In state House race, Dems think viability
Two Democrats squaring off in the primary for the state House seat spanning Haywood, Madison and Yancey counties claim they’re the one who can oust N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, and restore progress in North Carolina.
“I know I can beat Michele,” said Rhonda Schandevel, who hails from Haywood. “There’s a lot of things that make me that candidate.”
But her opponent, Reese Steen, said he’s the one who can do the job of unseating Presnell.
“I can get the votes,” said Steen, who’s from Madison County.
Schandevel was recruited last summer by Democratic Party leaders, who thought she fit the profile for a successful candidate to run against Presnell.
For starters, she’s a woman like Presnell. Presnell won’t automatically capture the votes of those who gravitate toward female candidates if Schandevel is in the race.
But Schandevel said she could also be tougher calling out Presnell than a man could.
“There are things a gentleman would not say to a woman,” Schandevel said.
Perhaps more critically, Schandevel believes she can deliver votes in her home county of Haywood — considered the lynchpin in defeating Presnell in the three-county district.
Haywood has been the weak link for Democrats in the past two elections against Presnell. Presnell lost in Madison and even her own home county of Yancey, but led by enough in Haywood to pull out a win.
Schandevel said it will take someone from Haywood — someone like her with longstanding community ties and deep family roots here — to reverse that.
“In the past two election cycles, we have won Madison County, we have won Yancey County, but both elections have been lost by over 1,000 votes to Michele,” Schandevel said.
With education poised to be a top campaign issue this year, Schandevel’s tenure on the local school board could give her the edge as the pro-education candidate in a race against Presnell.
“Education crosses all political barriers, as well it should,” Schandevel said of education issues.
Countering the party line
Steen, however, tried to counter the notion that Schandevel is the party’s “chosen one,” something he hears when asking people for their support and endorsement.
“The thing I have been fighting in all three counties is ‘Well I promised,’ or ‘I already committed.’ It is not about my qualifications — it’s about committing to what they perceive as the Democratic Party’s chosen candidate,” Steen said.
While party leaders technically can’t endorse one Democrat over the other in a primary, behind the scenes and off the record Schandevel indeed has more support from within the Democratic party network than Steen.
Schandevel said she had never thought about running for state office when party leaders first approached her last spring. She told them thanks, but no.
Party leaders went back to the drawing board several times in their quest for a candidate to take on Presnell, but kept coming back to Schandevel.
“They wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Schandevel said.
Schandevel said her husband convinced her to think about it, and the more she did, the more she realized it was for her.
When Steen announced his candidacy in November, it was news to the teams of party leaders locally, regionally and at the state level who had spent months recruiting Schandevel. Several party leaders who were part of the brainstorming said Steen’s name never came up during the months-long process.
“Dr. Steen’s candidacy, announced in mid-November, was unanticipated,” according to an email between unnamed Democratic party leaders in Yancey County, discussing whether to support Schandevel or Steen.
The email cited the party’s intentional strategy to recruit a woman from Haywood to take on Presnell, and questioned why Steen was jumping in.
“I see this as a critical time when our leadership has done well, and we need to stick together. It seems an especially poor time for someone who has been out of political office for 20 years to be introducing division,” the email between Yancey party leaders said.
But Steen said the Democratic Party leaders in Madison and Yancey knew he was running all along. Steen questions whether he was intentionally passed over, or whether his interest in running was simply never conveyed up the party ladder.
Either way, Steen doesn’t think Schandevel set out to intentionally make an end-run around him.
“She had no part of this and she may not have had any concept of what was going on,” Steen said.
Steen claims that he was planning to run all along, but he didn’t publicly announce his candidacy until six weeks after Schandevel.
Schandevel said it was a surprise to have competition in the primary from a candidate in her own party, and she often runs into people who don’t realize she has a primary hurdle to clear.
Steen claims cross-party appeal
Steen said he can appeal to moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats better than Schandevel.
“The unaffiliated or any Republican who can be swayed by a Democrat, I will be the one who can sway them,” Steen said.
For example, Steen said he goes to gun shows.
“I have been to more gun shows than Michele this year,” Steen said, referring to Presnell’s gun show attendance compared to his own.
