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Clash of the titans: The race for Jackson’s big chair

This year’s race for Jackson County commissioner chairman is a rematch between two familiar figures. Each have claimed the title for their own four-year stints. The baton was handed over following an close contest in 2010.

So close, that Brian McMahan is back for round two, hoping to reclaim his place on the board.


But sitting Chairman Jack Debnam wants another turn in the driver’s seat. Like four years ago, Debnam is running as an Independent, labeled unaffiliated on the ballot. Meanwhile, McMahan is a Democrat. 

McMahan served as a commissioner prior to his first run as chairman, a seat he initially inherited through a vacancy, and then ran for in 2006 — unopposed no less.

But in 2010, the heat was on for McMahan. His term as chairman had been an active stretch — including controversial development regulations, a luxurious library construction project and a costly legal battle with Duke Energy over the Dillsboro dam — and political critics were hungry for change. 

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“I got mad,” recalled Debnam. “Just mad about what was happening to our county.”

Debnam ran for the chairman position and ended up narrowly ousting McMahan —  by just 67 votes. Now, four years later, McMahan believes it’s time for another change. 

“I don’t believe our county citizens are getting the quality of representation that they deserve,” said McMahan. “Especially where the chairman is concerned.”

For the record, McMahan wasn’t a party to two of the three issues fellow Democratic commissioners took heat for during McMahan’s four-year stint as chairman. McMahan’s stance on development regulations and the library project ran counter to other Democrats on the board at the time.

And Debnam, meanwhile, has shown his independent streak, often taking a moderate tack in discussions, falling somewhere between the two Republican commissioners and two Democratic commissioners on the board. In fact, Debnam prides himself on ruling from the middle and finding consensus, witnessed by very few split votes.

Even though the men have chosen sides and picked their running mates — Debnam teaming up with the Republican commissioner candidates and McMahan with the other Democratic challengers — the race for chairman is not so black-and-white.


Round one

McMahan lost his 2010 reelection bid to Debnam by a narrow margin. There are different theories as to why. One is the national landscape of 2010. 

“2010 was the year of the Tea Party,” McMahan said. “I don’ t know how to say it, it was the year of anti-government. People were looking for someone to blame and government seemed to be the one most people pointed to. A lot of incumbents lost out.”

That’s not the theory Debnam subscribes to. 

“It was reactionary,” he said. “I think it’s local.”

Debnam doesn’t discount 2010’s national landscape. He acknowledges that the midterm election generated a groundswell of energy, mainly within pockets of the Republican Party, but he doesn’t believe that energy was a big driver in his narrow victory over McMahan.

“The Republicans that voted a straight ticket did not vote for me,” Debnam said, pointing out that he ran as an Independent.

Debnam feels that he won his election because voters were dissatisfied with the sitting commissioners — all three incumbents lost in 2010 to challengers, not just McMahan.

Debnam blames the loss of incumbents, at least in part, to voter backlash over a suite of restrictive development regulations passed during that time, along with a five-month halt on subdivisions while they were being crafted.

Ironically, McMahan did not vote in favor of the development regulations or the subdivision moratorium. He did, however, suffer a possible consequence of their passage, going down in defeat with the two other Democrats on the board at the time — William Shelton and Tom Massie.

“Even though I had voted against them, a lot of time people tend to forget,” McMahan said. “Even though I voted against them, I just got lumped into the equation. When people went to the polls to vote out regulation, I got lumped into that.”


Political party animals

Politicians usually fall comfortably into a particular party. In America, they are usually a Republican or Democrat. 

At first glance, the Jackson chairman’s race is no different. Debnam’s smiling face graces billboards, flanked by incumbent commissioners candidates Doug Cody and Charles Elders, both Republicans.

McMahan, meanwhile, makes the rounds campaigning with his fellow Democrat commissioners candidates Boyce Dietz and Joe Ward.

But this race is a little different. For starters, Debnam is not a Republican, but is instead rather proud of his unaffiliated status. 

“I ran the first time as unaffiliated,” he said. “I’m running this time as unaffiliated.”

Debnam points out that, even as incumbent chairman, he has had to gather the required signatures to get on the ballot as an Independent. He paints it as a backhanded-positive — “I talk to so many people trying to get their signatures, I get to campaigning early” — and uses the opportunity to take a swipe at traditional political parties. 

“Even as an incumbent you have to do that, because the parties make the rules,” Debnam laughs.

The incumbent feels his unaffiliated status is a plus. He confesses no love for any party.

“I don’t think party politics has necessarily been what’s best for local or state or federal politics,” Debnam said. “People just get polarized when you mention politics, and I think you need to take the political part out of it. You’re a public servant, it shouldn’t matter, it should be ‘can you do the job.’”

McMahan takes a varying view. McMahan thinks Debnam may be unaffiliated on paper only. 

“I don’t know if he’s an Independent or not, that’s the problem,” McMahan said. “He votes the same way the other Republicans vote. Everything he does seems to be in lockstep with the Republicans. But then if you go to his website he says political parties are the worst thing to ever happen in this country.”

McMahan is certainly a Democrat — he’s executive director of the county party — but has also been known to stray from his party. McMahan didn’t side with fellow Democrats when they decided to build a new library connected to the back of the historic courthouse. He believed a better and cheaper option would be to build it on an empty tract of land outside the downtown area.

In particular, McMahan parted ways with his fellow Democrats when voting on Jackson County’s development ordinances. He explains that while he did vote against the measures, it wasn’t because he didn’t support their aim.

“Even though I voted against them I fully supported them and wanted to implement them,” McMahan said, explaining that the attached development moratorium was his main hang-up. “It wasn’t that I opposed the ordinances themselves, but rather the process through which we got them. I thought the process was flawed.”

Despite a different voting record than that of other Democrats sent into the political wilderness in 2010, McMahan is enthusiastic about getting more party members onto the board. This campaign season he is running as a team with the other two Democratic candidates —Dietz and Ward — for a rush at the end zone, forming a Democrat block to rival the Debnam-Cody-Elders trinity. 

“It’s a little different approach than in year’s past,” McMahan explained of the united strategy. “We’re going to be serving together, and I personally think it’s a better approach.”

McMahan said that he feels comfortable joining forces with his fellow Democrats — “I couldn’t tell you right now any difference of opinion that we have” — and that working together during the campaign season would provide the umph needed to snag all three seats up for grabs.

“You compliment each other,” McMahan said. “When you’re out here as a lone ranger it’s a lot harder.”

If the Democrats are successful winning all three seats, they will have a board full of party members. McMahan is hopeful about such prospects, forecasting a focus on guiding growth, protecting development ordinances, putting money towards schools and fire departments and concentrating on infrastructure, as well as water and sewer enhancements — in his view, picking up where he left off in 2010.

“Finish what you started,” McMahan said. 

While Debnam may shun parties, when it comes to the composition of the overall board, political parties are important and useful for Debnam. He said he enjoys the balance of the current board. With two Republicans on one side and two Democrats on the other, Debnam is able to rule from the middle.

Debnam’s philosophy can also be judged in part based on the people he’s picked for appointments to county boards and committees, who are moderates themselves rather than conservative or liberal, as the appointments of the Democratic and Republican commissioners have tended to be. 

By aligning himself with Republican candidates during the campaign, the chairman is hoping to stave off a Democrat flip.

“If the dynamics change I don’t think we’re going to be in as good of shape as we are right now,” Debnam said. “If one party takes over we’re going to be back to politics as usual … I can work with anybody, but I will be very vocal if it comes down to party politics, I will be very vocal. That is not something I’m able to tolerate quietly, if it’s party politics, not people politics.”

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