Bill seeks more partisanship in Haywood County elections
A bill introduced by Haywood County’s two state House representatives would make all of the county’s municipal elections — as well as school board races — a partisan affair.
The effort, championed by Reps. Mark Pless (R-Haywood) and Mike Clampitt (R-Swain), isn’t the first of its kind, but it does come in the aftermath of hot-button national issues like masking and critical race theory, which revealed the increasing politicization of municipal governing boards as well as school boards.
The bill also highlights the Republican-dominated General Assembly’s will to act in local government matters, similar to recent and problematic changes in the state’s development ordinances, like Chapter 160D.
If passed, further questions would have to be answered about how unaffiliated candidates could run for office, and how municipalities would pay for Primary Elections and the runoffs that might become necessary.
The overwhelming majority of elected officials in Haywood County’s municipal governments are strongly opposed.
Back in 2017, then-Rep. Michele Presnell introduced a bill, H265 , that was directed only at school boards in Beaufort, Dare, Haywood, Hyde, Madison and Yancey Counties.
“Pretending that school board elections are non-partisan does not change the fact that candidates are affiliated with and get broad support from political parties,” Presnell said at the time . “A local school board candidate does not just happen upon support from a political party — he or she oftentimes seeks party support and tows [sic] the party line to maintain that support.”
Reaction was swift, at least from Haywood’s elected school board. Just a few weeks after learning of the measure — school board members said that Presnell never consulted them about the proposal — the board, led by Chairman Chuck Francis, unanimously passed a resolution opposing it. Presnell’s bill died in committee.
Pless’ bill is co-sponsored by Clampitt, who still represents a portion of Haywood County, and would take Presnell’s efforts a step further by including the municipal governing boards of Canton, Clyde, Maggie Valley and Waynesville.
“There’s no way I can support that,” said Waynesville Mayor Gary Caldwell. “It doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s hard enough to be in our positions without trying to get into politics.”
Caldwell said he’d directed town staff to draft a resolution opposing the bill. If the resolution is brought before the Waynesville Board of Aldermen, it stands a good chance of passing — every single board member, including lone Republican Julia Freeman, stands opposed.
Without partisan elections, “boards are more effective, efficient and responsive to the people we see every day,” Freeman said. “With me being the sole Republican, we have worked hand-in-hand with Democratic mayors and aldermen and done what we think is in the best interest of Waynesville. When you look at the country and the division, when you get down to local municipalities, I don’t think it’s a positive step forward.”
Alderman Anthony Sutton called it a “horrible” idea, and Chuck Dickson decried the injection of partisanship into local affairs.
“There’s not a Republican or Democratic way to fill a pothole. Partisan politics just aren’t what we do in municipal government,” Dickson said. “It’s just another example of Raleigh telling us what to do. It would be nice if they talked to us before deciding what to do to us.”
Alderman Jon Feichter said he’s strongly opposed.
“If there’s anything in the world we need less of,” Feichter said, “it’s partisanship.”
Waynesville Town Manager Rob Hites said he estimates it would cost the town an additional $13,000 to hold a partisan Primary Election, and that the town would likely have to expend staff time to bring its ordinances up to date to comply with the edict.
Zeb Smathers, Canton’s mayor, said he’d received a call from Pless informing him that he intended to file the bill.
“I explained that I would prefer he not do that, but it was the start of a long conversation,” Smathers said. “We both explained our positions, but I made clear that local government showed during the flood that it’s not about partisanship, it’s about accomplishments. We’re not beholden by partisan politics looming over our heads. Look what partisan politics has done in Raleigh and in Washington — it’s toxic and has led to gridlock.”
Every other member of Canton’s governing board opposes the bill.
Kristina Proctor believes it will make local offices “polarized and less effective.” Gail Mull said that party affiliation is no secret, and that the General Assembly should concentrate on more pressing issues.
Like Smathers, Ralph Hamlett doesn’t want to see national divisiveness come to local governments, and Tim Shepard said national party issues don’t have much to do with small-town boards like his.
In Clyde, Town Administrator Joy Garland sent an email to her board notifying them of the bill.
“We all responded back to Joy that the bill is unnecessary,” said John Hemingway, an alderman. “We do a good job as a board not putting Democrat, Republican or independent as what goes first. What comes first is what’s best for the town. Me and [aldermen] Frank [Lay] and Dann [Jesse] all said no, and we’re not even in the same parties.”
Alderman Frank Lay called his board “a shining example of community servants working together for the common good” without regard to party affiliation.
“While we may all be aware of our political affiliations, I cannot recall a time it has entered, in a meaningful manner, into the way we fashioned our solutions to the problems and opportunities presented to us as a town board,” said Lay, who also serves as Clyde’s mayor pro tem.
Maggie Valley Mayor Mike Eveland is a rarity — one of only two unaffiliated elected officials in Haywood County’s municipal governments.
“I’ve always advocated that we come together and try to leave politics at the door,” Eveland said. “We have to do what’s best for Maggie Valley. I don’t think at our level this is something to be done. And, I was never asked. That in itself concerns me.”
Newly elected Alderman Jim Owens ran as a Republican, but has since changed to unaffiliated. He doesn’t see a need for partisan elections in Maggie Valley. Republican John Hinton said the bill just “doesn’t make sense.”
Longtime Maggie alderman Phillip Wight, however, sees the issue differently than most.
“With the temperament in the world today, I don’t think it can hurt,” Wight said. “If you want to represent what the Democratic Party has become, you should be accountable for that.”
