) Shuler, and (District Attorney Mike) Bonfoey to a certain degree, and (Rep. Phil) Haire, of course.”

The slate of incumbent Democratic candidates for state Senate, District Attorney and state House — as well as the strengthening campaign for Shuler who recent polls indicate holds an 11-point lead over Rep. Charles Taylor — may potentially win Jones votes.

Jackson County historically has been a Democratic stronghold. As of September, registered Democrats represented 47 percent of voters, Republicans only 29 percent.

Democrats also have turned out to vote in higher numbers. In the 2004 election, which included the presidential race, 7,273 Democrats voted versus 4,250 Republicans. The 2002 election showed a similar 3,000 vote spread between the parties.

Consequently, Jones is hoping for voters to register straight party tickets.

But where Democrats like Shuler are looking to pull in swing votes of moderate Republicans, Jackson County may represent an anomaly in the traditional two-party system.

For the past eight years, sheriff’s races have been largely amongst Democratic candidates. As a result, several of the county’s once-Republican voters changed their registration to Unaffiliated in order to be able to vote in the primaries. In the primaries, Unaffiliated voters may choose which party’s races they wish to participate in.

Together the county’s Republican and Unaffiliated voter registrations outnumber Democrats 12,957 to 11,505.

Regardless of partisan politics — county commissioner’s affiliations really have little to do with day-to-day operations — Higginbotham is hoping that voters believe in diversification.

“I don’t think it’s a healthy thing to have one-party rule,” he said.

If elected, Higginbotham said he would use his Marine training to think as an individual but work as a team — raising issues while moving toward consensus building.

A consensus already exists in some regards.

“We seem to agree on a number of issues,” Jones said of he and his competition.

The two share similar ideas about land-use regulations — they support those aimed at improving health and safety, and are against zoning — both are looking to improve local education and are both in support of Sheriff Jimmy Ashe in his efforts to reduce crime.

Jones said he hoped to gain support for emergency personnel. Higginbotham said that in addition to combating the methamphetamine problem, he would like to use local resources to tackle illegal immigration, potentially implementing an ordinance that would impose fines on landlords who rented property to illegal immigrants.

But the real dividing line, Jones says, is who best knows the community.

“The key issues I truly think is that people know me,” Jones said. “And it’s the relationships that I have and my family had in Sylva that will be my edge.”

Higginbotham has lived in North Carolina for 39 years; however, he has been a resident of Jackson County since only 2003.

The commissioner election has focused largely on growth issues, which the District 4 (Cashiers) area is well aware of. For years now, local leaders have discussed what to do about traffic problems on N.C. 107, the main thoroughfare connecting Cashiers to Western Carolina University, Sylva and Dillsboro.

The N.C. Department of Transportation was studying the creation of a “Southern Loop” linking U.S. 441 (the Atlanta corridor) with U.S. 23-74 (the Asheville corridor). However, many residents opposed the plan and after much heated debate a state-led task force was formed to study transportation needs. Higginbotham endorsed the idea of continued study and planning. But so far the study process has yet to produce tangible results for road users. Higginbotham blamed this stagnation on a board of commissioners that lacked stimulation.

“When you start getting group think, you get inactivity,” he said, referring current and past board’s Democratic leanings.

Jones is a supporter of the “Smart Roads, Not New Roads” cause — a slogan that arose over the Southern Loop debate expressing a desire for access mitigation and work on existing roads, rather than building new ones.

“The Cope Creek Road project is a good example of smart roads versus new roads,” Jones said, referencing the proposed widening of a road that connects N.C. 107 with U.S. 23-74.

The project would wind up taking strips of homeowners’ land for right of way. Jones said one such homeowner most likely would be his brother, who still lives on family land.

“No pain, no gain,” Jones said.

With growth comes a need for sewer expansion, which both candidates agree must happen, though their philosophies are somewhat different. Higginbotham would prefer to see the strain on local water and sewer addressed through subdivision regulations.

“We can’t just leave it up to the developers,” he said.

Jones, on the other hand, is worried about stifling the second-home market, which in turn provides the county with jobs.

“It’s difficult to limit growth,” he said. “From the Chamber of Commerce side we want to encourage growth, we need growth and jobs.”

Jones is Ppesident of both the Jackson County and Cashiers Chambers of Commerce, as well as of the two entity’s Travel and Tourism Authorities.

County commissioners must first help the Tuckasegee Water and Sewer system play catch up to address past growth and look into expansion to accommodate impending development, Jones said.

Similarly, Jones is hesitant to commit to a plan to address local property values, which have been driven up by the second-home market.

Higginbotham has expressed interested in working with fellow Republican candidate Ken McKim of Highlands — who is running for state Senate — to push for a homestead exemption that would provide property tax breaks for residents who have held their land for generations.

“We are in fact driving people out of this county right now,” Higginbotham said of many locals’ increasing inability to pay their land taxes.

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