“One of our issues is getting young people out to vote, and I think the best way to do that is with candidates — young, energetic, well-spoken and well-informed candidates,” said Myrna Campbell, chair of the Haywood County Democratic Party.
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One of the people she was talking about is Canton Alderman Zeb Smathers, who submitted documents July 7 signaling his intent to run for mayor.
“This job requires practical leadership,” Smathers said. “The last four years as an alderman, I was part of a great team and administration that was able to accomplish great successes in Canton, whether it be economic development or the pool project. We’re not going to be saddled with the spirit that we can’t do something.”
Smathers’ vision of a “can-do” Canton shows considerable effort directed toward taking the “can’t” out of Canton.
“One of the things that really excites me one and one of the first things I worked on was helping Evergreen get the funding from the state, which was in the 11th hour we were able to pull that off — we helped our biggest employer,” he said. “But I think if you look at the buildings that were once empty, they’re now open for business. You can just feel the energy was not there four years ago.”
Campbell agreed with Smathers.
“You can drive through Canton and feel the energy,” she said. “You don’t even have to get out of your car.”
At least some of that credit belongs to outgoing Mayor Mike Ray, who told The Smoky Mountain News he wouldn’t seek re-election June 29.
“He has had Gail [Mull], Ralph [Hamlett], Zeb and Carole [Edwards] to work in conjunction with him,” Campbell said of Ray’s Board of Aldermen/women. “The way I look at it is kind of like a basketball or a football coach — he’s going out on a high note, which is always good.”
A high note perhaps — but there is still much to be done, according to Smathers.
“The first priority, I think, for any mayor is to make sure we are taking care of public safety,” he said, adding that if elected he looks forward to working with local law enforcement to address the opioid epidemic gripping the nation.
Smathers said that the town has also taken “great steps” in addressing major issues present in Canton’s water system, but that it still has a long way to go on that front.
A continuing focus on economic development would also be a top priority in a potential Smathers administration, as well as a renewed focus on the recreational amenities that new residents demand.
“We want people to come to Canton,” he said. “We want to help them open their businesses. I’m excited about the new pool, but how can we increase use of the Colonial (Theatre)? How can we increase usage of Camp Hope, and the watershed, and extend our greenway?”
Smathers’ aldermanic seat is one of two up for election; the other belongs to Edwards, who hasn’t returned calls regarding her intentions but is widely rumored to have no interest in retaining her seat.
Consequently, if Smathers loses the mayoral race, he’ll be sidelined from Canton government. If he wins, he’ll probably be serving with two new board members.
“If elected, very quickly we will get together and have a workshop and we will lay out a vision,” Smathers said.
One of those who may end up helping Smathers lay out that vision is 33 year-old Canton resident Kristina Smith, who filed her papers with the Haywood County Board of Elections at the same time as Smathers — right when the filing period opened.
A native of San Antonio, Texas, Smith has lived in Canton since 2013 with her husband Chase, a science teacher at Pisgah High School, and their young son who will start kindergarten this fall.
Smith works in the marketing department of the Biltmore Company and is in charge of email marketing. Recently, she served on a Canton committee responsible for directing the creation of the town’s new logo, so she’s familiar with the town’s effort to market itself as a viable option to the crowded and expensive Asheville lifestyle.
“I’m running because I believe Canton is going in the right direction, and I want to be a part of that continuing progressive change,” Smith said. “I think it has so much opportunity to offer families. Speaking as a mom and someone who lives in the town, there’s just so much to offer, I want to bring that light for other people as well.”
Smith said that her priorities include maintaining competitive compensation for town employees; Canton is currently Haywood County’s only living wage certified local government.
She also — like Smathers — sees the need for infrastructure improvements and increasing the tax base of the town, which has the highest municipal tax rate in the county but hasn’t increased taxes in about a decade.
Although Campbell’s comments about involving young people were likely directed at fellow Democrats Smathers and Smith, she may as well have also been talking about another newcomer to politics who filed to run for alderman that same day but happens to be registered as an unaffiliated voter.
“Typically I vote what I would call a purple ticket — I like to look at candidates, positions and information for who I think I most agree with,” said Carl Cortright, a 34 year-old native of Owego, New York, who works as a data architect for Mission Health.
“My wife and I have been involved with town meetings ever since we moved into town two years ago,” Cortright said. “She’s lived here her entire life, and I’ve lived here about 10 years.”
Cortright — who with his wife has been a fixture at Canton Board of Aldermen meetings for at least a year now — said he agrees with most actions the board has taken in that time, but has his own ideas about what he’d like to see in the future.
“I’d like to see a little more transparency, a little more communication to the public,” he said. “When we’re sitting on the public gallery side of those meetings, typically we only see half of what’s going on.”
He also thinks his background in public accounting and his tech know-how will ultimately benefit the citizens of Canton.
As of press time, Smith and Cortright had been joined by another aldermanic candidate — 43 year-old Democrat Brent Holland.
Born in Canton, Holland is a respiratory therapist for Mission Health who recently purchased a historic home on Academy Street, which led him to grow more interested in the workings of town government.
Holland, a widower, is possessed of a decidedly historical bent; he’s been involved with the restoration of Locust Field Cemetery where his relatives dating back to the 1700s rest, and is in the process of setting up a trust meant to ensure the cemetery’s perpetual care doesn’t come as a financial burden to the town, which maintains it as a courtesy.
“With my roots and heritage in this county, I’ve seen some parts of town go downhill but some parts are moving in the right direction,” he said.
More candidates could still come calling in Canton; filing ends at noon on July 21.