The voters of Cherokee, Clay, Graham and Macon counties, however, play a big role in Raleigh. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin — whose district covers the seven westernmost counties — is the dean of this region’s legislative delegation, and regularly sees electoral support in those counties of more than 70 percent. First-term Rep. Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin, saw about the same in 2016.
Despite the challenges for Democratic hopefuls in the district, neither Davis or Corbin is running unopposed. Davis’ challenger — Franklin Democrat Bob Kuppers — has raised some money and has become well known. Clay County Democrat Aaron Martin, who is challenging Corbin, hasn’t raised much money and is a relative unknown.
“The first job I ever had with a paycheck was back in 1964. Me and a couple guys, it was a poor community back then, we went down to Atlanta and the only job we could get was on the garbage truck in DeKalb County,” Martin said. “I worked that summer, made $860, bought me a car so I could see a young woman back in the neighborhood, that I later married. We’ve been married 49 years.”
Martin graduated from Western Carolina University intending to return home, teach and farm. He taught civics in Macon County, and then became owner of a small neighborhood grocery.
“I did pretty good in business, and I was good teacher, but it just didn’t pay enough,” he said. “I loved all that. I wish I could have stayed.”
Martin took a job with the United States Department of Agriculture in 1977 and advanced rapidly through the ranks. After being promoted to program specialist in the state office of the Farm Service, he became the district director of 20 counties west of Watauga and Rutherford, all the way to Murphy in Cherokee county.
“In 2009, the president appointed me to the state director job in Raleigh. I had to oversee operations in 78 counties with 500 employees,” he said.
Martin retired in 2012 and decided to challenge longtime Macon County government fixture and freshman Franklin Republican Corbin for the westernmost seat in the N.C. House.
Corbin, at the ripe old age of 22, won a seat on the Macon County School Board and went on to serve five straight four-year terms, and 16 years as chairman.
“Shortly after I became chairman we did a survey of our capital needs and basically found most of our schools in Macon County were older, and had been built in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s,” he said. “They were deteriorating, they had insufficient space. So we voted along with the county commissioners at the time to enter into a 20-year long-range plan. It wound up taking 18. We pretty much built all new schools with the exception of some schools that were renovated, and we did sort of a ‘pay-as-you-go’ financing system using some state money when that was available. I didn’t necessarily go into it wanting to serve 20 years, but when you start something like that, and you’re the chairman, you kind of feel a responsibility to see it completed, so I did.”
Once that was through, Corbin called it quits in 2006, but soon found his service and experience had attracted positive attention.
“I said, ‘This is it for me in politics, I’m out,’” he laughed. “But in 2010, then-county commissioner Jim Davis said he was going to run for the Senate, and came to me with some other local leaders.”
They asked him if he’d be willing to take the remaining two years of Davis’ Macon County Commission term if Davis was successful in his bid for the N.C. Senate.
“I said yes. Jim did win, so I was appointed to serve the last two years of his county commission seat,” Corbin said. “And then at the end of that, I ran for a four-year term and won.”
Corbin, however, was also running as the incumbent chair of the commission, a position informally chosen from amongst his elected peers; he was selected by fellow commissioners after just one year of service.
“Toward the end of that four-year term, I was told by House member Roger West that he was not going to run for reelection, and he asked if I would consider running for his seat,” Corbin said. “After talking with my wife and family, we decided the time was good.”
And it may never be better for Corbin — with a four-seat Republican supermajority at stake in the House, it’s critical they retain his seat.
Why are you running for this office?
Corbin: I feel like I’ve got a heart for Western North Carolina. I’m from here, my family is generations on generations from here, I feel like I had a very successful freshman term and there’s more I can do. I’m willing to spend the time and the effort to do that.
Martin: I’ve always been interested in politics since college. The Farm Service Agency is part of the government, it’s a federal agency, typically nonpartisan, but because of all the issues in it, you have to pay attention to the politics to see what kind of farm bill will come down.
Sen. Davis often says he feels like a misplaced county commissioner — perhaps a state legislator out of necessity — in that he’s a senator but still holds a small-town view of government. Your background is similar. Do you agree with him?
Corbin: I’m a local government guy. I spent 26 years in it. It’s incredibly important that legislators remember that what they do in Raleigh affects the folks back home in their home counties, so I try to defeat unfunded mandates, sending things back to the counties and saying, “Hey, you have to do this.” I’m keenly aware of that as a [former] commissioner, so I would agree with his assessment.
What’s the biggest single issue in this campaign?
Martin: It would be two things. One is education, because obviously coming from an education background that’s kind of an important thing to me. So funding education and broadband internet access in Western North Carolina — those are both issues I’ve worked very hard on in my first two years.
