Waynesville’s mayor race is talk of the town
Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown has the public endorsement of six out of the seven alderman candidates running for the town board this fall.
“His long record of service speaks for itself. I think he is as good as it gets in terms of dealing with budgets and town finances and is an absolutely superb representative for the town of Waynesville,” said Jon Feichter, a challenger for town alderman.
In sit-down interviews with The Smoky Mountain News over the past week, six of the seven alderman candidates said they support Brown and none went on record supporting his challenger Jonnie Cure.
“In Gavin’s past two terms as mayor he has done an incredible job. He has his hand on the pulse of what is going on the in the community,” Alderwoman Julia Freeman said.
Only candidate Kenny Mull said he hadn’t made up his mind when asked who he’s supporting.
“Neither nor,” Mull said. “I am just neutral on that subject. They both have good points and good ideas.”
Brown said the endorsements from the vast majority of aldermen candidates are a testament to his credibility.
“When you have six out of seven — and the seventh hasn’t made up his mind — that’s as good a range of support as anyone can expect. I am thankful I have such a broad range of support,” Brown said.
Cure said she is not too surprised how the endorsements shook out.
“Incumbents are always expected to win. They are supposed to have an inside track. They have been there a long time. So people who are entrenched tend to stay,” Cure said. “Some people fear change.”
Cure said she isn’t daunted running against someone with Brown’s credentials or tenure. She was a barrel racer as a girl, after all.
“I did every county fair in the state of Arkansas. So I have always been competitive from a very young age,” Cure said. “Competition doesn’t bother me. It stimulates me.”
Cure said more people are against Brown than let on.
“I can’t tell you how many people I meet with everyday who say, ‘I support you, but don’t mention my name.’
“Why? Why would they say that? They are afraid of the repercussions of not supporting Gavin Brown,” Cure said.
‘Bombthrower’ or ‘breath of fresh air’
Brown hopes voters find the choice for mayor as clear-cut as the other candidates running for office. He cited his experience in understanding the logistics and finesse it takes to run a town.
“Why would you give up that opportunity if you have it?” Brown asked.
Brown said Cure doesn’t have the experience it takes to be mayor.
“Not only doesn’t she know what she is doing, she doesn’t know how to do it,” Brown said. “She is not a leader. She has been a bomb thrower and a finger pointer. If that’s what you want on the board, it would be exciting …”
Cure is known as a conservative activist who has routinely taken county government to task for what she perceives as a bureaucratic ivory tower mentality, wasteful spending and insider back scratching.
“For years I have stood on the outside and yelled through the windows. I am from the outside looking in. People are tired of insiders running their lives and spending their money. They want somebody who is not part of the machinery,” Cure said. “I call it a breath of fresh air.”
Cure said she might seem loud but she is speaking for all the residents who feel like they don’t have a voice. She has always spoken up and spoken her mind since she was a child. She was sent to finishing school with the rest of her sisters as a young woman, but ask her what went wrong, and she jokes “They didn’t finish me. You can’t take the barrel racer out of the girl.”
But Brown said Cure would drag the town down.
“Her style is showmanship, mine is statesmanship,” Brown said. “My strength is in the ability to gather some kind of compromise we can live with. She has a bulldog mentality and that’s OK, but it doesn’t get anything done. She literally has to win every battle and doesn’t look at winning the war. The board could get into the situation of being dysfunctional.”
That’s a concern for the alderman candidates. Alderman Gary Caldwell has been on the town board 20 years —16 of those with Brown. While split votes are rare, Caldwell has been on the opposite side of issues from Brown more than any of the other sitting aldermen.
Still, he supports Brown, calling it a “no brainer.”
“There are some things we have disagreed on, but we have worked it out. It hasn’t been a problem with our relationship,” Caldwell said. “In the end, we go out hand-in-hand.”
The current town board can count on one hand the number of split votes they’ve had in the past four years.
“The dynamics of our board is that even though we have different opinions, we are respectful of one another and discuss things in a civil manner and in the end whatever decision is made we support each other and support that decision,” Freeman said.
Freeman has more in common on paper with Cure — they are the only women and the only Republicans in the race, although town elections are technically non-partisan. Still, Freeman said Brown is the clear choice to her.
Brown said his goal as mayor is to find consensus, not draw lines in the sand. He noted that in his eight years as mayor he has never used a gavel during a meeting, except to open and adjourn.
“You will get a lot better results if you are a consensus builder instead of a finger pointer. You don’t get things done by sticking your finger in someone’s chest,” said alderman challenger Anthony Sutton, who endorsed Brown. “I want someone who is smart and will get things done and someone who is a consensus builder.”
Brown was a harder sell for town board challenger Philip Gibbs. Brown wasn’t the default, out-of-the-gate choice in Gibbs’ view.
“I wasn’t going to endorse anybody until I saw what the candidates were and what their platform is. I wanted to listen to both sides,” Gibbs said.
In the end, he said is endorsing Brown. But he added he could work with either.
Cure said she believes she can work with any of the alderman candidates if elected, even if Brown was their preferred choice. As for who Cure is endorsing for alderman, she isn’t naming names, but said she thinks the town needs “fresh faces.”
The flip side
Brown has taken his share of criticism, primarily for not being in touch with the common man, being a little too country club and not blue collar enough.
Cure said she offers an alternative.
“I will be a South Main Street mayor,” Cure said, referring to her residence along the main drag. “I am right in the heart of town. I am right in the middle of the people of this town.”
Brown, the son of a doctor, said the stereotype that’s he’s a wealthy, well-heeled lawyer isn’t accurate.
