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A day in the life: A political newcomer finds her stride

fr hippsEditor’s note: The Smoky Mountain News spent a day with Jane Hipps, a Democratic challenger running for the state Senate seat spanning the seven western counties.

8:40 A.M.

Jane Hipps was getting a later-than-normal start on the campaign trail, unless you count the cards she passed out at her crack-of-dawn dentist appointment. In a proud moment of positive thinking, Hipps had diligently made her next dentist appointment as she left, for 7:30 a.m.


Now back at campaign headquarters — namely the first floor of her stately, brick home on a historic residential street in downtown Waynesville — Hipps pulled two biscuits from a McDonald’s bag and handed one to her campaign manager, Julia Buckner. They settled into a quick briefing of the day’s campaign activities.

Eating isn’t always glamorous on the campaign trail. Sure, some days are a revolving door of meals — progressing from a breakfast social to lunch meet-and-greet to dinner fundraiser.

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“How many pounds of barbeque do you think we have consumed this year?” Buckner asked inquisitively.

Shrimp comes in a close second, Buckner added, due almost entirely to Hipps’ attendance at the Smoky Mountain Shrimp Boil in Franklin. Hipps entered the shrimp eating contest on a whim and ended up taking the Shrimp Queen title, which came with a trophy and sash, after downing 22 jumbo shrimp in five minutes, including peeling them herself. 

But other days are all about drive-thrus and granola bars on the go.

“We either eat too much or too little,” Hipps said.

9:05 A.M.

“I’ll have to get these raked up soon,” Hipps said, crunching across a dusting of leaves from the giant red maples in her yard — the Latin name is Acer rubrum, Hipps pointed out.

Hipps passed through the gate, onto the sidewalk and headed up the street for a quick meeting with Haywood County’s economic development director, Mark Clasby.

The seven-county Senate district makes for a lot of ground to cover. And a lot of people to meet with — including an economic development director in each of the seven counties. Hipps had met with five so far. Today Haywood would make six, leaving just Clay County to go.

It’s the classic challenge of the underdog. People know Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, already after four years in Raleigh, but Hipps is starting from scratch and has far more rounds to make.

9:10 A.M.

“Tell me what your needs are going to be in Raleigh,” Hipps said, sitting down at a conference room table with Clasby.

Hipps mostly listened as Clasby recounted the challenges facing economic development in the mountains, lamented the lack of state incentives offered for job creation, highlighted some success stories in Haywood and finally zeroed in on his biggest thorn: the sorry state of high-speed broadband Internet service.

“I’d say that is my top priority right now,” Clasby said.

“If I am in Raleigh, that will be a priority for me as well,” Hipps said.

10:06 A.M.

“We’re back,” Hipps called to Buckner, as she stepped through the sliding door off her patio.

Wheels up was supposed to be 20 minutes ago, and now the prospect of being in downtown Highlands by 11 a.m. was looking slim. Hipps scooted through the house, rounding up her bag, a pile of reading material and a large handmade basket that serves as her campaign catch-all for toting business cards, flyers, stickers and anything else that need corralling on the backseat while in transit.

The belated departure was perfect for a roadside rendezvous with Hipps’ campaign treasurer, however. She was heading to Atlanta to see a Paul McCartney concert and had a couple checks to pass over before leaving town. Buckner stopped, and the treasurer handed the checks out the window to Buckner before pulling away again.

“What do you mean we are going to be late?” Buckner asked, as she headed onto the highway. “We can make it.”

“You don’t get car sick do you?” Hipps asked.

10:40 A.M.

“Hurry up and finish so you can see how pretty it is,” Buckner said. Hipps was prepping for a luncheon with a group of Realtors in Highlands. Buckner had printed a position paper by the N.C. Realtors Association on state bills for Hipps to read during the car ride.

But now, Buckner was trying to point out fall color as the car rounded Lake Glenville.

