The same, the change and ‘the machine’
Swain County’s clerk of court race is an early-season affair. With no challengers looming on November’s general election horizon, the contest will be decided in next month’s primary.
The Swain clerk’s contest is also a race that offers voters a stark choice. A choice between old and new, between same and change.
While incumbent Hester Sitton is running on her record and experience, challenger Opal Barker points to what she considers to be an insider political lineage and hopes the electorate has an appetite for change.
Both Sitton and Barker are local girls. Both were born and raised in Swain County. Each graduated from Swain High School.
Since 1989, Sitton has worked in the clerk of court’s office. Barker has spent nearly 40 years working in banking.
Come May 6, Swain voters will decide if they want to stick with what they’ve got, or switch to something new. To both candidates, the choice is obvious.
“I know a lot about everything that goes on in the office. I do answer questions about criminal issues, I do answer questions about traffic issues, I do answer questions about juvenile issues,” Sitton said. “It would be very difficult for someone that hasn’t had any judicial training to come in and do the clerk’s work.”
Barker points to a skillset she feels would cross over nicely to the work at the clerk’s office.
“I have a lot of training in customer service,” she said. “I help people. I do home loans. I’m a mortgage officer.”
The current clerk touts her “experience” and “knowledge.” She hopes to put such attributes to work for another four years.
“I love the people of Swain County and being able to help them,” Sitton said.
Barker doesn’t view the clerk’s experience in the same light. It is such experience, in fact, that she is running against.
“I feel we need leadership,” Barker said, “new leadership in this office who would show respect and dignity to everyone, not just a chosen few.”
The challenger is hoping voters are also ready for new leadership. She believes they are more ready this year than the last time she tried for the clerk’s seat, in 2010.
“I just feel now is a better time,” Barker said. “So many people encouraged me. Before, I just kind of ran on my own. [This year] even people that didn’t support me last time are coming and telling me they support me.”
One reason Barker feels that her chances of winning the clerk’s seat are better this time around is because of her belief that people have grown wary of “the machine.”
In Swain County, there is a perception by some that the powers-that-be long ago locked down a revolving and evolving system that serves to benefit those that they know.
“It’s a group of Democrats that have had a strong control on the Democrat party over a number of years,” Barker explained. “It’s pretty much a control thing. It’s a lot of who-you-know.”
The challenger points to Sitton as a case in point. The incumbent went to work for former clerk Sarah Robinson, who eventually retired, with Helen Styles appointed to the office. Styles, too, retired before her term was up, paving the way for Sitton’s appointment. The local Democratic Party leaders got to do the appointing, since that was the party of the person who stepped down. Sitton subsequently won the clerk’s seat via an election in 2010.
“They have went ahead and appointed a clerk before election time and then that clerk is considered been-there-done-that, an incumbent,” Barker said. “They use the experience factor in campaigning.”
Sitton bristles at the notion of a ‘machine.’ She sees nothing nefarious about her professional roots.
“I don’t know about any machine,” Sitton said. “I don’t feel like I’m part of any machine.”
For Sitton, talk of ‘the machine’ is tiresome conversation. She believes voters will see her experience as a positive and says there is no place in the clerk’s office for politics or favor.
“It does not come into play in the job that I do,” Sitton said.
Meet the candidates
Hester Sitton, 65
Occupation: Swain County clerk of court
Family: Sitton has two children and three grandchildren. Her husband passed away in 2012.
Philosophy of the office: “We are there to serve and to be accessible to everyone in the county.”
Challenges of the office: “It’s always been that we’ve had heavy caseloads, but it seems that recently our caseloads have been bigger — it’s all a matter of too much work and too little time.”
Rewards of the office: “The adoption process — it thrills me to know that I have a part in completing a family. That, to me, is the probably the most enjoyable part, it gives me the most joy.”
If elected: “If there’s any way to improve on the services that we give the people of Swain County, that’s what I would like to see.”
The Machine: “I’m not aware of a machine. The only thing that I’m aware of is that I’m working as hard as I can to win this campaign so that my staff and I can work four more years.”
Opal Barker, 59
Occupation: Branch manager of Jackson Savings Bank in Bryson City
Family: Barker has three children and two grandchildren. She is married to Ronnie Barker.
Philosophy if elected: “I will be everyone’s clerk of court.”
Improvements to be made: “One thing that office should be is cross-trained. Anybody that comes in there, they should be able to get an answer that day.”
Campaign strategy: “I’m hoping to get a lot of independents.”
Plans, if elected: “I think they can expand and offer more services, I would check into that and try to offer that — maybe we could work late one night a week.”
The Machine: “I think it’s getting weaker. I think a lot of people just feel like that should be over with.”