“We have football on Friday night and church on Sunday and those are still the two biggest events in this town and I know that,” Brown said.
The recession wasn’t easy on attorneys who specialized in real estate, Brown said.
“I drive a 2000 Impala. I am like every other working stiff. I have to leave (this meeting) and go make a living,” Brown said during an early morning interview over coffee.
As for his wife’s fancy jewelry, well, most of it is from Belk’s, he said.
Still Brown has to overcome those who see him as an intellectual socialite.
“His personality can turn people off, but the job he does for the town makes him by far the best candidate and best person to serve as mayor,” said Alderman Leroy Roberson, who said he supports Brown, “without reservation.”
Brown can come across as highbrow when he rattles off the town’s debt load ($10.8 million) or how its industrial water rates compare to other towns in WNC (third lowest).
He hasn’t studied up just because it’s election time. He just has a knack for remembering numbers, said Freeman.
If they creep into his discussion, he isn’t doing it to flaunt his knowledge, Brown said.
“It’s not that I am a know-it-all or have all the answers, but I can give the people and the board a level of comfort that their decision is based on facts,” Brown said.
Caldwell said Brown’s skillset is valuable to the town.
“Gavin has got the skill level to work with situations that’s happening down in Raleigh, with our electrical contract, stuff like that,” Caldwell said. The town needs someone who can move in those circles, talk the talk and represent the town’s interests at a regional and state level, Caldwell said.
Brown gets a stipend of $10,000 a year. As for the hours he puts in, it’s hard to say, depending if you count the hours he spends “going over and over things in my mind.”
“It is my second job,” Brown said. “It is not about the big flashy stuff, it is about the day to day affairs of the town.”
Brown has a long resume of involvement and service in nonprofits and community organizations. He is currently on five boards, including Mountain Projects, Haywood Healthcare Foundation and the Haywood Economic Development Council, and that’s not counting past boards, like the Haywood Schools Foundation or Chamber of Commerce.
Brown said Cure hasn’t served on the boards of any foundations or nonprofits.
“None, not a single one,” Brown said. “I don’t think she knows how this community operates. Jonnie has no experience in any kind of leadership position or working with anybody. There’s nothing on her resume that says I have served on this board or have experience with this group.”
“I was busy making a living,” countered Cure, who ran her own real estate company for 16 years. “But I was moving at lightning speed through the community. If you want information about a community, go ask a good active real estate agent. They are the thread that runs totally through the community.”
Based on the sparse attendance at town meetings and public hearings, it would be easy to assume the general public is largely satisfied with how the town is operating. But Cure said that’s a false assumption.
“They think it won’t make a bit of difference if they show up at those meetings,” Cure said. “The people in Waynesville feel like they won’t be listened to. Why bother?”
She hopes to change that and do more to bring the general public into the fold of town government.
“There is an undercurrent that is awful of people who will not stand up to their government,” Cure said. “I have always encouraged other people to step up and I have recruited people to run for office. It is my turn to step up to the plate and play hardball. Really, it is time.”
Meet the candidates
Gavin Brown, 68, attorney
Brown is running on a platform of his “vast experience and vast knowledge.”
“You don’t want to make a decision for political expediency. I have fostered the ability to rationally discuss things. There is a cost-benefit analysis every time you do something, not always in terms of money but in terms of the good will of the town, the standing of the town, the citizen’s perception of the town. Discretion is the better part of valor. At the end of the day that allows the citizens of your community to firmly establish themselves here and say, ‘This is where I want to live and where I want to carry on business.’ Are we going to walk backwards or walk forward proudly into the future together?”
Brown has been on the town board 16 years — eight as mayor and before that eight as alderman. Brown returned to Waynesville after going to law school at UNC-Chapel Hill and has been an attorney for 40 years. He started out as a defense trial lawyer, but transitioned to civil work, focusing on real estate, deeds and trusts. He takes pride in wearing his town pin with the motto ‘Progress with Vision’ every day.
Jonnie Cure, 73, real estate agent, investor and consultant
Cure’s running on a platform of making town government more transparent, from putting video of town meetings online to proactively seeking public input on line-item budget appropriations.
“A small group of people — five — determine how and where that money is going to be spent with very little input from you the people. How about we let some people come sit at the table? You must not be left out of the process or left in the dark. I would be a mayor that educates and persuades. Instead of open door, how about open house? Take the concept of real estate and put a sign out front of town hall so people get to know their government. I will ask the questions that need to be asked in the name of the people of Waynesville. Make public input count and not just be symbolic.”
Cure is from Arkansas. She moved to Waynesville in 1990 seeking opportunities for her intellectually disabled daughter at Haywood Vocational Opportunities, which employs people with disabilities.
In 1992, she started the real estate company Southern Exposure, which had 38 employees at its peak before closing in 2008 as the recession set in.
She has remained involved in real estate as an investor, consultant, trainer and independent agent.
Lynn Bradley will appear on the ballot for mayor, but he’s telling people not to vote for him. After filing as a candidate, Bradley decided he didn’t want to run after all. It was too late to have his name struck from the ballot, however. He has endorsed Jonnie Cure.
What makes Waynesville great?
Here’s what candidates had to say about why they love Waynesville and how they think it is perceived by others.
Mayor candidates: pick one
“For the same reason anyone finds it attractive: small town, cordial people, easygoing lifestyle, opportunities for people willing to take a risk and go into business, the low crime rate.”
— Jonnie Cure
“Even putting aside my bias, I think we are recognized as the best small town in Western North Carolina. I hear this all the time. We have been able to maintain ties to the past while looking to the future.”
— Gavin Brown