Hipps was holding her reading material at arm’s length, level with the dash board — “I have access to glance at the horizon,” she explained — which makes it easier to read without getting queasy on curvy roads like the one leading to Cashiers.

Usually, Hipps uses her iPad to pull up files, but today Buckner printed them out as a safeguard against spotty reception. That spotty reception is just another unique challenge to running a campaign in the seven western counties.

“The Senate caucus doesn’t understand why you don’t email them back like this,” Buckner said, snapping her fingers.

Hipps was pleased to find one of her signature campaign issues — education — in the overview of legislative issues on Realtors’ minds.

“A lot of people relocate based on the quality of schools. I think that’s one thing that is going to hurt us on the economic development front. The erosion of our public schools has gotten so much national attention, and people will look at that,” Hipps said.

10:56 A.M.

It was finally time to face the music. Highlands by 11 wasn’t happening. Buckner called Alan Bryson, the person Hipps was supposed to be meeting, and told him they were running late.

Hipps has put 38,000 miles on her Subaru since announcing her bid for state Senate early this year. The campaign mobile has all the essentials: an ample supply of Beach Boys and similar ‘60s genre pop in the glove box and a half-gallon carton of Whoppers chocolate malt balls on the floorboard of the backseat. 

Buckner is a jack-of-all-trades campaign manager.

She speaks on Hipps’ behalf when they have double-booked engagements. She researches the issues Hipps must prep for that day. She manages the campaign schedule.

But perhaps most importantly, she keeps Hipps laughing. 

“We like to make up our own lyrics to songs,” Buckner said, queuing up “The Wanderer” by Dion.

“I’m the kind of candidate who likes to roam around. We started our morning in Haywood, we’ll be in Franklin before the sun goes down, I’m a wanderer, yeah I’m a wanderer…,” Buckner sang.

11:30 A.M.

Alan Bryson, a Democratic supporter of Hipps, was waiting in the parking lot of the Highlands library. Bryson had volunteered to take Hipps around town on a meet-and-greet, but didn’t reveal what was up his sleeve until she got there.

“Come on, I wanted to take you over to Highlands School,” Bryson said.

Highlands School is one of the only K-12 schools in the state, Bryson explained. It faces unique budget challenges because the state funding formula — calculated on a per pupil basis — assumes there’s a critical mass of students in each grade, but that’s just not the case in more remote settings. 

Hipps, having worked as a science curriculum trainer throughout the region, was familiar with the K-12 school funding conundrum — three of the only K-12 schools in the state are here in the seven western counties.

“Alrighty, let’s go,” Hipps said, climbing back in the car to follow Bryson across town.

11:37 A.M.

“Hello there, Brian, there’s someone I’d like you to meet,” Bryson said from the doorway of the principal’s office.

Principal Brian Jetter warmly invited Hipps in to sit down.

Jetter couldn’t be perceived as advocating for Hipps while on the clock as a public employee. But he is allowed to advocate for his school’s needs, whoever the audience of the hour may be, even if it’s a candidate in a hotly contested Senate race three weeks out from Election Day.

To be safe, though, Jetter declined to take any of Hipps’ cards. And when showing her around the school, he merely introduced her as: “This is Jane Hipps.” And not: “This is the State Senate candidate Jane Hipps.”

As Jetter walked the halls with Hipps, however, she was an instant rock star. Hipps has staked out a platform as an education champion, and it had apparently resonated with teachers. 

“Oh, you are Jane Hipps? It is so good to meet you.”

“You were a teacher weren’t you? I know you’ll support public schools.”

There was even an occasional low whisper, out of students’ earshot, of“You have my vote.”

12:15 P.M.

Hipps was now headed across town for a casual meet-and-greet organized by a supporter, Betty Holt, at the real estate office where she worked.

“Do you need cards?” Buckner asked, shoving a fistful toward Hipps as they climbed out of the car.

“Got some,” Hipps said, who’d just restocked after depleting her stash at the last stop. Bryson took all she had, offering to distribute them for her around town.

