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Women and westerners rare on North Carolina’s statewide ballots

Deanna Ballard and Chrelle Booker. File photos Deanna Ballard and Chrelle Booker. File photos

North Carolina’s Primary Election season is underway, and nearly five dozen candidates have filed to run for statewide offices from governor on down through the council of state.

But as has been the case for decades, there are few women candidates and even fewer candidates from the western part of the state. 

Former state Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga), who is running for lieutenant governor, happens to be both. Ballard is one of just three non-judicial statewide candidates from Western North Carolina out of 57 who’ve filed for the November General Election.

She served as a senator from 2016 through 2022, when she lost her Primary race to fellow Republican Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) because the two were drawn together after the most recent round of redistricting. During that time, Ballard worked in a governmental affairs role for Boone nonprofit Samaritan’s Purse, but recently left to start her own consulting firm.

Prior to that, she served in the George W. Bush White House doing advance work and scheduling both for Bush and First Lady Laura, while routinely interacting with the National Security Council, Secret Service, various ambassadors and foreign ministers — quite a resume for a North Carolina girl who grew up in a logging family.

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Deanna Ballard. File photo

“I did spend a lot of time with dad, climbing up in the logging trucks and riding to the paper mills with him,” Ballard said. “By the time I was 12, my dad had taught me how to sharpen the teeth of chainsaws.”

The White House is a long way from Watauga County, but so is Raleigh, where North Carolina’s governor and other statewide officials conduct business. It’s also worlds away, metaphorically speaking, from the mountain culture that dominates a vast swath of North Carolina.

“You’re dealing a lot more with multi-generational families that really kind of stay close-knit. Communities are very neighborly in a supportive way. When you have a need, there are folks that jump in and are willing to assist. So many small businesses, family businesses and a lot of hard work rooted in the concept [that] there’s dignity in work, putting your hands to use and getting up and going to a job every day,” said Ballard. “There’s a lot of strength, maybe unassuming strength, underneath some of that, too.”

That kind of work ethic is critical to representing the needs of a rural, rugged region that sometimes feels overlooked.

“You have to kind of have an innate sense of urgency, you have to have a lot of good intuition and instincts about the people serving and what their real needs are,” she said. “That comes through listening and talking with them and being with them on the ground, and then going to Raleigh and really just saying, ‘Hey, here’s what’s going on. We need help with this.’”

That’s exactly what Ballard did when she was called upon to use her logging background to step in as an outside party to help with Haywood County’s response to the closing of Pactiv Evergreen’s paper mill in Canton last year. She coordinated with local leaders on weekly calls and helped compile what she called a coordinated ask that resulted in millions in funding for Canton and county institutions.

“Growing up a daughter of a logger, I understand the paper mill business and how that works, and how it’s also a domino effect on other sawmills and yards regionally,” she said. “I was honored to be asked to kind of come in and just help facilitate some conversations and manage a few projects here and there for them. Great people, great local leadership. Everyone came together in a unified effort and that was really sweet to be to be a part of.”

Ballard is the first woman from the west to run for lieutenant governor since then-Asheville Democratic Sen. Terry Van Duyn  placed second in the 2020 Primary Election.

If Ballard wins her Primary Election and then the General, she would be the first western lieutenant governor since Walter H. Dalton, of Rutherford County, in 2008. She would also continue her advocacy for the west, she tells The Smoky Mountain News.

“I still think it’s important to keep telling the story,” Ballard said. “It’s also a story of resiliency and I think that’s a pretty powerful story to tell.”

Democrat Chrelle Booker, a Polk County native, has been telling her town’s story as a member of Tryon’s governing board since 2017 and as its mayor pro tem since 2019. She also happens to be a woman, running for governor, and is the westernmost statewide candidate in this year’s Primary Election. 

After studying radio and television broadcasting at Isothermal Community College, Booker now works as the one-person legal and human resources department for Greenville, South Carolina-based WGGS-TV. She’s also a licensed realtor and is the immediate past president of the National League of Cities’ Women in Municipal Government caucus.

Booker said that as an elected official from the west, she’s had generally good results when working for Tryon with other elected officials on a state and national level, including locals like Rep. Jake Johnson (R-Polk) and Sen. Tim Moffitt (R-Henderson).