Accountability — to students — was the main reason the Haywood County Schools Board passed a resolution opposing the measure the last time it came up in the General Assembly. The resolution, signed on April 3, 2017, doesn’t mince words.
“ … School board members, unlike other elected officials, must bear responsibility to the students and parents they serve and not leaders of platforms of specific political parties … injecting party politics into school board elections would shift the focus away from candidates who are singularly committed to the education of Haywood County students … school boards have the primary responsibility for setting school policy, hiring school teachers and administrators, and neither of these responsibilities should be influenced by political party affiliation … the board’s judicial and personnel functions must be non-partisan … our board has functioned well with non-partisan elections … focused civil discourse and cooperative spirit exercised by all school board members for the greater good of our community would be harmed by partisan school board elections …”
The resolution concludes by “respectfully and adamantly” requesting that “the General Assembly and Haywood County’s locally elected representatives in the General Assembly defeat all measures designed to make school board elections partisan.”
But now, some on the school board have changed their tune, like Chairman Chuck Francis.
“We’ve been through a lot in the last three years,” Francis said. “A lot of it has to do with the division in the country. National politics has changed, and it’s a different time.”
When asked if he’d support the bill, Francis didn’t exactly come down on one side or the other, but his strident opposition from 2017 is nowhere to be found today.
“The real answer is yes and no. Yes, because it gives the voter a little more insight on how you would approach educational issues,” he explained. “With nonpartisan, you could always say, ‘I want to do what’s best for the children.’ Well, what is that platform? The voter is not informed a lot of times, and [partisan elections] make it easier to check a box and expect a certain outcome. You know that a certain person has certain beliefs. The downside is, you could possibly be held accountable by a party for your actions that may not go down the line of the party platform, even though you would support what’s best for the kids.”
Francis changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican last summer, not long after he was reelected to a four-year term in 2020.
Fellow board members Steven Kirkpatrick, Larry Henson, Jimmy Rogers and Bobby Rogers have also switched party affiliations from Democrat to Republican since the last time they ran for election in 2018, turning a 6-3 Democratic board into a 6-3 Republican board without so much as a ballot box to stand in their way.
Henson, Kirkpatrick and both Jimmy and Bobby Rogers are all up for reelection this fall, should they so choose to seek it.
“People want to know who they’re voting for, so I can see that side of it,” Bobby Rogers said. “On the other side of it, I don’t know that becoming partisan helps what should come together as a nonpartisan board.”
Larry Henson says he’s a no on partisan elections, and Ronnie Clark, who voted for the resolution passed in 2017, said he does not support the bill but understands why Pless proposed it.
“They end up being partisan anyway, but I think they should be neutral,” Clark said.
Dr. Chris Cooper, Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, says the bill is part of a growing movement.
“This proposed change in Haywood County is consistent with a trend in North Carolina to shift local elections from nonpartisan to partisan affairs,” Cooper said. “This trend is most pronounced in Republican counties and has occurred with particular frequency as it relates to school boards.”
Liz Schlemmer, a reporter with WUNC, writes that 43 of the state’s 115 school systems now have partisan elections.
Pless, for his part, sounds a lot like Wight and Chuck Francis in his reasoning.
“I had a lot of people that have talked to me over my time in the legislature, and because of CRT, because of national headlines and issues that have arisen, they want to know the people they are voting for,” he told The Smoky Mountain News on May 19.
Responding to criticism from some elected officials that they weren’t consulted before the bill was filed, Pless leaned on the vertical separation of powers between local government and the General Assembly.
“The people in Haywood County elected me into this position, and if a town needs something, I expect them to call me. But the [elected officials] are a small portion of who I deal with, and I think overwhelmingly voters want to know who they are getting. Boards should not be making that decision on behalf of the voters of Haywood County,” he said.
Pless noted that he can’t predict what’s going to happen in the General Assembly, but if the bill were to pass, it would take effect beginning with the 2024 election cycle.
Meanwhile, Pless’ General Election opponent, Democrat Josh Remillard, doesn’t support the idea.
“I’m out here talking to people about issues that matter most — health care, environment, prescription drugs, the economy, education, veterans’ issues,” Remillard said. “The last thing we need is more partisanship.”
School Board members Steven Kirkpatrick and Jimmy Rogers did not return a call for comment on this story. When reached, David Burnette said he hadn’t yet made up his mind. Logan Nesbitt does not list his contact number on the Haywood County Schools website.
News Editor Kyle Perrotti contributed to this report.
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Republicans are the worse for education. They have proven time after time they can’t separate church and state and simply do what’s best for all people …which is to leave prejudice and religion out of politics and especially education. To go partisan is to further divide. It’s not beneficial at all:
So more partisanship will help the Haywood County School Board serve the students, their families, and the entire community better? Is the productivity of our a hyper-polarized Congress the model we want to follow? Let's REDUCE politics in our schools and have our board focus on best educational practices, fiscal prudence, and a forward-looking mindset for our schools.
I would support this if it could include a mechanism to remove elected officials. Waiting 4 years to vote out the two bobble heads in Maggie Valley would be a great start. They could t think their way out of a wet paper bag. That “Mayor” is nothing more than a loud mouthed bully who is only where he is due to the apron strings he clings to.
Their first lackey has turned in his resignation. Let’s see who will be next. Tine to get a town manager with the courage to stand up to them.
A better plan would actually be to dissolve the town while we still have fond memories before they completely run it into the ground.
Correction: Chuck Francis was a Democrat for years and more recently switched to Republican. This article had it reversed.