“Sometimes I’ll go through 500 a day,” Hipps said.

Inside, a ring of 10 chairs was arranged in a circle of the real estate office lobby. It was potentially going to be a tough crowd. Most Realtors working in the wealthy, high-end Highlands market were probably Republican.

But that was fine by Hipps. It’s what she wanted, in fact. When Holt asked Hipps how she could help the campaign, Hipps said what she needed most was the chance to meet people — as many people and in as many settings as possible.

So Holt invited her friends and fellow Realtors to a drop-in candidate appearance by Hipps during their lunch hour. 

12:43 P.M.

Once settled into chairs, and the office phone silenced, Hipps gave a two-minute condensed version of her life. She grew up poor, went to school in feed sack dresses, but thanks to hard-working parents and a good education, she went on to college, got double degrees in biology and education, and then a master’s in school counseling. Her worked as a school counselor and then a psychologist after earning a second master’s degree in school psychology. She also worked as state science curriculum coordinator throughout the western region.

Her husband passed away over a decade ago. A widow, retired and with three grown children, Hipps had time on her hands. So she pursued another degree — this time a master’s in nursing from Vanderbilt.

“I would say I had a mid-life crises, but I was too old for that, so I call it a senior crisis,” said Hipps, 69.

As for her latest trajectory as a state Senate candidate?

“Somebody had to do it,” Hipps said. “This is about trying to get our region and state back on track.” 

When Hipps turned the floor over for questions, a free-wheeling discussion took off on everything from the abysmally slow Internet access in Highlands to tax reform, including whether Realtors might see sales tax tacked onto their commissions under sales tax expansion on services.

David Bee, a Republican and a real estate agent, asked Hipps what she would do about the projected budget shortfalls in Raleigh.

“The reason we are seeing this deficit is because of the tax breaks that put money in the pocket of millionaires and billionaires,” Hipps said.

Bee countered that a lower corporate tax rate and income tax rate on small business would spur more hiring — at least theoretically. But Hipps said corporate executives usually pocket the extra profit from tax breaks rather than passing it along to employees.

“I think we have been waiting since the ‘80s for the trickle down,” Hipps replied.

There were less than 10 votes in the room, and it was soon clear most were indeed Republicans, but Hipps explained that she never turns down a chance to meet anyone, from either party, even if she knows her views might differ from theirs.

“If there is a difference of opinion, if we don’t agree, you talk to people about what those differences are and use that as an opportunity,” Hipps said before the meet-and-greet. Hipps said she draws on her training as a school counselor and psychologist to first understand people’s point of view, and then try to connect with them.

She’s an attentive and active listener — maintaining eye contact, nodding frequently, and letting a couple seconds of silence pass after the other person stops talking to make sure they’re done before she starts.

It’s one reason her days on the campaign trail are almost never on time.

“There will be someone I’m supposed to be meeting and I’ll never get there,” Hipps said.

Eventually, there was one issue that brought everyone in the room to the same table: education.

Christal Green, a Republican who works at the real estate firm, said she was concerned that her kids were coming home without their own textbook to use. The new Common Core curriculum is so different from how she was taught, but she can’t figure out how to help her 8-year-old with his homework without a textbook to go by, and resorts to Google to find the Common Core approach to math problems. 

Bee said the PTO at his kids’ school is raising money for basic, core needs these days instead of the extras that PTOs traditionally have raised money for. 

After quickly scarfing down a chicken salad wrap courtesy of Holt, Hipps and Buckner left her with a box of call lists should she have the chance to do phone canvassing in the evenings.

“I don’t think we are going to be in Franklin by two o’clock,” Buckner said as they walked to the car.

1:50 P.M.

After joining back up with Bryson to shake a few hands in downtown Highlands, it was windshield time again. Hipps called the next person they were meeting, Franklin Mayor Bob Scott, to break the news.

