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Swain commission primary nears; lone unaffiliated candidate seeks spot on ballot

Swain commission primary nears; lone unaffiliated candidate seeks spot on ballot

Two seats are open on the Swain County Board of Commissioners in 2024, and while three Republicans squaring off in the Primary Election are probably treating this like a General Election since no Democrats filed, one unaffiliated candidate is trying to muster enough support to appear on the November General Election ballot. 

While current Vice Chair Roger Parsons did not file to run, there is one incumbent, Kenneth Parton, who will wrap up his second term this year. Running against Parton in the Republican primary are youth pastor Tanner Larson and Eric Watson, who has worked for a decade and a half in Cherokee at either the casino or for Qualla Enterprises.

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Kenneth Parton

While it may be the that the primary election will serve as the general because no Democrats filed, unaffiliated Bryson City Councilman Ben King is in the last push of an effort to obtain the nearly 400 signatures needed to force a General Election contest.

While Parton declined to comment for this story, Lawson, Watson and King spoke to The Smoky Mountain News.

Tanner Lawson

Lawson, 31, moved to the area when he was just 5. He has been on the staff at Victory Baptist Church for 11 years, first as a “gopher,” among other things, before being named the youth pastor in 2019.

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He has also served on various local boards, including a six-year stint as chairman of the Recreation Park Advisory Board. He has also served on the Youth Center Grassroots Committee and the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council Board and worked for several years at the county’s chamber of commerce/tourism development authority.

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Tanner Lawson

“I know the tourism side well,” he said.

While Lawson admitted the town will face some tough questions regarding money that may need to be spent on things like hiring full-time firefighters, he said he wants to get into the seat and learn more about the issues before he’d start talking about raising taxes.

He did, however, say that one change he’d want to see would be better communication between the board and the community it serves. Lawson also said he wants communication and cooperation among board members to be strong.

Ultimately, Lawson said he has the heart and the experience to serve.

“I’m also willing to listen and take ideas and honestly say, ‘hey, how can we help this group of people out on either side of the spectrum aisle,’” he said.

Eric Watson

Watson, 41, was raised in Swain County. He served in the Air Force from 2002 to 2008 and also wanted people to know he’s a proud kidney donor. Since his discharge from the military, he’s worked in various capacities for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, moving up through various technician roles until recently when he became a facilities/project supervisor for Qualla Enterprises.

Watson said that over the years, he’s talked with other Swain County residents about local issues and once COVID began and tourism — including Airbnb — boomed, his interest was piqued.

“There are no homes to rent,” he said. “And when there are, they want $1,800 a month for 900 square feet. Who can actually afford to live here?”

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Eric Watson

Like Lawson, Watson said he didn’t want to commit to a position when it comes to potentially raising taxes to provide vital services, adding that he wanted to take time to learn from those who are in the know while also exploring all other options, including grants.

Watson also spoke about the importance of keeping good teachers and ensuring Swain County children get a good education.

“I hear it all the time; we can’t keep teachers around,” he said. “This is a place for beginner teachers, but I will say we want them to stay here and live here.”

Watson said that prioritizing keeping taxes steady — or at least reasonable — while providing valuable services and good homes for working class residents is all about taking the burden off families.

He said the campaign process has been interesting and he’s learned plenty, but as a relatively talkative “people person,” he’s enjoyed it.

“I’m a very outgoing person,” he said. “I like to talk to people and I like to hear people’s thoughts. And that will carry over. I will always listen to what voters think about issues, because they’ll have ideas we might not think of. Also, there will be five guys on the board, and I want to work with everybody and also hear their ideas.”

Ben King

King, 34, has served on the Bryson City Board of Aldermen for six years and is now the mayor pro tem. His company, Bryson City Outdoors Inc., owns Bryson City Outdoors locations in both that town and Cherokee, as well as the MRKT on the Square building in Bryson City and Bryson City Bakery, as well as the Big Laurel food truck.

At a time when some unaffiliated voters, and even some Democrats, around the region have changed their registration to Republican prior to announcing a run for public office, King, who grew up in Bryson City, said he wants to embrace his unaffiliated status, something he’s maintained since he’s been old enough to vote.

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Ben King

“It’s my prerogative to stay that way,” he said. “In this county in particular, it’s easier to get elected as a party candidate, but I would like to be part of changing that in the future.”

As an alderman, King said he’s familiar with the key issues in both Bryson City and Swain County that need to be addressed. He added that in his six years of serving the town, he feels like he’s seen improvements, and he hopes to affect the same positive change at the county level. He addressed the prospect of raising taxes, also saying he wouldn’t want to commit to a position on that issue before taking office.

“Everybody knows Swain County has historically low property taxes, but that’s not reason in itself to raise those taxes,” he said. “I want to get invested in what is going on in the county with the budget and figure out the day-to-day and year-to-year.”

But for now, King is focused on getting the signatures of 5% of Swain County’s registered voters to fulfill the statutory requirement to appear on the ballot in November against the two winners of the Republican primary. He said having friends and family volunteering to cover the county and get those signatures has been a tremendous gift in his effort.

“Honestly, the hard part is just explaining the fact that you’re not signing this sheet to agree to vote for me,” King said. “It’s just saying I can appear on the ballot like other candidates. Most people are open to it.”

King needs to secure 390 signatures by Primary Election Day on March 5 to run in November, and at this point he has about 160 that have been approved by the Swain County Board of Elections, although he said there are plenty more that are simply pending that approval. Either way, he plans on keeping his foot on the gas to make sure he doesn’t come up short.

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