Showdown in Jackson
No one really knows how the Jackson County commissioner races are going to pan out. Incumbent Republican Commissioner Charles Elders has no idea.
“It’s hard to say,” Elders said. “Straight party voting, that’s a thing of the past. They’re gonna study, they’re gonna look.”
There are three open commissioner seats, including the chairman. The election will determine the future direction of Jackson County. It will also determine the philosophical tilt and political arc of the county board.
Candidates have lined up in blocks. Elders is joined by incumbent Commissioner Doug Cody, a Republican, and Chairman Jack Debnam, who is unaffiliated. Democratic challengers Joe Ward and Boyce Deitz are going up against Elders and Cody, respectively, while Brian McMahan, formerly chairman of the board, is aiming to reclaim his seat.
“I really think it’ll be a sweep,” said Ward.
Debnam would disagree. He beat McMahan by a handful of votes in 2010 and he’s confident he can hold onto his seat this year.
“I think I will be successful again this time,” Debnam said. “I don’t get into anything to lose.”
Whoever wins these seats will join Democratic commissioners Mark Jones and Vickie Greene on the board. Together they will face the future with the citizens of Jackson County. They will buckle their seat belts and plow face first into a myriad of issues. Into a still-struggling economy and an ever-present concern about jobs. Into the always-growing infrastructure needs of the county. Into a steep-slope ordinance rewrite, proposed Cullowhee development standards and everything else.
“Everything’s in the heat of battle right now,” said Cody. “I just don’t know how it’s going to work out.”
Commissioner Cody can remember the revolution well. It was 2010 and he wasn’t satisfied with the status quo.
“I just decided that I didn’t feel like Jackson County was on the right path, that we could do better than what we were doing,” Cody recalled.
Cody wasn’t the only one dissatisfied. It was, after all, an election year. Locally, voters were upset with commissioners for passing a series of development regulations and the temporary enactment of a development moratorium, as well as a costly legal battle waged against Duke Energy over the Dillsboro Dam. Nationally, it was the midterm election and two years after President Barack Obama’s victory, and certain Tea Party-esque factions of the Republican party were energized to the point of being frenzied.
“I saw an opportunity,” Cody said.
Cody contacted fellow Republican Elders.
“He said, ‘Charles, it wouldn’t hurt to have some experience. Why don’t you run with me?’” remembered Elders.
Elders had been on the board before, elected as a commissioner in 1994. He was turned out after a term. A victim, he says, of a backlash against a county recycling initiative.
“Word spread that we were making it hard on people, making them recycle,” Elders said. “People still weren’t educated. It took its toll and got all of us.”
Elders was happy to give politics another go. But there were three open seats on the all-Democratic board in 2010.
“I heard some folks saying, ‘What do you think of Jack Debnam?’” Elders said. “I didn’t know what Jack’s politics was.”
The pair got to know Debnam. He wasn’t a Republican, but seemed to fit.
“We liked the way Jack talked,” Elders said. “We discussed some things and he fit pretty well into our thinking.”
“A lot of his philosophy parallels ours,” said Cody.
Together Debnam, Cody and Elders swept the election and wrested control of the board away from a Democrat majority for the first time since the 1990s. But things are different now.
The Republican Party doesn’t appear to have the enthusiasm and energy of 2010. Local-level Democratic candidates in North Carolina, however, may stand to receive some trickle down benefit this November due to actions taken at the state level.
“I think statewise it’s already been impacted by some of the things that have happened in our Republican legislature,” said Deitz.
This is not lost on Republicans. Cody is keenly aware of the potential blowback. He understands a replay of the 2010 Republican sweep may not be possible.
“I think it could be a mix,” Cody offered up an election prediction. “And I’ll be honest with you, I think the statewide races have hurt us on the local level, or may hurt.”
State Republican lawmakers have made moves on education funding, fracking and voting laws, among other things, that have rattled the left. Locally, conservative candidates are sweating out the consequences and Democrats are hoping to reap the rewards of the discontent.
“I think it will help me and the Democratic Party,” said Ward.
The urge to serve
McMahan recalls his time as chairman of the Jackson board of commissioners fondly. He said other people do too.
“I’ve had people tell me that I was the best chairman they had seen, that I had really put my heart and soul into it,” McMahan said.
The candidate would like another go. And his Democratic comrades would like to come along on the venture.
“I’m interested in the county and I’m interested in where I live. This county is part of all of us, it’s part of me. I’d like to see us make the county as good as it could be,” Deitz explained his reasoning for getting into the race. “I’ve never been satisfied with being average. I just think we should be as good as we could be.”