Steen, who raises cattle, said his Republican farmer friends in Yancey County — Presnell’s home turf — have even put signs out for him.
“Right now my signs are on more Republican land than Democrats,” Steen said.
Schandevel’s campaign manager asked if he really is a Democrat if that’s the case.
“If he has more Republicans with his yard signs and hangs out with Republicans more than Democrats and some of his ideals are more in line with the Republican Party than the Democratic Party, then is he really a Democrat? That is for the voters to decide,” said Gregory Lademann, Schandevel’s campaign manager.
Steen responded that just because he can appeal to conservatives doesn’t mean he’s not a Democrat.
“I am really a Democrat,” Steen said.
Steen was a county commissioner for 10 years in Madison County, though not all consecutively. He’s won and lost, won and lost — taking a hiatus along the way before reclaiming his seat, only to lose it once more.
Both times he lost re-election for county commissioner, it was in the Democratic primary.
Steen chalks up one of his losses to a controversial vote on the location for a new middle school.
“I voted for the middle school although the people in my district said it was a death warrant,” Steen said. “I didn’t choose the politically expedient decision.”
Steen hasn’t always enjoyed the support of influential party leaders in his home county of Madison, where he’s known as a bit of a maverick. Steen said that’s because he did what he thought was best, even if it meant bucking the party powers that be.
For example, school board races used to be partisan in Madison, but Steen advocated to change that.
“I ramrodded an effort to make the school board elections nonpartisan in a county where neither party wanted it. So anytime you are on the leading edge of that, you will get some pushback,” Steen said. “I have a track record of putting people before politics.”
Steen points out that he’s never lost a general election, proving if he can make it past the primary he can get voters from across the aisle.
Steen’s time as a commissioner was during the 1980s and 1990s. That’s quite a while ago, Schandevel’s campaign pointed out.
Schandevel juxtaposed her own time in public office — serving on the Haywood County School Board from 2008 until the present — with Steen’s public service 20 to 30 years ago.
“I am the candidate who knows the issues from this century because my service comes from this century,” Schandevel said.
Democrats must choose their candidate wisely in the primary if they hope to halt the Republican handiwork they say has put the state on a regressive track — from underfunding education to dismantling environmental laws to generous tax cuts for the wealthy and special interests at the expense of the working, middle class.
Presnell rode the Tea Party wave into office four years ago and has been a loyal soldier for the conservative agenda that’s systematically reshaped the state.
Presnell hasn’t been popular among the powers that be in Haywood County. She has single-handedly blocked the merger of Lake Junaluska with the town of Waynesville. She also overturned a widely-supported tourist tax increase on hotel rooms in Haywood that would have funded things like ball fields, skating rinks, greenways or convention centers.
Steen said it is wrong for a legislator to intervene and blockade local wishes.
“It would have to be against mom and apple pie for me to overrule them,” Steen said.
Impress your friends with this bit of election trivia
Depending how the chips fall on Election Day, Haywood County could be sending a trio of Democrats to Raleigh.
Three Democratic contenders — running in three separate state races — all hail from Haywood, although the House and Senate seats they are running for straddle a nine-county region.
As a visual aid, imagine the election districts as a Venn diagram, with Haywood at the center where the circles overlap. Here are the three Haywood Democrats running for state seats:
• Jane Hipps of Waynesville, who is once again challenging N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, for the 50th District Senate seat encompassing the seven western-most counties.
• N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen of Waynesville, running for re-election to the 119th District House seat that encompasses Jackson, Swain and part of Haywood (namely Waynesville and Lake Junaluska.)
• Rhonda Schandevel of Canton, making a run for a 118th District House seat now held by N.C. Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, that encompasses Madison, Yancey and part of Haywood (namely everything other than Waynesville and Lake Junaluska.)
Do I vote in this race?
N.C. House seat 118 includes all of Madison and Yancey counties and part of Haywood — a horseshoe shape that takes in Maggie Valley, Jonathan Creek, Crabtree, Beaverdam, Canton, Clyde, Bethel and Cruso. Waynesville and Lake Junaluska fall in the House district represented by N.C. Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D- Waynesville.