Eastbound and down: GOP gains on Haywood commission run downhill
Results in the Haywood County Board of Commissioners race hit the county like a cannonball, with Republicans taking two of three seats — all previously held by Democrats — while also earning themselves a 4-to-1 majority on the first-ever Republican-controlled commission.
A deeper look, though, shows the results to be as much about party as about place; Waynesville Democrat Kirk Kirkpatrick is now the westernmost-residing commissioner in Haywood County, which has increasingly seen Republicans from the low end of the county like commissioners-elect Tommy Long and Mark Pless garnering higher and higher vote totals.
It started in 2016 when retiring Democratic Commission Chairman Mark Swanger, a resident of Fines Creek, was replaced by Canton-area Republican businessman Brandon Rogers, a first-time candidate who smoked the field and even bested centrist Republican incumbent Kevin Ensley of Iron Duff.
“What I did notice is, having someone else down here, it really helped us,” said Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers, of Commissioner Rogers. “He was just someone else to help bring that perspective to meetings, whether economic or recreation, or just having someone else to talk Pisgah football with. It was beneficial.”
Smathers, a Democrat in his first term as mayor of Canton who previously served as alderman, understands the interconnectivity between town and county governments in North Carolina, and told The Smoky Mountain News in September that Haywood was experiencing something of a renaissance in town/county collaboration after decades of competition.
The subsequent partisan shift toward Republicans in 2018 shouldn’t affect that, according to Smathers.
“I think that practical sense of having to get things done to answer to the people is something that you learn,” he said. “Quickly.”
That was, however, all under a Democratic-majority board; after Rogers, the 2018 retirement of Democratic Commissioner Bill Upton threw open a vacancy now filled by a Republican, as did the loss by longtime Democratic Commissioner Mike Sorrells, of Jonathan Creek.
Canton, the nearest Haywood municipality to and thus best-poised to take advantage of the overwhelming economic prosperity of nearby Asheville, finds its fate somewhat married to the fate of that community — a fact on which elected officials of both parties seem to agree.
“I was very impressed with the conversations I had with both commissioners-elect,” said Smathers, who spoke with both Long and Pless. “There was nothing I heard that said we didn’t want to continue on the path of good decision-making for the county, especially with the economic development.”
On election night, Beaverdam Republican Pless said he was “in shock,” as were many across the county when he finished third, good enough to claim the final seat behind Long and Kirkpatrick.
“One storyline was, he was the surprise of the election,” Smathers said. “To me, with Mark, there was really an understanding on the importance of learning and knowing, and really seeking out help if he didn’t understand an issue, finding people who can help him learn.”
That’s not a knock on Pless, though. Or anyone else.
“People think that [elected officials] have all the answers, that we can wave some magic wand and make problems go away, and I think it would surprise people how many issues we deal with that we have to do homework,” said Smathers. “We go and talk to people we trust in the field to help inform our decisions.”
Smathers said his conversation with Long wasn’t a whole lot different.
“Tommy talked a lot about listening and watching and and going from there,” said Smathers. “There was a sense of — the election’s over, there’s a time for politics, and that time was Tuesday. Today is Wednesday, it’s time start finding some solutions.”
How could this have happened? Many Haywood Democrats are asking themselves that very question right now, but a quick glance at the partisan preference of commission voters by precinct shows exactly how it happened.
Several precincts in the eastern part of Haywood County boast high Republican turnout — not necessarily high numbers of votes, but a higher percentage of votes. Together, they overwhelm Dem precincts at the core of the county, and leading the way is Cecil.
“I consider this area heavily agricultural, farming and ranching,” said Haywood County GOP’s Cecil precinct chair Ted Carr. “Farmers think for themselves. I would contrast that to Waynesville, because I think Waynesville voters, they’re like lemmings. They follow the leader off the cliff.”
Now, said Carr, much of Haywood’s political universe revolves around a rural 1960s-era diner known for peanut-butter banana sandwiches served with mayo on Texas toast.
“It could very well be that the heart of Bethel is Jukebox Junction,” he said. “A lot of discussion goes on at Jukebox Junction. The Republican [county party] Chairman, Ken Henson, his office is right across the street. He’s over at the Jukebox more than once a day, and it’s easy for discussions there to amplify, to spread out in the community. I don’t know of any other communities that have a heart, a central place where people gather and talk like in Bethel.”
Carr said that he and other Haywood Republicans worked the polls every day during early voting, and campaigned vigorously before that, but not in his home precinct.
“I’m almost embarrassed to say [we worked] very little [in Cecil], because we knew from just casual conversations — talking in church, talking at the fire department, talking at the Jukebox and the mailbox — the way people were going to vote. So we didn’t put in a concentrated effort to mobilize or make phone calls to get folks out. We just had confidence that they would.”
Where he did work, Carr said a simple branding decision on a voter guide handed out by volunteers at the polls might have made all the difference.
“We purposefully used the term ‘conservative’ rather than ‘Republican’ because conservative would attract some Democrats,” he said, of offering voters a “conservative voter guide.”
“Many, many Democrats in this county will tell you, ‘It’s not the party of my parents. It’s not the party of 30 years ago.’ The Dixiecrats were a conservative group. That’s what a lot of the folks, particularly the farming group, here in Haywood are,” said Carr. “They would say ‘I’m a registered Democrat, but I can’t always vote straight Democrat. The party left me.’”
So could that Democratic Party perhaps entice unaffiliated or even Republican voters by adopting similar tactics and distributing a “liberal voter guide?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “No, I don’t think so.”