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Chrelle Booker. File photo

“Personally, I haven’t had any issues,” she said. “I found that they have been very helpful and resourceful in my personal conversations with them, and not just the ones that are dedicated to our [Polk County] districts. You know, the entire General Assembly is supposed to work with all of us, in a sense, so I’ve talked to some that were not from this district. I’ve tested that, and it was a beautiful conversation. Even if they’re not in your district, you can still get the answers you need.”

But Booker, who’s traveled the country extensively as a board member and committee chair for the NLC, does acknowledge the challenges that come with breaking into Raleigh’s somewhat chummy scene.

“I don’t like this word, but you’re not in the ‘clique,’ so you’re going to have to do extra work just to get people from Charlotte to the coast to even know who you are,” she said.

Running for statewide office means lots of meetings and events, mostly in the eastern part of the state, and that means lots of travel time — both Ballard and Booker can count on a four-hour drive to Raleigh.

“If I had to put a bottom line on it, I’ve had someone say to me, ‘You’re over there in that little tiny place,’ and they don’t just mean Tryon, they mean over here in the western part of North Carolina, kind of tucked away,” Booker said. “It’s hard to get visibility. The thing with Tryon … I have to actually say the word ‘Asheville’ for people to have an idea of where I am in North Carolina. That makes a difference to a lot of people in our state.”

Since 1776, North Carolina’s 69 governors have served 75 terms. During that time, the west has been well-represented, although not lately.

David Lowry Swain was born near Asheville and served from 1832 to 1835. Zebulon Vance, of Weaverville, served from 1862 to 1865 and then again from 1877 to 1879. Tod Robinson Caldwell, born in Morganton, served from 1872 to 1874. Locke Craig, a Bertie County native who settled in Asheville, served from 1913 to 1917. Oliver Max Gardner, from Shelby, served from 1929 to 1933. Dan K. Moore, a Sylva lawyer and former counsel for Champion Paper in Canton, served from 1965 to 1969, James Holshouser, of Boone, was the last governor from the west and served from 1973 to 1977.

Booker hopes to be the first western governor in nearly 50 years, and knows what would be different about a governor from the West.

“Well, we probably have more of an accent,” she laughed. “I think that what I would bring is the fact that over here in the western part of the state, we are more hands-on, and we do try to help each other out as citizens. I think that the entire state itself will be a better place as far as getting what we need even outside of government. If we take care of ourselves and our neighbors, in a sense it will put less stress on the government or our officials. So my platform is really about people, partnerships and unlimited possibilities.”

Chris Cooper, the Madison Distinguished Professor and Director of the Haire Institute for Public Policy at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, believes there are some simple reasons why there aren’t as many statewide candidates coming from the west, and why it’s harder for them to win. 

“It’s two things,” Cooper said. “It’s math and media.”

The math part is about lower population densities in the west.

“If you’re mayor of the city of Asheville, for example, you’ve been a mayor over roughly 100,000 voters,” he said. “If you’re mayor of Charlotte, you’re mayor of over a million voters, so the incumbency advantage you have from being from a bigger place elsewhere is just very difficult to surpass.”

The media part, while similar to the math part, is also about spreading major campaign ad buys across multiple out-of-state television markets like Atlanta, Chattanooga and Knoxville in addition to those in Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh.

“Even if you’re a Zeb Smathers [Canton’s mayor] punching above your weight for your size municipality, you’re just not getting in front of that many eyeballs,” said Cooper. “Whereas if Zeb Smathers were mayor of a similarly situated town near Raleigh or near Charlotte or even near Greensboro, a lot more eyeballs would be seeing his face and his aviator sunglasses.”

Smathers’ father, former Canton Mayor Pat Smathers, placed third in the 2008 Democratic Primary Election for lieutenant governor using the slogan, “Local leadership, statewide.” 

Lacy Thornburg, of Whittier, served as North Carolina Attorney General from 1985 to 1992, when he lost the Democratic Primary for governor to Jim Hunt, who would go on to win his second non-consecutive term that November.

Former McDowell County Republican legislator Josh Dobson was elected labor commissioner in 2020 but isn’t seeking reelection in the current cycle.

