Macon candidate challenges reveal rift between conservative, moderate Republicans
Dueling challenges over the legitimacy of two Macon County commissioner candidates could have had far-reaching implications for the county’s political landscape and, ultimately, the tone and tenure of the county for years to come.
SEE ALSO: Haven convinces board that motel is home
Both challenges fizzled out after a week of political commotion, but from the shadows of the unfolding drama a power struggle for majority control on the Macon County Board of Commissioners emerged. While both candidates who faced challenges are Republicans, they come from two different ends of the party’s philosophical spectrum.
Commissioner Ron Haven is an unwavering conservative based on his voting record during the past four years in office. Candidate Gary Shields is a moderate, even describing his political persuasion as “purple” — a hybrid of the red and blue party colors.
Both challenges have been denounced by the other side of the aisle as politically motivated.
“In my opinion, the challenge against Commissioner Ron Haven was politically motivated,” said Don Swanson, an active politico in Macon County and former leader of the conservative Freedom Works group.
The official position of Democrats who filed the challenge against Haven is that they simply want to see the law followed.
“It is not really a political move. It is a measure of right or wrong,” said Corey Duvall, chair of the Macon Democratic Party who compiled the research for Haven’s challenge.
Duvall was suspect of Haven’s claim that his official residence is a small apartment at the Budget Motel that he owns instead of the country club home where the commissioner’s wife and kids live.
Where Haven lives matters, because Macon County commissioner races have geographic districts. Commissioners must live in the district from which they run.
The legal grounds for the challenge against Haven and Shields are the same — specifically whether the address they claim as their official residence is, in fact, their official residence. Or are they cheating on their actual residency in order to run in a district that isn’t really their home?
When it comes to the challenge against Shields, that’s the one that’s politically motivated, Duvall said. He believes the right-wing camp of the Republican Party fired back with a challenge against a moderate member of the party.
“I see this as being the Freedom Works people retaliating against moderate Republicans and Democrats, saying you are not going to take away our one candidate,” Duvall said. “I see the Republican Party completely splitting.”
Carla Miller, the chair of the Macon Republican Party, admits there is a right-wing faction of the party, but said that faction does not represent the party as a whole. Miller specifically cited the Freedom Works group as being outside the mainstream of the local party.
Miller further said she does not support the challenge against Shields — or Haven for that matter — and wants them both to win election.
The challenge against Shields was ultimately dropped Tuesday. The person who filed it, Vic Drummond, was in the audience at Haven’s hearing and saw how it played out — with Haven easily and deftly winning the benefit of the doubt largely on his word alone.
Haven claimed under oath that he sleeps in a small apartment beside his motel more often than he sleeps at the country club home with his wife and kids. And that was what it took to sail through the challenge and stay on the ballot.
It was certainly a good indication of how the challenge against Shields would have gone, which convinced Drummond to withdraw his challenge Tuesday.
“The hearing demonstrated to me the wide latitude of North Carolina’s election law in determining a candidate’s residency,” Drummond said.
Shields wouldn’t comment on whether he is a victim of backlash due to the challenge against Haven. But Shields, a career educator and retired Franklin High school principal, said he isn’t very politically savvy — perhaps something he needs to work on.
“All this has been good for me. I am not a politician. Now I am waking up to realize there are elements out here I have to be aware of,” Shields said. “I need to get my political house in order and this is making me do it.”
A tricky timeline
The challenge against Haven was the first one to come down the pike last week. It was filed March 3, the day after the candidate registration period for the election had closed.
The lengthy challenge, rife with research, must have been in the makings for some time. It could have been brought against Haven before now — challenging not just his candidacy but his status as a sitting commissioner.
But it wasn’t brought forward until election time, and not until after the candidate sign-up period had concluded.
To some, that is evidence of political motivation, with the goal of smearing Haven during a campaign cycle.
But, if successful, challenging Haven prior to the filing deadline would have scrubbed one of the right-wing conservatives from the ballot, with no chance to run another candidate with similar ideological leanings after the deadline had passed.
Had Haven been booted from the ballot, the Republican Party would have chosen who ran in his place. Sure, their chosen replacement may have been of Haven’s same ilk on the conservative spectrum, but the party could just as likely appointed a slightly more moderate candidate for Haven’s vacant spot on the ballot.
Tit for tat
The challenge against Shields came last Thursday, three days after Haven’s. Shields’ supporters claim it was political retaliation, firing back after the challenge to Haven.
Shields is a Republican, but a moderate one compared to the conservative wing his challenger comes from. Vic Drummond, who filed the challenge against Shields, may be a registered Republican on paper, but he’s so far right his own party won’t always claim him.
