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Vox Populi — the voice of the people: Voters express indecision, dissatisfaction with candidates, parties

Vox Populi — the voice of the people: Voters express indecision, dissatisfaction with candidates, parties

As Jonathan Creek Road meanders south from Interstate 40 some 17 miles hence, it forms a “T” with Soco Road.  

There, at that busy three-way intersection linking Maggie Valley and Waynesville with the outside world, sat Doug Smith. 

Perched on a guardrail on a Sunday afternoon around 4 p.m., Smith waved to traffic while clad in a short-sleeved cotton button-up shirt made to look like an American flag. 

With white stars set atop the dark blue union on his right shoulder — his waving shoulder — and the red and white stripes resplendent across the rest of his torso, the grandfatherly Smith said he’d arrived around 1 p.m. after church, and would remain until he couldn’t sit anymore. 

Next to him was a large piece of plywood that he’d painted to read, “Let’s be great, vote again” and adorned with Trump/Pence stickers. 

As yet another car honked and its drivers smiled and waved, Smith said that this was his first time ever being politically active in any way. 

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Diagnosed with leukemia, Smith was given only months to live more than a year ago. Like many Americans, he feels that November’s election may be the most important in recent history, and like many North Carolinians, he’s doing something about it. 

“The Lord’s kept me around for something,” he said. “And this isn’t really a spiritual thing, I just feel I’ve got to do it.”

Another honk punctuates the warm fall air, and another driver waves back to him. So far, only one driver — “A lady in a big white car,” he said — has given him the finger. 

“I think Trump’s getting a bad rap from the media on his past. This man, he’s not groomed for politickin’, but he never said he was. He loves this country and he wants to spend $100 million of his money to get elected and to get rid of the crime syndicate we got in there now,” he said. “I don’t like rough language, and I don’t like jock-type language. But if the Lord can forgive us some stuff, I’m sure we can forgive his mouth.”

Smith is just one of more than a dozen people who recently talked to The Smoky Mountain News about the election. Ranging from young to old and liberal to conservative, their views will go a long way in determining the next President of the United States and the next Governor of North Carolina, as well as their next congressman, councilmen and commissioners — and the next 40-odd years of growth or decline in Western North Carolina. Here’s what they had to say. 



Are local shoppers buying what politicians are selling?

There are few better ways to place one’s fingers on the pulse of small-town America than in the parking lot of the local Walmart. 

As far as towns go, they don’t get much smaller — or much more American — than Sylva, tucked away in rural Jackson County, with a population of 2,603. 

Residents from all imaginable socioeconomic backgrounds rely on superstores like Walmart to supply everything from basic needs to Christmas ornaments, meaning that the likelihood of accessing a broad cross-section of voters is high. 

Richard Livesay is one of them. Smoking and shirtless in his truck, 60-year-old Livesay cast some light on that portion of the population that is utterly uninterested in this year’s election. 

“I’m not going to vote for neither one of them because I don’t think either one of them is capable of being president,” he said. “Not gonna vote this year.”

Sylva’s Barbara Hoyle was waiting for a bus nearby, and said she felt “disgusted.” 

“Thoroughly disgusted,” Hoyle elaborated. “With both parties. I don’t really think either candidate is fit to serve as president. I did vote for Hillary Clinton. I voted absentee, but I did it with very little enthusiasm.”

Elizabeth Waldroup, a 32-year-old from Whittier, was leaving the store as she pushed her 1-year-old son Lucas in her cart. She agreed with Hoyle’s assessment, but she backs Trump. 

“I don’t really agree with either one of the people that we’re supposed to elect,” she said. “I’d rather go with Donald just because I agree with some of his stuff that he has said.”

Waldroup, who said she voted Republican last time but splits her vote regularly, brought up some common anti-Clinton themes when pressed for an explanation. 

“Hillary’s lied in the past, and I really don’t agree with her,” she said. “Donald — he’s said some sexist things and stuff like that, but he’s for the most part been right on.”

Still, she recognizes the unusually combative nature of this year’s contest. 

“This one’s been more — it’s funny, it’s like a comedian battle really,” she said. “Most of the presidents, like Hillary and Donald, they don’t talk about what they’re going to do for us, they talk about what they’re going to do for each other. They’re just battling each other. It’s hard to true up, to really listen to them.”

Thirty-five-year-old Sylva resident Jonathan Reed was standing outside his truck in the parking lot and reinforced the prevailing opinions of the day.

