Persistent Pless pushes partisan polling play
Haywood Republican Rep. Mark Pless is closer than ever to getting partisan local elections in his district — part of a growing trend by North Carolina conservatives hoping to “out” Democrats at the polls this coming November, or sooner.
Pless’ plan for making some or all local elections in Haywood and Madison counties partisan has a relatively long history that extends to his predecessor, Burnsville Republican Michele Presnell.
In 2017, Presnell introduced a bill targeting school boards in Beaufort, Dare, Haywood, Hyde, Madison and Yancey counties. Chuck Francis, the chair of Haywood’s school board, voiced adamant opposition, saying that his board makes decisions based on what’s best for students, and “not based on partisan politics.”
The board passed a resolution on April 3 of that year unanimously opposing the move, when Francis was still a registered Democrat.
Francis changed his party affiliation to Republican in 2021, after winning another four-year term as a Democrat in 2020. Other members of his board swapped affiliations, flipping it from a 6-3 Democratic majority to a 6-3 Republican majority.
Presnell’s bill ended up going nowhere, but when Pless resurrected the idea in 2022, Francis was less adamant about it, saying he could see both sides of the argument. Unlike 2017, Francis’ board took no action to pass a resolution opposing the bill.
Pless’ 2022 version of the bill expanded in scope to include not only the school board but also all four municipal governments in Haywood County.
Reaction was swift from elected officials in Canton, Clyde, Maggie Valley and Waynesville.
Maggie Valley Republican Alderman Phillip Wight, one of few Haywood elected officials that supported the bill, said that candidates should be held accountable if they “want to represent what the Democratic Party has become.”
The majority of aldermen on Maggie’s board, including unaffiliated Mayor Mike Eveland, opposed the bill.
Every single member of Canton, Clyde and Waynesville’s boards opposed the bill, including Waynesville’s Julia Boyd Freeman, one of the few Republicans serving on any municipal governing board.
Waynesville went so far as to pass its own resolution expressing formal opposition to the bill because local issues don’t always intersect with national party platforms. Alderman Chuck Dickson famously said, “There’s not a Republican or Democratic way to fill a pothole.”
Pless’ 2022 partisan elections bill died in committee one day after it was filed due to some technical changes that weren’t made in time.
Undaunted, Pless hinted that his desire for partisan elections would be revived in the future.
That’s exactly what happened on March 2 of this year, with at least one noteworthy change from his last attempt — the exclusion of Haywood’s school board, which since 2022 has become an 8-1 Republican majority.
Pless’ latest effort, H264, contains another change from his 2022 bill.
Pless represents Madison County as well as Haywood, so the current bill includes the municipalities of Hot Springs, Marshall and Mars Hill.
“The voters have a right to know the basic principles these folks stand behind,” Pless said when he filed the bill. “I’d be doing a huge disservice to the voters that put me in here if I didn’t do this.”
Mars Hill Mayor John L. Chandler told The Smoky Mountain News at the time that he was totally against it, and that he wasn’t sure if he’d continue to participate in elections if the bill was passed.
Abby Norton, Mayor of Hot Springs, indicated her opposition and raised an interesting consequence of partisan elections in her town.
“I work for the federal government,” she told The Smoky Mountain News on March 3. “Per the Hatch Act, I cannot run in a partisan election. Neither can any other federal employee.”
Norton, who said she was considering retirement, felt that the bill would force her to choose between remaining employed with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and running for mayor again. She thought it was also unfair to younger federal employees, like postal workers, who would effectively be barred from running for office so long as they remain in federal service.
Pless did, however, make one concession to Norton and the Town of Hot Springs in his new bill. Partisan elections would take place there beginning in 2025. In every other Haywood and Madison municipality, they’ll begin with this year’s municipal elections if the bill is passed.
That “if” is looking more like a “when.”
Pless’ newest bill started off slowly. Filed on March 2, it went to the House’s Local Government Committee, where it sat until it came up for a hearing on April 18. At that hearing, elected officials from Clyde, Maggie Valley and Waynesville turned up in person to oppose it.
Those officials included Maggie Valley Mayor Mike Eveland and Alderman John Hinton, Clyde Mayor Jim Trantham, and three members of the Waynesville Town Council, including Mayor Gary Caldwell and council members Jon Feichter and Anthony Sutton.
“At this time when town leaders are trying to bring people together with what’s happening at the paper mill, we have a representative who’s actively trying to divide us,” Sutton said. “He’s trying to separate us into different camps of ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it should be all ‘us,’ trying to solve the issues in our community.”
The Town of Waynesville didn’t issue a formal notice of the gathering per NCGS 143-318.10(d), even though a majority of the five-member Waynesville Town Council attended the meeting to transact public business, so Waynesville’s action was possibly a violation of open meetings law.