“The challenge to Mr. Shields is from a far right-wing side of the party,” said Carla Miller, adding that Drummond does not reflect the views of the party as a whole, she said.
Drummond is the current leader of Macon County’s Freedom Works chapter, a network of far-right conservatives that preach limited government. Drummond said that politics was not behind his challenge to Shields’ candidacy and he simply wanted to “assure the integrity of our election system.”
“I’m a strong believer that all laws must be observed and enforced,” Drummond said.
When asked whether he supports Shields, he didn’t want to say, but said he had donated to candidates other than Shields. As for whom, that won’t come out until first quarter campaign finance reports come due in April.
“I don’t want to get down in the weeds. Let’s let the challenge stand on its own,” Drummond said.
Drummond said the challenge against Haven alerted him to the issue of residency. Someone tipped him off that the same statute might be equally thorny for Shields, but Drummond would not say who that was.
“That’s confidential. It doesn’t really matter where the information came from,” Drummond said. “Some red flags went up and I just had some questions, that’s all.”
Who helped who
When the challenge against Haven was heard this week, the board of elections forced the challenger, Charles Nichols, to cough up who else was behind the challenge. Haven’s attorney asked during a cross-examination of Nichols whether anyone else helped him and if so who.
Nichols tried to dodge the question — just as Drummond dodged the question of whom else was behind his challenge of Shields when asked by the newspaper.
But Nichols was ordered by Macon County Attorney Chester Jones (who answers to Haven, incidentally) to divulge that he in fact did not author the candidate challenge. The chair of the Macon Democratic Party, Corey Duvall, did the majority of the research for the challenge and wrote most of it, Nichols said. Nichols is a precinct chair in the local party and volunteered to bring it forward.
Murmurs swept through the audience at the hearing when Nichols revealed who actually researched and wrote the challenge.
To Carla Miller, chair of the Macon Republican Party, the involvement of the Democratic Party head is telling.
“I think that is important. It shows the intent of the challenge,” said Miller. “What’s the sincerity of the challenger? Are you just a figurehead?”
Apparently, however, Duvall could not legally affix his name to the candidate challenge. Party officers cannot wage a candidate challenge. Nichols said he didn’t personally have the skills or capacity to do the level of research that Duvall had done.
The break down
The current board of commissioners has four Republicans. They are often, however, on opposite sides of issues — with two limited-government purists and two moderates.
Ironically, the two moderate Republicans and the Democratic commissioner who holds the fifth seat on the board form their own voting bloc.
The two conservative Republicans are in the minority on the board, casting “no” votes in the face of the progressive policies pushed by the cross-party allegiance of the other three.
“They need other conservatives to vote with them for the good of Macon County,” said Joyce Roberts, a Republican in the Freedom Works vein.
Two new candidates who have entered the commissioner race would bust up that moderate voting bloc, however, and tip the balance in favor of the conservatives.
To Duvall, that would be a catastrophe. But the Democrats, who are in the political minority in Macon County, are mostly relegated to the sidelines watching the tussle play out.
“The Grand Old Party has been taken over. It is not the party people think it is,” Duvall said.
And with the philosophical make-up of the county board at stake, all eyes were on the candidate challenges playing out before the board of elections this week. With just a handful of candidates running, the decision about whether the moderate Shields or the conservative Haven would stay in the race could tip the balance of power in the county.
“The future of Macon County is at stake in this,” Duvall said.
That’s one thing that Duvall and John Martin, a libertarian candidate for commissioner, actually have in common. Martin, who falls in that murky area where the far-right conservative wing of the Republican Party bleeds into Libertarian territory, is running for one of the same seats as Haven and Shields.
“I do believe this is a very pivotal election in Macon County,” said Martin.
News Editor Jeremy Morrison contributed to this article.
Tale of two challenges
Two candidates on the ballot for Macon commissioner faced challenges over their eligibility. Incumbent Ron Haven beat his challenge this week, and the challenge against Gary Shields was then dropped.
Ron Haven is a Republican commissioner who identifies with the conservative wing of the party. He has a conservative record during his four years in office, frequents Freedom Works meetings, owns four motels and rental properties and puts on gun shows around the country.
The challenge against Haven came from a collection of Democrats.
Gary Shields is a Republican commissioner candidate but a self-described moderate. The retired Franklin High School principal publicly backed a school system colleague who was a Democrat in the Macon commissioner race two year ago. Shields’ campaign treasurer is also a Democrat, namely Betty Waldroop, another school system colleague.
The challenge against Shields came from a far-right conservative leader of Freedom Works who has previously criticized moderate members of the Republican Party.