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Democrats scramble to recruit candidates for Haywood commissioner contest

haywoodThe ballot for Haywood County commissioner could be a sparse one based on rumblings of who’s running — and more notably who’s not running.

Long-time Commissioner Mark Swanger has made it clear he won’t run again, but surprisingly, no one from the Democrats’ camp has emerged yet for the open seat.

The clock is ticking, with candidate sign-up getting underway next week, yet Democrats are still struggling to fill what appears to be a major void on their party’s ticket.

“The 2016 commissioners race is critically important due to the departure of Chairman Mark Swanger and the experience he brings to the job,” said Myrna Campbell, chair of the Haywood County Democratic Party. 

Two of the five seats on the Haywood board of commissioners are up for election in 2016 — those currently held by Swanger and Republican Kevin Ensley.

So far, Ensley is the only candidate from either party who has publicly said he will run. 

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Swanger has been at the helm of the county board for so long it’s possible his party had grown complacent, failing to groom prospective candidates and simply counting on Swanger to stay on board indefinitely. But Swanger is intent on his decision not to run again, a message he went public with a couple months ago to get the gears turning on who could run in his shoes.

Democratic party insiders have indeed been working to recruit candidates, pinning hopes on a couple of strong prospects, but they have decided not to do it in the end.

The party has now ramped up its strategy with an all-hands-on-deck approach as the candidate sign-up period closes in.

“I’m working with a search committee composed of Democratic precinct chairs to identify a diverse group of prospects from different areas of the county. We hope to have commitments from at least two prospective candidates by early next week,” Campbell said.

Another hurdle is how early the candidate filing period is. Filing has historically been in February.

But the primary election in North Carolina was moved up from May to March 15 by a vote of the Republican General Assembly this summer — and the earlier primary dictated an early candidate filing period.

“I think a lot of people aren’t aware that the filing period starts next week,” Campbell said.

Four of the five county commissioners are currently Democrats, which has always been par for the course in Haywood County. Democrats have historically dominated local politics here, holding the vast majority thanks to their edge over registered Republicans. 

But over the past decade, registered Democrats have lost ground as the number of unaffiliated voters has risen. Democrats have dropped from over 50 percent of registered voters to only 41 percent. 

Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Haywood, however, which makes the dearth of Democratic candidates stepping forward so far all the more peculiar.

One of the prospects approached about running was Laura Leatherwood, a vice president at Haywood Community College. Leatherwood said it could be a possibility some day, but not right now.

“I appreciate the confidence that people have in me but the timing is simply not right for me right now,” Leatherwood said. “My first priority is Haywood Community College.”

Another candidate approached by the party was Lynn Milner, who serves on the Haywood County school board.

“I was thinking very seriously about it but I have decided not to,” Milner said late last week. “I really analyzed it and I prayed about it. I think I could have done a good job and the county needed someone who could do a good job. But I am enjoying what I am doing now.”

By that, Milner means her roles on the school board — she couldn’t be on both — and serving on nonprofit boards like Mountain Projects. 

Asked whether she was turned off from the idea because she didn’t want to deal with the name-calling and conspiracy theories hurled by a group of cyber critics who make sport of lambasting the commissioners, Milner said that had nothing to do with it.

“Absolutely not. I like a challenge,” Milner said.


Republican primary likely to be competitive in Haywood

Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley announced this week that he will run again for the county board in 2016.

Ensley has served three terms as commissioner, the only Republican to ever serve that many terms in the history of Haywood County where local politics have historically been dominated by Democrats.

Ensley is likely to face opposition in the primary election from within his own party. Only two Republican candidates will advance past the primary, and political observers expect there will be at least two more in addition to Ensley, leading to a competitive primary to see who will advance.

The Republican Party has splintered in Haywood County in recent years, with moderate, mainstream Republicans like Ensley being run out of the party apparatus by a right-wing faction with Libertarian leanings.

The camp that currently controls the party leadership will no doubt have its own slate of candidates who Ensley would have to fend off in order to make it past the primary.

The primary will be a litmus test for Republican voters to decide which brand of conservative they more closely identify with. Kenneth Henson, chair of the Haywood Republican Party, said his camp will prevail.

“If we had a face off between the true Republican Party in Haywood County, the true conservative Republican Party, against the liberal wing Republican Party, they can’t even compete with us,” Henson said.

But that’s not how Ensley sees it.

“I feel like I am a pragmatic conservative Republican. The Libertarian Republicans have a different platform.

They don’t want any government spending whatsoever, but we have to have services that the public expects,” Ensley said.

Ensley said anyone who challenges his ideals as a Republican is off base.

“I was a Republican before being a Republican was cool, through thick and thin. If the Republican Party wants to go with a Libertarian, they can pick that in the primary, Ensley said.

Denny King, a Republican who has run in the past two commissioner elections, has not yet declared whether he will run. He came within 300 votes of winning in the general election in 2012 and 200 votes in 2014. Some speculate that his wife Debbie King may run this time.

“We are still in discussion with friends, family and supporters.  We will make an announcement soon,” the Kings said in an email statement.

Windy McKinney, a Libertarian who ran for county commissioner two years ago, said she has too much on her plate right now to run again this time. McKinney did surprisingly well for a Libertarian candidate, thanks in large part to a Libertarian wing of the local Republican party endorsing her, donating to her and campaigning for her.

There’s potentially a sleeper candidate who could emerge in the race down in the road. Anyone can run as an unaffiliated candidate, but since they don’t have to go through a party primary election, they can sign-up to run anytime before June 24.

It might seem like an easy way to walk onto the fall ballot, but there’s a catch: to run as an unaffiliated candidate you need petition signatures from 4 percent of registered voters in the county — which would be roughly 1,700.

- By Becky Johnson, staff writer


New primary date

The primary election has been accelerated in North Carolina from May to March 15. That’s pushed up the candidate sign-up period for all races from late February to early December. Candidate filing begins. Dec. 1

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