Martin: It’s evolved over time, but I started out certainly with jobs and the economy. It’s always been important to me. If you make enough money to live a decent life, it’s not a cure-all, but it certainly enables you to live a pretty good life if you’ve got a middle-income type job. What’s come to the forefront for me more than anything is this healthcare thing. In the four counties I’m running in, there are over 15,000 people without insurance, that’s even with the Affordable Care Act and private insurance and all that.
Where does the opioid crisis rank in your list of priorities, and what can a government ultimately do about what is really a personal decision?
Martin: I’ve been affected by that in my own family. It’s a terrible thing and it’s got to be dealt with. There’s got to be some kind of way to rehab people. Also, first offenders should not be marked for life so that they can’t ever get a good job. If you serve time in prison for drugs, the odds of you ever getting good job are pretty slim.
Corbin: Addiction is the issue. I don’t think we spend enough time and resources on rehab. I was a cosponsor of the STOP [Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention Act, which clamps down on lax prescribing practices] Act. It was an important first step. The problem I don’t think we’re addressing properly is treatment of addiction. I spoke with all four sheriffs in my district during this first two years, and I posed a simple question to them. I said, “If you could wave a magic wand and do away with addiction — all addiction, drugs and alcohol — what percentage of the crime would go away in your county?” They answered 80 to 90 percent.
I’m not giving them a pass and I’m not justifying it, but users many times are victims of addiction. They don’t necessarily want to be criminals, but they’re addicted to a substance of some kind, which causes them to be criminals. Rehab is just such an important thing and I think it’s the morally right thing to do to folks with addiction. We’ve got to put more time and resources into mental health treatment and addiction treatment.
Why are you the best choice for this seat, this year?
Corbin: I think I got a proven track record of action. It’s public record. I’ve worked hard for public education, worked hard as a county commissioner for my county, for law-enforcement and public health. Those are things I believe in. I got a lot of legislation through either as a primary sponsor or cosponsor. I helped write House Bill 13 this past term that gave flexibility to superintendents in the classroom, which saves counties thousands of dollars and also added more money for programs like art, music and PE which I think are essential. I didn’t go to Raleigh to play. It’s a long way down there, and I didn’t do this just to keep the seat warm.
Martin: I’ve proven over a period of years that when I start out on a path, I achieve what I started out for. Economy, jobs, education, staying away from these illegal drugs — if I can help to achieve something better, that’s what I want to do. When you roll all the things together I want everybody to have the same chance that I had.
Your opponent is wrong on all the issues and is wrong for this job, right?
Martin: I looked at [Rep. Corbin’s] past record. He was elected to the school board and also was a Macon County commissioner, so that’s a pretty good sign that if you could get elected, people must support you. I don’t know that there’s anything I would focus on that would be negative towards him. I’m just trying to run my campaign.
Corbin: It came down to the end of filing and I saw that no one had filed against me, and I was quite frankly disappointed in that, because it takes you out of the race. You’re not able to share your ideas. [The Smoky Mountain News] wouldn’t have called me and asked me these questions, so I’m happy he’s running, I wish him well in whatever he does. I don’t hope he wins this, but in all his other endeavors. He’s running a good campaign as I have. I have nothing bad to say about him, that’s just not the way I’ve run multiple campaigns — primaries and generals — and I have never once run a negative ad or campaign against my opponent. We’re just two people running for the same office, you know?
Meet the candidates
Kevin Corbin, 57, is a sixth-generation Macon County native with roots that trace through Haywood County and upstate South Carolina since the early 1800s. Corbin graduated from Appalachian State in 1983 with a degree in business, marketing and management, and was elected to the student legislature. He immediately went into the insurance business, an industry in which he’s now spent more than three decades. At 22, Corbin won a spot on the Macon County school board, where he served five terms. He was appointed to fill the last two years of Jim Davis’ term on the Macon County Board of Commissioners when Davis was elected to the N.C. Senate in 2010, and earned reelection to a full four-year term thereafter. In 2016, Corbin defeated Democrat Randy Hogshed for an open House seat with more than 72 percent of the vote.
Born and raised in Clay County, Aaron Martin, 70, is a 1970 graduate of Western Carolina University. Martin started off as a business major, but once he began taking classes in history and political science, he decided to run for the student senate and won. “That may have been the bug that got me started,” he laughed. After stints as a teacher and a business owner, Martin took a USDA job in 1977 with what is now called the Farm Service, and retired in 2012. He came in second of three in a race for mayor of Hayesville in 1973, and was elected to Clay County’s Soil and Water Conservation District Board in 2012, from which he stepped down to run as a Democrat for the North Carolina General Assembly this year.