“It’s definitely different, no question about it,” Reed said of the current election cycle. “I think there’s more riding on this election in terms of the choice that we have with not only the infrastructure surrounding us directly, but also directly from a world perspective. There’s going to be a lot of large decisions that have to be made from a standpoint of global economics — we’re going into a different era now.”

Reed, who is white, said that his daughter is mixed race and his wife African-American; he said he plans to vote for Clinton despite being a Republican. 

“I’m actually concerned, if he wins the election, for my family,” he said. “We both talked about it, and Trump’s outlook and a lot of the things he’s said over the years have unfortunately been sexist and racist.” 

Hannah Sink, 19, of Kernersville, and Kayla Thomas, 18, of Atlanta, are both Western Carolina University students who were walking out of the store with their purchases. 

They’re also both Clinton voters because, they giggled, “She’s not Trump,” although both said they wished former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was still in the running. 

“I liked Bernie Sanders a lot,” Sink said. 



Skeptical tribal members wrestle with indecision

One unique aspect of Western North Carolina is the presence of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — a sovereign nation within a nation that still votes in local and national elections. 

Given their two centuries of history interacting with the federal government — much of which has not been exactly positive — members of the EBCI typically give thoughtful consideration when electing their leaders, both tribal and federal.

Una Sampson, a 53-year-old tribal member, usually votes Democrat, but as of Oct. 13 she was still undecided. 

“It’s scary, that’s for sure. It’s just all … I don’t see neither one of them in there for the people,” Sampson said from outside the Cherokee Food Lion. “I just see them in there for more of their own gain. In my look at Trump, Trump’s not an Indian person.” 

Sampson explained that Trump cares only about his casinos and his money, but that Clinton wasn’t much better. 

“Hillary — I don’t know about her either,” she said. “Yeah, she is a woman and we know how that is being a woman but yeah, still yeah. I can tolerate listening to her a lot more than I can Donald Trump.”

James Soap, 26, is also a tribal member who is leaning toward Clinton. 

“I don’t really think neither one of them’s really worth it,” he said. “If I had to pick one I would pick Hillary. She’s really not the honest one but she is more — she works with others to deal with her problems. I guess she’s more understanding than Donald Trump would be. Donald he’s just — I don’t know, I don’t want to say ignorant, but he sees problems and doesn’t want to deal with them the way other people would want to.”

Soap said Trump’s attitude toward and disrespect of women also pushed him towards Clinton. 

Tribal member Dee Wike, 43, didn’t have much kind to say about either candidate. 

“Hillary wants to take away the guns, and Trump just is crazy,” said Wike, who usually votes Republican. “He ain’t got no sense to be president.”

Wike thinks that Clinton may be a slightly better choice, especially because she’s married to one of her predecessors.

However, Wike plans to vote only in state and local races this year, and is far more certain about her choices in those races.



Local Democrat, Republican Party officials offer street-level observations

The annual Apple Harvest Festival sprawls down Waynesville’s Main Street each October, drawing dozens of thousands of visitors from across the county, region and nation. 

As such, the apples aren’t the only things that are ripe — so are the opportunities for candidates and political parties to gain massive exposure. 

Candidates including Rhonda Cole Schandevel, D-Canton, and her opponent for the N.C. House District 118 seat Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Burnsville, both pressed the flesh, the latter taking pictures of people posing with a life-sized Donald Trump cutout. 

Haywood County’s Democratic and Republican parties also established a major presence at the event, answering questions, distributing flyers and giving away yard signs and stickers. 

“I think there’s more energy and enthusiasm than there’s been in several years, than I have felt since maybe 2008,” said Myrna Campbell, chair of the Haywood County Democratic Party.

The out-of-state visitors she encountered while manning the Dems’ tent were obviously interested in the national candidates, she said, but were also interested in Deborah Ross, D-Raleigh, who is locked in a tight race with incumbent U.S. Senator Richard Burr, R-Winston-Salem. 

“Even though they can’t vote for her, they are asking about her because she’s getting a lot of attention,” Campbell said. 

Locally, Campbell was frank but hedged when asked about her party’s chances. 

“The culture in Haywood County has changed so much in recent years — it’s more conservative than it used to be,” she said. “Ted Cruz won Haywood County in the primary, and I think Hillary has gained momentum. I don’t know if I’d go so much as to say it’s a toss-up right now, but I think she has more of a chance of winning. But it won’t surprise me if Haywood County goes for Trump.”

Nationally, however, Campbell has no doubt about the outcome. 

“I think Hillary’s going to win,” she said. 

Eddie Cabe, a precinct chair for the Haywood County Republican Party, predictably disagreed with Campbell.

