Tipping the scales
The past four years have been the first in recent memory that Democrats haven’t held a majority on the Jackson County board.
But likewise, Republicans haven’t had the majority either — a point Chairman Jack Debnam is quick to point out, and points out often.
Debnam is an independent, ascribing to neither party. It was a historical anomaly not just in the mountains but the entire state when Debnam won a county commissioner seat as an unaffiliated candidate four years ago.
But he has been criticized by Democrats for really being a conservative at heart — his independent status merely a ruse to help his election chances with a Democratic-heavy electorate.
But in defense, Debnam pointed to his voting record.
“I voted with the Democrats 95 percent of the time. I also voted with the Republicans. That’s because 95 percent of our votes were unanimous,” Debnam said.
Out of 586 votes by county commissioners over the past four years, 95.06 percent of them — to be exact — were unanimous. Only 24 — or 4.1 percent — were split votes.
But Brian McMahan, the Democratic challenger for chairman, questioned that bragging point. Most of the
“Of the 586, most are routine, procedural agenda items that pretty much are non-debatable,” McMahan said.
Things like approving the minutes, ratifying department head reports, approving budget amendments.
“Those are not a Democratic or Republican issue,” McMahan said. “Those that were split votes were of significance. Those 24 represent real issues where there is a difference of opinion.”
Debnam said Jackson is the only county in the state where neither party has the majority on the county board, and he believes it has brought balance.
“A split board has made things better in Jackson County,” he said. “We have done good things with two Democrats, two Republicans and myself.”
Debnam said it isn’t easy to run as an independent. To get on the ballot four years ago and again this time, he has to collect a passel of petition signatures — he gathered 1,100 in all this time.
Running as a team has posed a conundrum for Debnam. On one hand, aligning with the Republican commissioners could hurt his chances. It certainly won’t gain him any Republican votes. There’s no bona fide Republican running for chairman — it’s just Debnam and Democrat Brian McMahan on the ticket — so Debnam is likely the most palatable choice for conservative voters, regardless of official staking himself out with the Republican candidate camp.
But buddying up with Republican running mates could hurt his chances with swing voters and moderates who question how independent Debnam really is if he is running as a team with Republicans.
At the forum, Debnam addressed the apparent incongruity of running as a team with Republicans on the one hand, despite his partisan independence. A split board is in Debnam’s interest. He needs the two Republican commissioners to win to balance out the two sitting Democrats not up for election this time.
Without a split board, Debnam couldn’t lead from the center.
The other two Republicans likewise touted their ability to work with Democrats and avoid split votes.
“Since we are a mixed board of two Democrats and two Republicans and an independent chairman, we have had to work together to get these things done,” Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican running for re-election, said.
Still, McMahan questions how genuine it is to use the unanimous voting record as a litmus test of cooperation.
“The chair has so strictly controlled the agenda the more controversial votes have been denied access to the agenda in the first place,” McMahan said.
Some issues get decided by majority consensus without having a formal vote, like whether to give the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad a economic development loan. Regardless, the course has been different than it would have been under a Democratic majority.
“This election is about a vision for the future and where we are going,” Democratic challenger Brian McMahan said in his closing remarks. “We are at a crossroads. Now is the time to grab ahold of the reigns and to lay the foundation. We cannot afford to stumble.”