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Incumbent shake-up: Bushyhead leads Swain revolution

With two of four incumbents losing their seats during the primary election, there will soon be some new blood on the Swain County Board of Commissioners. That sounds about right to Ben Bushyhead.

“I think if you stay in office too long you never bring new ideas,” he said. “You just become a caretaker of your own ideas.”

Bushyhead has emerged as the top vote-getter in this month’s crowded pack of commissioner hopefuls in the Democratic primary. Along with incumbent commissioners David Monteith and Steve Moon, as well as newcomer Danny Burns, he will advance to the November general election to face two Republican candidates. There are four seats up for election this year, as well as the chairman’s seat, which has been safely secured by incumbent Phil Carson. 

Bushyhead received 1,217 votes. Burns followed not far behind with 1,139, while Monteith and Moon trailed in the 700s.  Sitting commissioners Donnie Dixon and Robert White trailed just behind that — each with 713 votes — far enough to see their seats slip away.

“A lot of folks wanted some change,” said Burns. “I think the primary kind of showed that.”

Bushyhead — who narrowly lost a 2006 commissioner bid — attributes his victory to a fairly simple strategy: listening. During his campaign, the candidate urged voters to give him input, and says he plans to continue on such a path if elected, encouraging venues of discourse and a populace that is plugged into the political process.

“The more input you can get, the better ideas you can get to move this community forward,” Bushyhead said. “Your ideas are as valid as mine.”

The candidate feels that communication between elected officials in Swain and the populace has traditionally been lacking. He doesn’t believe the current board has been inclusive enough. 

“No one really understands why they’re going where they’re going and why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Bushyhead said. 

Burns expressed similar sentiments. Describing himself as a “progressive thinker,” the candidate questioned the current board’s process.

“A lot of the decisions being made, there wasn’t a lot of thought being put into them,” Burns said. “A lot of people would like to see a little more thought and a little more discussion.”

If elected to the board in November, Bushyhead hopes to offer constituents a venue in which to communicate with their elected leaders. Something beyond the few minutes of public speaking afforded to people during official meetings. 

“They can ask you questions and get to hear your answers, and that may lead to more questions,” Bushyhead said. 

Bushyhead’s impressive lead was all the more notable due to his being the first Cherokee candidate to win a seat on the Swain board. He hopes his win is inspiring to other Cherokees.

“I think that this victory lets them realize the possibility,” the candidate said.

Through his campaign, Bushyhead was actively pursuing the reservation vote. He urged reservation residents to participate in early voting and feels that segment of the electorate was instrumental in his election.

“Did they play a part? The answer is definitely yes,” Bushyhead said. 

The Cherokee vote was higher in this year’s primary, with a tally of 292 votes. That’s up from 266 in the 2010 primary, and 126 votes when Bushyhead first ran in 2006.

The candidate also said the Cherokee turnout may have had a positive effect for Burns at the polls as well. Burns travels throughout the county, including in Cherokee, on his route with Pepsi-Cola. Bushyhead noted how he would routinely run into Burns on the campaign trail, how everyone was familiar with the candidate because of his Pepsi route. 

“I’m not taking anything away from Danny,” Bushyhead said. “He worked as hard as anybody else, but people knew him.”

While proud to be breaking new ground, Bushyhead — who does not live on the reservation — said he sees himself as representing the entire population of the county. 

“I want to be a commissioner for all of the people in all of Swain County,” he said. 

If elected to the board in November — which is likely, considering the traditional long-shot chances of a Republican candidate — Bushyhead said he will be focusing on job growth and selling Swain to new businesses. 

“I believe the commissioners need to be the main salesmen of Swain County,” he said. “We need to be leading that charge, not just turning it over to staff and saying ‘we’ve got it covered.’”

Such an effort, Bushyhead said, will go smoother if everyone would “stop crying poor little Swain County.”

“If I was a manufacturer, if I heard all these little poor-me pitches, I’m not sure I’d want to move to Swain County,” he said. “You’ve got to — how does the song go? — accentuate the positive.”

Bushyhead said that he’s encouraged by the primary outcome. With he and Burns beating out two sitting commissioners he feels the people have spoken up in favor of a change in Swain. 

And he hopes they have the patience that such change will likely require.

“I tell’em, we didn’t get here over night and the problems won’t get solved over night,” Bushyhead said. “Be patient.” 



Election results

All five seats on the Swain Board of Commissioners — four commissioners and one chairman — are up this year. Two challengers upset the status quo in the primary and will advance to the general, along with two incumbent commissioners.

Commissioner candidates

Ben Bushyhead: 1,217 votes, (17.33%)

Danny Burns: 1,139 votes (16.22%)

David Monteith*: 775 votes, (11.04%)

Steve Moon*: 745 votes (10.61%)

Vida Cody: 722 votes (10.28%)

Donnie Dixon*: 713 votes (10.15%)

Robert White*: 713 votes (10.15%)

Thomas Ray Simonds: 514 votes (7.32%)

Correna Elders Barker: 484 votes (7.32%

Chairman candidates

Phil Carson: 1,157 votes (61%)

Boyd Gunter: 725 votes (39%)

* Denotes incumbent

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