“We’re just now leaving Highlands, I’m sorry. Everything’s tracking late today it seems,” Hipps told him.

Buckner played tour guide again on the descent through the Cullasaja Gorge en route to Franklin. The pale green hue of lichen colonies on rock faces caught her eye, and she turned to Hipps for a science lesson.

“Let me see what lichens are a combination of,” Hipps said pulling out her iPhone to refresh her memory.

Lichen, Hipps explained, are a combination of fungus and algae, a theory studied extensively by Beatrix Potter in the early 1900s. Hipps launched into a short synopsis of the mycological exploits of Beatrix Potter, who was an amateur scientist before becoming children’s author.

As a former science curriculum trainer, it’s hard to tell what Hipps uses her iPhone for more — politics or science trivia.

Hipps, a bird watcher, has an iPhone app that identifies bird calls and another that you can point at the night sky to tell you name of the star you’re seeing.

2:57 P.M.

Hipps finally made it to Franklin Town Hall, where she and Mayor Bob Scott reminisced about the days when Scott was a newspaper reporter and Hipps’ husband, Charlie, was in political office.

“Hey Justin, there’s someone I want you to meet,” Scott called to a town employee passing by his door.

“Oh yeah, you came to the fire department … our little pancake breakfast,” said Justin Setser, the town planner and a volunteer firefighter, as he popped in to shake Hipps hand.

“Yeah, I enjoyed it,” Hipps said. 

It was then on to more pavement pounding, as Hipps popped in and out of stores on Franklin’s Main Street to once again shake hands and pass out cards.

“If you want to be the voice for the west, you have to hear from the voices of the west,” Hipps said. “I want to find out what’s on their mind and what’s important to them.”

4:18 P.M.

Hipps was finally on the road back home to Waynesville. Life has been nonstop since she announced in January that she would run for Senate.

“I didn’t even know we had summer. All of a sudden the leaves are changing,” Hipps said.

Sunday morning and Wednesday evening — her church time — is her only break from campaigning. She’s a long-time member of First United Methodist in Waynesville. But lately, she’s been a visitor at other services, only if invited, however, and never wearing her campaign pin.

Hipps is new to running for office, but she isn’t new to politics. Her husband, Charlie Hipps, served as a state senator for seven years in the 1980s, and then district attorney for 12 years. Charlie died unexpectedly of a heart attack while still in office 11 years ago.

“Charlie told me a few months before he died that it was time for me to get into politics, and I said one person in the family is insanity enough,” Hipps said.

When Hipps announced her candidacy in January, she was Charlie Hipps’ wife. But now, she’s Jane. She no longer needs the borrowed glory of her late husband to preface her introductions.

Still, he’s on her mind often. She’s putting into practice things she learned on the campaign trail with him during his two decades in politics.

“I think I campaigned with a master,” Hipps said. “I learned a lot of wonderful things from him. Good things about how to take care of people and what you can really do in politics. I look at politics as a way to really help people and create a better state and create better opportunities for people.”

With Charlie’s birthday coming up in three days, Hipps reflected on what he would say if he were here to see her now.

“He probably would think ‘What took you so long?’” Hipps said.

5:10 P.M.

When Hipps and Buckner pulled into Hipps’ driveway, they were in the homestretch but not yet to the finish line. The evening would be full of catch-up. Buckner had a long list of callbacks for Hipps to make, some “jobs bill stuff” to read that was already downloaded to Hipps’ iPad, and last but not least some fundraising calls to make.

“It is something I’ve had to get used to, because I had never asked people for money before,” Hipps said.

As the campaign manager, Buckner tracks weekly fundraising goals — but also weekly goals for how many people Hipps meets and how many outreach events she attends.

“We have campaigned 24-7 since the day it started,” Buckner said.

Hipps hopes the boots-on-the-ground campaign strategy, reaching one voter at a time, day after day, will pay off come Nov. 4.

“If the people I met today were the only people who were going to vote, I think I would have won today,” Hipps said.

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