Ballard and Booker are two of the three western candidates running for gubernatorial or council of state offices in North Carolina’s Primary Election this year, the third being David Wheeler , of Spruce Pine, for insurance commissioner.

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Western North Carolina has produced its share of governors, but not lately. File photo

Ballard and Booker are also two of the 11 women — six Republicans and five Democrats — running alongside 46 other candidates. Women, as a whole, have experienced a number of glass-ceiling moments since Democrat Geraldine Ferraro became the first major party female nominee for vice president in 1984.

Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor, was the female Republican VP nominee in 2008, but both Ferraro and Palin were unsuccessful alongside respective running mates Walter Mondale and John McCain.

In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton became the first major party female nominee for president, however it was fellow Democrat and current VP Kamala Harris who in 2020 became the highest-ranking woman ever elected in the United States.

But statistics show there are still a number of barriers to be broken for women, especially in lower levels of government.

The first woman was elected to Congress in 1917, but there have been only 375 women elected to the 435-member House of Representatives since then. The House didn’t get its first female speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, until 2007 and didn’t even get its first female restroom until 2011.

As of last November, there were 126 women serving in the House, or about 29%.

There have only ever been 34 elected female state governors, including Palin and current GOP presidential contender Nikki Haley. An additional three women succeeded their husbands, and 11 others took office through constitutional succession. As of late 2023, there were a record 12 women governors serving at one time.

North Carolina’s only female governor, Democrat Bev Perdue, served from 2009 to 2013.

In state legislatures across the country, numbers are similar. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, the percentage of women in state legislatures was just 10.8% in 1980 but has grown to 32.7% in 2024, with 2,420 women serving out of a total of 7,386 seats. Nevada (60.3%) is the only state where the legislature is majority-female, but Arizona and Colorado are close.

North Carolina’s 16 female senators and 32 female representatives put the 120-member General Assembly at 40%, still far from the parity one might expect for a demographic that makes up 54% of the state’s 6.9 million registered voters.

That’s a bigger issue than it seems, according to Cooper, who cited it as the lack of a pipeline where future candidates can gain the experience and the exposure they need to take their careers to the next level.

“There are other ways to run for statewide office, but General Assembly is the best worn path,” Cooper said. “And we’re sitting at about one in every four members of the General Assembly is a woman. So that’s a big problem. There’s not a whole lot of folks there. The problem is they don’t run for office in the first place so part of it is political parties don’t tend to contact women as much. There’s some just inherent sexism built into the system.”

Ballard mentioned the challenges women face in all industries, including government.

“Sometimes you work twice as hard just to get maybe the recognition,” she said. “We’re less quick to own something than I think even some gentlemen are sometimes. We’ll kind of just sacrifice our own credit if means credit for someone else, because at the end of the day it’s like, ‘Whatever, the good’s been done.’”

There’s also the influence of traditional gender roles — which matter somewhat less today than they did when Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the first woman to run for Congress in 1866, but still matter.

“It’s really kind of hard to find a balanced or civilized pace of life in this world and I think women do tend to kind of carry more of the responsibilities and the load of keeping the fires burning at home,” Ballard said. “I’m not married. I have no kids. I really just put my whole heart and my whole self into the work that I do and I think that’s why I feel like the Lord has called me into this line of service, because he knows I’m not necessarily wrestling all the time with these other commitments. I’m really beholden to the good of the people.”

Booker said she hasn’t faced too many challenges as a woman in government, but in her experience, she thinks that the women she’s talked to and served with focus more on the ugliness of national politics to the detriment of state and even local opportunities.

“They think that’s what all government is — get a bunch of people together and just have an argument. It’s hard to convince them otherwise,” she said. “I have to tell them, ‘No, we’re talking about local here,’ or ‘We’re talking about our state,’ and so you have to kind of not look at that [federal] level. It’s going to discourage you from getting into a race where you think you can make that town or that city or that state better.”

It’s a vicious cycle, one that Booker says can be broken if more women become involved.

“One of the things I advocate for is more women at least running,” she said. “And if even if you don’t win that office, you have other women that are looking at you and they’re saying, ‘I’ll try that.’ if I’m not elected, I feel like I still have done my part.”

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