“Overwhelmingly it’s been Trump,” he said of the people visiting the party’s tent. Like Campbell, he said they’d come from both near and far. “Another thing that’s come up consistently — people that have driven in, one in particular drove in from Alabama — they commented they didn’t see any Hillary signs, only Trump signs. That’s been a common comment we’re getting.”

Cabe’s primary reason for supporting Trump was a bit more far-sighted than most. 

“I think it’s the most important election in our lifetime,” he said. “I think the person who picks the next one, two, three Supreme Court judges is going to determine the future of our children and grandchildren.”

Ralph Slaughter wasn’t at the festival, but he has served as the chair of the Jackson County Republicans for almost eight years. Slaughter, who is in his 70s, has been a registered Republican since he was 18 years old and has been active in politics since that time. 

“It is quite different than any other election year I’ve experienced,” he said. “I think that we have two candidates running for president that are quite controversial.”

Despite the understatement, Slaughter says he’s seen support for Trump in Jackson County since “day one,” even from some Democrats. 

“On occasion I’ve had a chance to talk to these people and what they tell me is ‘Not Hillary.’ The biggest thing I’m hearing for Trump is that they are very, very concerned with the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court,” he said, echoing Cabe’s comments about how they next president will likely affect the future. 

Slaughter admits what much of North Carolina already believes — two rather unlikable candidates are running for president, but the state’s legislature is also suffering from low popularity. 

“They’re the only ones with a rating any worse than these two people,” he said. “Usually in a presidential election, in the parties themselves, 70-plus percent of them agree with their candidate. That is not what is happening now.”

Slaughter’s counterpart, Jackson County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Burrell, agrees with Slaughter, calling this year’s election “the most polarized” that he’s ever seen. 

“It’s so polarized and people are so dedicated to their own cause that it’s really phenomenal, and it’s scary in a way,” he said. “We’d always like to think that after the election people can come together and work for the good of everybody, but goodness, it’s gotten so polarized I’m not sure if that can happen or not.”

Burrell also sounds an awful lot like Slaughter when he says that he’s seen some unfamiliar faces around lately. 

“We’re getting a lot of people through headquarters, it seems like more than we normally do, and we’ve certainly had some Republicans through looking for information,” he said. “I wouldn’t say a great amount, but we’ve had some. I think there have been some people that have not traditionally taken a part in politics so to speak — they are coming by getting information on it.” 

Those new voters, Burrell said, will also make choices at a local level.

“We’re probably in some ways less impacted by that (presidential race) than we are the state,” he said, “but the things that happen there will ultimately impact it all the way down.” 

At the same time, Burrell downplays the down-ballot effect that the presidential candidates will have on those races, due to the disappearance of straight-ticket voting and the large number of registered independents. 

“Now you have to vote for each person all the way down the ballot when it used to be you could just pull the lever and that got you all the people in that particular party,” he said. “I think that we have a big number of independents that haven’t indicated a party. I suspect that some of them will vote on the split tickets. I’m not sure how many of the hardcore Democrats and Republicans will, but there will be some split-ticket voting among your independents.”

Gwen Bushyhead, chairwoman of the Swain County Democratic Party, said this year’s presidential election has been an embarrassment both at home and abroad. 

“No matter who is elected, a large number of people will believe the election apparatus is broken,” Bushyhead said. “It’s the first time that we know of that a foreign power has tried to influence the vote.”

Despite all the controversy and the media feeding frenzy, Gwen and her husband Ben Bushyhead, a sitting Swain County commissioner, have continued to follow the candidate campaigns closely. However, Gwen said they are able to have more civilized debate about it with their friends than what they’ve witnessed during the presidential debates. 

“I am a registered Democrat, and have Republican and unaffiliated friends,” she said. “We talk politics in a reasonable way and do not talk over each other. There is no bullying, unlike what one can see on TV.” 

Gwen said she is excited to vote for Hillary Clinton just as she was excited to vote for President Obama in 2008 and again in 2012. For her, Clinton is the candidate who has the experience and knowledge to keep the country on the right track. 

“I admire Bernie Sanders for his passion, but favor a more pragmatic approach to presidential leadership,” she said. 

Though the Swain Democratic Party is working hard to get out the vote, Gwen said there’s no real way to predict voter turnout or how it might affect local and state races. She encourages everyone to vote whether they like their choice for president or not, because the local races have an even greater impact on people’s lives. 

“We vote in every election. I particularly value my vote in local elections because that is where it has the most power,” she said. 



Those in office, running for office have to vote, too

One subset of voters finds itself in a unique position to make choices at the ballot box this fall — because those voters are candidates for election themselves.  