Nevertheless, Pless tabled the committee vote on the bill after the Haywood group lobbied some committee members to oppose it.
Pless told SMN that it was because several committee members were absent, and he wanted all of them to hear both sides of the issue.
On May 3 — crossover day — Pless pulled the bill from the Local Government Committee and had it moved to the House Rules Committee, where it was passed that afternoon.
Sutton thinks that happened because Pless knows exactly how long it takes to drive from Haywood County to Raleigh.
Early that evening, the bill passed its third reading on the House floor by a margin of 69-44, nearly on party lines. Four Democrats supported Pless’ bill, while 40 opposed it. Likewise, Four Republicans opposed Pless’ bill, while 65 supported it.
The visit from elected officials in Clyde, Maggie Valley and Waynesville may prove fateful one in more ways than one, especially for Waynesville — the town has two huge asks before Pless, including help with a new fire truck and a new fire station.
“He has shown that he’s not above holding grudges,” Sutton said. “I would hope he’d be a better leader than that, so I would hope that he wouldn’t hold a grudge, but he has a track record of taking things personally.”
Pless said it’s not personal.
“As a legislator, when you would like me to help the local community, your intent should be to work together, and they have proven time and time again they do not have that intent,” Pless said on May 4. “So when I choose the priorities that I want funding for, I’m going to choose the people that are working with me. Currently, that is Canton and the county.”
SMN published an opinion piece from Pless on May 3, in which he said that partisan elections aren’t the most important concern faced by North Carolinians and that most people “walk into the polls and vote for people they know nothing about."
Pless’ bill, co-sponsored by fellow House Freedom Caucus member and former Haywood Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Swain) along with HFC Chair Keith Kidwell (R-Beaufort) isn’t the only one dealing with partisan elections on a city or county level.
Currently, there are at least 10 bills in the General Assembly proposing changes to how certain governing boards are elected, with most pushing for partisan elections where there were none before. Almost all the bills are sponsored by Republicans and target school boards, including heavily Republican counties of Alexander, Henderson, McDowell, Mitchell and Pamlico, as well as the City of Hickory, in Republican-dominated Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties.
There’s also been a legislative counteroffensive on partisan elections — the Dem-sponsored H68 seeks to reinstate nonpartisan elections for the state’s Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, superior courts and district courts, while the Republican-led H99 would change the election of the Board of Commissioners in heavily Democratic Wake County from partisan to nonpartisan.
Although Republicans hold solid veto-proof majorities in both the Senate and the House, the defections by members of both parties on Pless’ bill raise concern that on some of these bills, a veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper just might stand.
However, like Pless’ Haywood partisan elections bill, all except for the judicial bill are local bills, meaning they won’t make a stop on Cooper’s desk.
Pless’ bill was referred to the Senate the same day it cleared the House.
It could be brought up in the Senate soon, but Pless said he wasn’t sure about the Senate’s timeline.
If it ends up passing, Haywood and Madison municipalities would be required to conduct partisan primaries. Per G.S. 163-279, the partisan municipal Primary Elections would take place on Sept. 12.
Waynesville Town Manager Rob Hites said it would cost the town around $13,000 to conduct the partisan Primary Election necessitated by the bill’s passage.
In North Carolina, the winning candidate of a Primary Election must surpass the threshold of 30% of all votes cast in the contest. If that doesn’t happen, the top finishers would proceed to a second primary, sometimes called a runoff.
The second primary, where necessary, would be held on Oct. 10.
Instead of only four elections taking place this year in Haywood’s four municipalities, there could be eight if more candidates from any party with ballot access shows up than there are seats available.
If second primaries are required, that number could conceivably grow to 12 elections — a primary, a second primary and a general in Canton, Clyde, Maggie Valley and Waynesville.
Each of the municipalities mentioned in Pless’ bill will hold elections on Nov. 7, whether the partisan elections bill passes or not.
The filing period for candidates starts at noon on Friday, July 7 and ends at noon on Friday, July 21.
All five of Waynesville’s council members, including the mayor, are up for reelection. Due to a recent change, the top two council candidates will receive four-year terms, while the next two finishers will win two-year terms in order to set up a staggered term system. After that, all council members will be elected to four-year terms, with two seats up every two years.
Two aldermen in Clyde are up for election, as is the mayor. Canton has two aldermanic seats up. Maggie Valley has four aldermanic seats up, along with the mayor. Three aldermen and the mayor in Hot Springs are up, along with two aldermen in Mars Hill, two aldermen in Marshall and the Marshall mayor.
Nancy Allen, Democratic mayor of Marshall, has not returned multiple messages left by The Smoky Mountain News, dating back to March.