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Edwards rejects mill help

Unanswered questions remain after the closing of Pactiv Evergreen's Canton mill. Unanswered questions remain after the closing of Pactiv Evergreen's Canton mill. Max Cooper photo

As questions continue to swirl over what Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) did to prevent the loss of around 1,000 jobs at Pactiv Evergreen’s paper mill, Edwards is now coming under fire for politicizing a town hall held June 1 at Canton’s Pisgah High School, for rejecting help from Buncombe County legislators and for ridiculing them in the process.

“It's unfortunate to hear him disparage his constituents and to spurn the help of a group of elected officials eager to assist in this regional crisis,” said Rep. Caleb Rudow, a Democrat who represents the North Carolina’s 116th House District. “I wish Congressman Edwards would spend more time focused on what's best for Haywood County and Western North Carolina and less on trying to score a few political points during a moment of crisis."

Rudow, along with fellow Buncombe House Democrats John Ager and Lindsey Prather, hosted a town hall on the same day as the Pisgah town hall, just a few miles down the road in Candler.

They were joined by Buncombe County Sen. Julie Mayfield, Holly Jones of the North Carolina Department of Justice, Drew Christy of Gov. Roy Cooper’s office and Erica Anderson of the Land of Sky Regional Council.

At the Candler event, Rudow said they shared information with constituents on what local and state governments are concerned about and what they are working on, in an attempt to address what Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers has called a “Carolina crisis.”

Candler is in Buncombe County, where some mill workers live and some industries that support mill operations are affected by the closing of the 115-year-old facility.

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Near the end of the Pisgah town hall, a member of the crowd asked Edwards what the difference was between the Candler meeting and the one he was attending in Canton, and how the two groups might work together.

“While I respectfully appreciate that a House member from Buncombe County is willing to have some conversation to see how they can help us over here in Haywood County, I'd suggest the best thing that the folks in Buncombe County could do to help Haywood County is to fix Buncombe County,” Edwards said. “Clean Buncombe County up, get the needles off the streets, get a DA in place and prosecute criminals to reduce crime and not allow the spill over into our haven over here.”

Edwards’ remark drew some applause from the crowd until a member of the audience, identified by Blue Ridge Public Radio as Charles King, clapped back at Edwards.

“First off, I want to say I’m a native of Haywood, spent 41-and-a-half years with Evergreen, however, I live in Buncombe County, right on the County line. I wasn't going to say anything. But any help regionally we can get, we need,” King said.

“That’s right,” another woman in the audience replied.

“I graduated from this school and I love this town and this county,” King continued. “But we have 200 employees in Waynesville losing their job, 47 left to work, and that's probably just months before they're gone. You have Blue Ridge Southern Railroad, you have at least three chip mills all the way down to Marion into East Tennessee that are losing their jobs … we need representation for the whole region.”

Smathers said he agreed that the mill’s closing, first announced on March 6, is indeed a regional crisis. King responded by saying that he didn’t want to see politics injected into that crisis.

“If somebody in Buncombe County is willing to help,” King said, “we need all the help we can get.”

Prather, who was present with Rudow and Ager at the Candler meeting, later called out Edwards for disparaging more than 270,000 of the Buncombe County residents that he represents in Congress.

“I don’t know that I can add much more in response to Congressman Edwards’ remarks than what the audience member and Mayor Smathers stated. They both articulated perfectly the need for a nonpartisan, regional perspective on the Canton plant closure, and our event highlighted many ways in which the closure impacts communities outside of Haywood County,” said Prather, who represents the southwestern portion of Buncombe County in the North Carolina House. “I’m not sure whether Congressman Edwards misunderstood the scope of the issue itself or of our event, but either way I’m disappointed and frankly confused that he would take that opportunity to ridicule an entire county of his own constituents as well as his fellow political coworkers. Congressman Edwards was himself a state legislator not too long ago; I would hope he had more respect for the office than that.”

Eric Ager, who also represents a portion of Buncombe County in the North Carolina House, bemoaned a lack of leadership from Edwards.

“Congressman Edwards never misses a chance to throw out some political red meat to his voters and it's often at Buncombe County's expense,” Ager said. “The opioid crisis is a scourge across the 11th Congressional District and trying to score political points rather than address the problem is not real leadership.”

It remains unclear what, if anything, Edwards did to prevent the closure of the mill.

On Feb. 8, a leaked memo indicated Pactiv planned to idle production on one of its four paper-making machines — a full month before the closing was announced.

When first informed of the development by The Smoky Mountain News on Feb. 8, Edwards refused to speak to The Smoky Mountain News about it. A follow-up email on Feb. 9 garnered no response.

Edwards hasn’t returned multiple interview requests from The Smoky Mountain News since his November, 2022 election.

During the Pisgah town hall, The Smoky Mountain News again asked Edwards what specific actions he’d taken between Feb. 8 and March 6 to avert the mill’s closing.

“I really reserve the right to respond to those media outlets that I've been able to build good relationships with that have reported the news fairly,” Edwards said, without citing any examples of “unfair” reporting. “I didn't respond to that question and I'm not gonna respond to this.”

Edwards ignored two more attempts to get him to answer the question.

“Ignoring journalists outside the friendly confines of the GOP echo chamber is one of the reasons that our political discourse has become so rancid,” Ager said. “Elected officials need to be accountable to voters, especially when it hurts.”

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