Ward said he was moved to run for office because of “some unanswered questions.”
“Like where is our county heading to? We don’t have a plan right now,” the candidate said. “We need a plan on where we’re gong, what we’re going to do, what we’re going to accomplish. Where are we going to be? What are we going to look like?”
These, of course, are the same questions that the incumbent slate of candidates would like to continue addressing themselves.
“I’d like to be part of seeing Jackson County grow just a little bit more,” said Elders.
And while the competing candidates hold similar views on some issues — the whole bunch, for example, seems equally freaked out about the coming property revaluations — they are staking out varying visions of Jackson County government.
The differences range from disagreements on funding priorities and political philosophies to the more logistical details of running a commissioners meeting.
Democratic candidates in these races have taken particular aim at the timing of the commissioners’ public comment period during public meetings. Currently, the public is give an opportunity to address the board toward the end of its meeting.
“It kind of reminds me of a fella building a barn and after he gets it built he asks the farmer to come look and tell me what you think instead of asking him what he’d like to see in a barn,” said Deitz.
The public comment period, the candidate said, should be pushed to the beginning of the meeting. This would allow for the public to comment on matters that were about to be considered by the commissioners.
“You don’t act on something and then ask somebody later what they thought of the way you acted,” Deitz said.
McMahan agrees, the public comment period needs tweaking. He also sees a problem with the commissioners meeting in the early afternoon.
“Meetings were moved to the middle of the day, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon when most people are at work or in school” McMahan said, “and our county government is down there making decisions and taking public comment.”
The chairman candidate also took his opponent to task over the tone of commission meetings.
“The current chair, he strong arms the agenda and tightly controls what’s on there,” McMahan said. “Even sitting commissioners have trouble getting items on the agenda, and I never did that.”
Debnam disagrees. He views himself as coordinating a mostly-unified board and says “everything is a negotiation.”
“I think every decision that we make should be something that both sides can live with,” Debnam said. “I think it’s my job to get us to a point that we understand each other.”
The chairman also bristles at the notion that the slate of incumbents is not responsive to their constituents. More of the wrong-tone argument is being put forth by the challengers.
“When you talk to people and ask them to vote for you, they say will they ever see you again,” explained Deitz. “That tells me, well, it just says what it says — we need to be seen, we need to be out, we need to make ourselves accountable.”
Debnam doesn’t get it. He considers himself extremely accessible. The tone, he says, is just fine.
“I don’t see that. I really don’t. I’ll talk to them, I’ll come to them and talk to them,” the chairman said, explaining that he prefers face-to-face encounters with his constituents. “People on the internet and telephone are 9 feet tall and bulletproof, people in person will normally carry on a cordial conversation.”
Results and ramifications
Debnam has enjoyed his term in the chairman’s seat. The time has passed too quickly.
“This last four years went by like that,” Debnam said, snapping his fingers.
And, by his count at least, it’s been a good four years.
“I’ll put the record, my record and the commissioners I have served with, being both Republican and Democrat, against any other group that’s been in there,” Debnam said.
The current chairman would like another go on the board. And he’d like to see that board’s make-up remain the same — a body split between two Democrats and two Republicans, with him acting as the unaffiliated balance.
If the dynamics on the board change, Debnam said, things will be “going back to politics as usual.” Cody agrees.
“I think the way the board is right now is probably a good thing for Jackson County,” Cody said.
The incumbent candidate feels a shake-up of the board would mean disturbing the current balance. He’s fretting over a potential philosophical change — “you ought to leave your philosophical stuff at the door” — and is worried how any Democratic victories could impact the board.
“I think it’s better the way it is right now,” Cody said, adding that he’d be able to work with whichever candidates prevailed in November. “I think we could work together, it’d probably be a little more difficult. I think there’d be a shift in philosophy, I must say.”
Deitz isn’t looking at it through a partisan lens. Even given a Democratic sweep, the candidate doesn’t feel the board will be thrown off balance.
“I don’t look at it like if all three of us win it’s going to be a Democratic board,” Deitz said. “I don’t look at it like if all of us win we’re gonna run and go and do whatever we want to do. I hope that we’ll always do what’s best for the people of Jackson County. My wife says I may be idealistic, but I don’t think I am.”
McMahan echoed that sentiment. Whoever wins, he said, will need to put party and philosophy aside to best serve the people.