Sure, they hoist their party flags and campaign for themselves, but at the end of the day, they have an inside look at the workings of their parties and their opponents’ campaigns that provide particular insight into the election as a whole. 

Carolyn Bair, 68, is running again for Swain County commissioner as a Republican after losing in 2014. 

While many people feel like they’re forced to choose between a lesser of two evils, Bair is enthusiastic about the chance to cast her vote for Trump. 

“I’m excited about it — I want to get Obama out of there,” she said. “I know Trump can be a loud mouth and made smart-mouth comments 10 years ago, but you can’t hold that against him. He’s got a good head on his shoulders or he wouldn’t have all that money.”

Bair said she thinks North Carolina will have a good voter turnout this year, not only because of the presidential election, but also because of the important races for state offices and local commissioners’ races. She knows from past elections that a high voter turnout can make all the difference for the Republican Party. 

“Obama got in there the last time because 39 million Christians didn’t get out and vote — that would have made a big difference,” she said. 

The one Democrat Bair said she’d be voting for this November is incumbent county commissioner David Monteith, meaning she won’t be voting for Rick Bryson, 71, who serves on the Bryson City Board of Aldermen and is running against U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, for Congress. 

“I think the presidential candidates are like two cats with their tails tied together thrown over a clothesline,” Bryson said. 

He predicts that the bickering between the candidates and the daily accusations on both sides may turn people off and keep them from getting to the polls. Depending on which party has more people sitting out this year, the election could swing either way. 

“I think it could suppress the vote to some extent, which means many people may not vote in the local races too,” Bryson said.  

Even though he isn’t running for office this year, Franklin Mayor Bob Scott said he’s concerned about the effect of heated political rhetoric on potential voters. 

“I’m absolutely appalled that Donald Trump could be the nominee of one of the two major political parties,” Scott said. “He touts himself as a businessman but what the public doesn’t realize is government isn’t a business — it’s a service. In my opinion, Trump has no concept of what government is at all. Mrs. Clinton has some faults, as we all do, but at least she understands how government works.”

This election cycle has been disheartening for Scott, who says he’s never seen so much hatred and bitterness between people in the nearly 50 years he’s lived in Western North Carolina. He says people on both sides of the political spectrum are so angry and divided and he can’t help but to blame Trump’s hateful oratory.

“We’ve always had differing opinions but this is different — it’s frightening,” he said. “Everything is so partisan — there’s no more working together.” 

While out in the community, Scott has heard many people say they don’t even want to vote this year but he encourages them to cast a ballot anyway, even if they skip the presidential race and only vote for state and local candidates.

“I tell them you’re not obligated to vote but you owe it to the nation to study the issues and vote,” he said. “I’m just as concerned about the state elections as I am anything else.”

As a small town mayor, Scott said the symbiotic relationship legislators once had with local governments has gone by the wayside. It seems like the state government keeps taking away local control, whether it’s through revoking a town’s right to issue a business privilege license or issuing numerous unfunded mandates. 

“It’s something I live with on a daily basis, and I don’t understand what’s happened. We used to have a friendly relationship between legislators and local communities.” 

Charlie Leatherman is a former Republican Macon County commissioner who is running again this year as a Democrat, though he’s says he doesn’t truly fall into either category. 

“I’m like most average people in WNC in that I think it’s almost an embarrassment that the political process in the United States has served up these two as choices to run the federal government,” he said. “Most people I’ve talked to are not excited about either one of them. I know it’s a worn out phrase but it’s like you’re not voting for someone of your choice — you’re voting against someone else.” 

Leatherman, like Scott, is concerned that many people will throw up their hands at the entire flawed process and not even bother to vote, especially with polls and news media already predicting a Hillary Clinton victory.

“And when they do that at the federal level then yes, that hampers the process all the way down to school board level,” he said. “But people may also become so angered that they turn out to vote against the other person.”

What’s more discouraging for Leatherman, who is a retired teacher, is that young adults who are just now able to vote are already disillusioned with the process and the endless rhetoric on TV.  

“This is what they know now — it’s what they’ve seen and unfortunately some of them — unless their parents are politically involved — think its just the way things are,” he said. 

On the other hand, when Leatherman was growing up in the ‘60s, he said the controversies heard today about the presidential candidates would have shocked people.

“I would have said it’s unbelievable but today it’s just another ordinary day, which is an indication of how disenchanted average Americans have become with the whole process,” he said. 

Holly Kays, Jessi Stone and Cory Vaillancourt contributed to this story. 

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