Despite a general approval rating with the current board of commissioners, Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a Republican, was not re-elected. Several voters interviewed during exit polls in Haywood County said they had voted a straight Democratic ticket because they wanted Democrats to take back Congress. Those straight-party votes impacted the local commissioners race.
There was a large discrepancy in the number of Democrats who voted straight party compared to Republicans — 4,814 versus 2,733. That could account for the wider than normal margin separating Republican commissioners from the rest of the pack. Typically a few hundred votes separate commissioners. But Ensley trailed by 1,806 votes — roughly equal to the 2,041-vote spread between straight-party Democrats and straight-party Republicans.
“It would have been a lot closer if this national Democrat thing wasn’t going on,” Ensley said. “It’s kind of a lot of coattails for the Democratic Party.”
“It’s not a good a year for Republicans I guess,” said Carlyle Ferguson, another Republican candidate for commissioner.
Meanwhile, the three Democrats who won say they look forward to working together for the next four years.
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick agreed that the national race for Congress dominated the election.
“You didn’t hear as much talk on the commissioners’ race. There wasn’t very much controversy surrounding it,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think the congressional race is having an impact on the commissioners’ race.”
Bill Upton, the former school superintendent, was the second highest vote-getter in the race. Voters interviewed during exit polls cited Upton’s role as a principal and superintendent as a plus.
“I usually vote for education. People in the schools he’s been associated with love him,” said Max Spurlin of Waynesville.
Jill Mathis, 37, of Maggie Valley, followed Upton as superintendent when her son was in school and liked the job he did.
Upton said he got the same feedback.
“A lot of people knew me from my role in education,” Upton said. Upton touted education as his number one issue during the campaign.
Skeeter Curtis came in third in the race. Curtis campaigned on finding a new property tax formula to help low-income seniors struggling to hold on to their land.
“I think it is one of the issues we need to address,” Curtis said.
Curtis and Upton are both from the Canton area. The two called their election an historic moment when posing for a picture following the results.
“This is history in the making,” Upton said, putting his arm around Curtis. “We’ve never had two commissioners from the eastern end of the county serving on the board at the same time.”
Both were quick to emphasize they would always make decisions with the best interest of the entire county in mind, however.
The first vote the new board commissioners will make is who becomes chairman of the board. The commissioners decide among themselves who will serve as chairman of the board. The current commissioner chairman, Mark Swanger, did not make it past the primary election in May.
Kirkpatrick was the top vote-getter in the race, making him a logical choice among commissioners for chairman. Between his children and a busy law practice, however, he said he does not know if he has the time.
“The time constraints I have allow me to do a good job as commissioner, but there are additional time commitments that go along with being chairman and I’m not sure if I have the time,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’ve had numerous phone calls and been approached by numerous people asking me to be chairman. I haven’t ruled it out.”
If Kirkpatrick decides he doesn't have the time, that means Commissioner Larry Ammons will likely become chairman. Being brand new to the board, Upton and Curtis would not be logical choices. Commissioner Mary Ann Enloe has served more years as commissioner than Ammons, but likely would not be supported by Kirkpatrick or Ammons for chairman.
Ammons said he would be willing to serve as chairman if the other commissioners want him to. Ammons said he is pleased about a Democratic slate of commissioners.
“We have a lot of things in the works we’ll try to bring to fruition,” Ammons said, citing renovation of the historic courthouse as one big-ticket item.