“I’m about bringing Jackson County together,” McMahan said. “Not an us-versus-them mentality.”
Meet the candidates
There are three open chairs, including the chairman’s seat, on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Two candidates are vying for each seat. Though the seats — with the exception of the chairman’s — are tied to designated districts, voters can vote in all three races.
Jack Debnam, 63, Unaffiliated, incumbent
Debnam grew up in Raleigh.
“Never went any further than a high school education,” he said. “Been in grading, timber, real estate, I grew up farming.”
In 1988 Debnam moved to Jackson County. He currently owns a real estate company in Dillsboro.
“It’s been a great place to live,” Debnam said. “It’s been a great place to be a part of.”
In 2010, Debnam won the election for chairman of the Jackson commissioners.
“I love what I do, I really do,” he said. “I have had an absolute ball.”
Debnam is married, with two children and five grandkids.
Brian McMahan, 39, Democrat, challenger
McMahan is a native of Jackson County. He graduated from Smoky Mountain High School before obtaining a political science degree from Western Carolina University.
The candidate has worked in both Jackson County’s planning office and emergency management office. Since 2002, he has worked as the assistant chief of security for Balsam Mountain Preserve and is also an 18 year veteran of the Balsam-Willets-Ochre Hill Volunteer Fire Department.
McMahan won election to the board of commissioners’ District 2 seat in 2002. In 2005 he was appointed chairman after the then-chairman stepped down. The candidate won reelection in 2006 and served until 2010.
The candidate has vice president of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. He has also spent time on numerous community boards.
McMahan is married, with two young children.
District that includes Sylva and Scotts Creek
Doug Cody, 63, Republican, incumbent
Cody was born and raised in Jackson County. His mother’s family has been in the community for generations.
The candidate grew up in a working-class family, “on the poor end of the spectrum.” His dad was a businessman — opening Cody Hot Spot Express in 1953 — and his mom worked at Skyland Textile.
“My mom worked in a sewing factory, the same one my opponent’s mom worked in,” Cody recalled. “They made Buster Brown clothes, very high-end.”
Cody went to college at Western Carolina University, graduating in 1972 with a degree in industrial technology. After working from Square D, an electrical equipment manufacturer in Asheville, he moved to Raleigh and took a job in the insurance industry.
These days the candidate works for Woodus K. Humphrey and Company, which insures woodworking businesses.
Cody is married, with two daughters — one works with NASCAR, the other is in the Air Force.
Boyce Deitz, 65, Democrat, challenger
A Jackson County native, Deitz is something of a hometown hero. He played on two championship football teams at Sylva-Webster High School, then went on to coach at that school before moving on to a 20-year stretch at Swain High School, where he took the football team to a state championship.
It was at Swain High School that Deitz coached Heath Shuler, who would go on to play in the NFL and serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“You may coach your whole career and not have a blue-chip player, and he was just that,” Deitz recalled. “And he was recruited by everybody in the nation. It was a great honor.”
When Shuler went to Congress, he asked Deitz to work for him, to handle constituent relations in the region.
“It was so rewarding, cause the whole thing was about helping people,” Deitz said. “I really enjoyed that, I suppose it kind of inspired me to go on this current journey”
Deitz is married, with two daughters and six grandchildren.
District that spans from Dillsboro to Qualla
Charles Elders, 71, Republican, incumbent
Elders has long been a businesman in Jackson County.
“I was the one who first started the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Sylva,” he said.
The candidate has also been in politics for a while. Since his schoolboy days, when he succefully convinced many of his classmates to vote for Dwight Eisenhower in a mock election.
“Dwight Eisenhower carried the whole 8th grade of school,” Elders said. “I made up my mind then I’d done the right thing and I became a Republican.”
In 1994, Elders was elected to the board of county commissioners in Jackson. He served a term, then ran for office again more recently in 2010.
These days, Elders owns and operates a gas station and convenience store in Whittier. He is married, with one son and two granddaughters and one great-granddaughter.
Joe Ward, 67, Democrat, challenger
Ward is a native of Jackson County. He graduated from Sylva-Webster High School, where he was voted president of the freshman class. In 1966, the candidate graduated from Nashville Auto Diesel College.
After graduation, Ward worked for H.C. Price Pipeline Company, installing oil and gas pipeline in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. By 1969, he was beginning a career with CXS Transportation Company that would last more than three decades.
Since his retirement, Ward has served on the Jackson County Planning board and the Farmland Preservation Board Advisory.
Ward is married, with four kids, 13 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren.