WCU journalists host panel discussion on ‘fake news’

On Wednesday, April 10, at 7 p.m., the Western Carolina University chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will host a panel discussion on the spread of misinformation and the dangers of fake news.

New NC electoral maps just more of the same for the west

Newly empowered General Assembly Republicans aren’t even trying to hide the fact that the congressional and legislative maps they drew behind closed doors and without substantive public input will disenfranchise Democratic voters across the state — especially in Congress.

The making of a Muckraker: David Wheeler turns his attention back to North Carolina with council of state run

As the man behind the controversial North Carolina-based American Muckrakers PAC, David Wheeler’s had an outsized impact on at least one recent congressional campaign, but in 2024, he’s looking to have that same impact on a race of his own.

Partisan local elections have different outcomes

As Cory Valliancourt report s in The Smoky Mountain News, North Carolina House members Rep. Mark Pless , R-Haywood, and Rep. Mike Clampitt , R-Swain, have proposed a bill ( HB998 ) to move municipal and school board elections in Haywood County to partisan contests where each candidate’s party affiliation is listed on the ballot next to their name. HB998 is a local bill  which means that the barriers to becoming law are lower. If the legislature passes the bill, it will become law without making a stopover on the governor’s desk.  

Cawthorn won’t run for re-election in current district

During his brief political career, Western North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn has become known for saying some surprising things to further his political agenda, but Cawthorn’s most recent statement is by far the most surprising.

Best in the West: Blue Ridge Public Radio, Mountain Xpress and Smoky Mountain News to host two-day NC11 candidate forum

Republican Madison Cawthorn and Democrat Moe Davis, candidates for the North Carolina congressional seat left vacant by White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, have both agreed to appear at a two-day joint forum hosted by three of the district’s largest media outlets.

TEA Party catches on, but impact on election still hard to gauge

By Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts

Beginning in 2009 with a series of protests focusing on what participants viewed as excessive government taxation, the TEA Party movement has grown into one of the most prominent political stories of the past few years. Because it is a relatively recent movement and in most places it is still impossible to register with the Board of Elections as a member of the TEA Party, hard data on TEA Party supporters are difficult to come by.

The New York Times produced one of the only surveys focusing on the TEA Party. It found that that 18 percent of Americans self-identified as TEA Party “supporters” and that these supporters tended to be white, educated, fairly well-off, ideologically conservative, and members of the Republican Party. Not surprisingly, the Times survey also found that TEAPartiers are distrustful of the federal government.

Although these findings are illustrative of the country as a whole, what about the situation in Jackson County? To learn more about the degree of TEA Party support among locals, Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News teamed up to poll about 600 registered voters in Jackson County on issues related to the TEA Party, as well as other political issues.

The survey data reveal that Jackson County registered voters are evenly split, with 42 percent holding a favorable view of the TEA Party, 40 percent holding an unfavorable view and the remaining 18 percent having no opinion. Although the question’s wording is different than that of the New York Times poll, it does appear that the TEA Party has more support here than in the nation as a whole.

Digging a little deeper into the data reveals that TEA Party supporters in Jackson County are more likely to be male, conservative and registered as Republican than those who do not support the TEA Party.  Given the national results, none of this is terribly surprising.

Considerably more surprising, however, is the influence of education. Recall that in the national sample, TEA Party supporters were more educated than the population at large. In the Jackson County sample, however, those with positive opinions towards the TEA Party have slightly less education than their counterparts.

The Jackson County poll also presents an opportunity to determine how TEA Party supporters feel about local as well as national government. Not surprisingly, TEA Party supporters do not hold a positive view off the federal government. What is more surprising is the size of this effect. A whopping 95 percent of TEA Party supporters hold an unfavorable opinion of the federal government, but among those with unfavorable opinions of the TEA Party only 36 percent hold an unfavorable opinion of the federal government.”

TEA Party supporters aren’t big fans of the Jackson County government, either, but the effect here is much smaller.

Approximately 70 percent of TEA Party supporters disapprove of Jackson County government, compared to 47 percent among those who do not support the TEA Party. Clearly the TEA Party movement, at least here in Jackson County, is much more dissatisfied with federal than local government.

Anyone who walked through the county on Tax Day knows that the TEA Party has some backing in Jackson County, and this polling information can tell us a little bit more about the nature and extent of this support. What our data cannot tell us, of course, is what the exact effect will be on the upcoming elections. The TEA Party has considerable support here in Jackson County, but a true understanding of the group’s electoral impact will have to wait until November.

Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts are associate professors of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, where Knotts also serves as department head and Cooper directs the Public Policy Institute.

Conservative Democrats, endangered species and Rep. Heath Shuler

By Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts

A creature once roamed the American South that many now presume to be endangered if not extinct — the conservative Democrat. For nearly a century following the Civil War, almost all white southerners were conservative Democrats. As late as 1978, more than a third of all Democrats in the South were conservatives. In most parts of the South today, however, finding a conservative Democrat is about as likely as spotting a bald eagle — they do exist but they are hard to find.

A recent survey conducted by the Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News, however, suggests that Jackson County resembles a refuge for conservative Democrats. Today almost as many Democrats in Jackson County identify as conservatives as liberals (23 percent compared to 30 percent — the remainder are moderates). These numbers are even more striking when compared to an analysis of Republicans in the county.  Two-thirds of Republicans in the WCU PPI/SMN poll claim to be conservatives, compared to less than 4 percent who are self-proclaimed liberals. The message is clear: Democrats do not mind being called conservatives, but almost no Republicans in our county want to be called liberal.

So what does this mean for political candidates in Jackson County? First — it pays to be a Democrat. Results of the survey as well as analysis of voter registration records in Jackson County clearly indicate that there are many more Democrats than Republicans residing in the county. In the WCU PPI/SMN survey, 45 percent of the respondents claim to be Democrats, compared to 32 percent who identify as independents and 24 percent who consider themselves Republicans. The actual voter registration numbers are identical for Democrats, but indicate slightly higher percentage of registered Republicans.

Despite these positive numbers for Democrats, aspiring politicians in this county who align themselves with the Nancy Pelosi/Harry Reid wing of the Democratic Party will find little support. Nationally, Republicans tend to be conservative, and Democrats are most often liberal. As we suggested above, however, few Democrats in this county consider themselves liberals. Most are moderates, and almost a quarter are conservatives. Among members of all parties, only 18 percent are liberals, compared to 42 percent who are moderates and 40 percent who are conservatives.

Given these trends, it is perhaps not surprising that more than half of the respondents in the WCU PPI/SMN survey who expressed an opinion on Democratic Congressman Heath Shuler hold a favorable view of him (54 percent favorable, compared to 46 percent unfavorable). Shuler has distanced himself from the Pelosi/Reid wing of the Democratic Party by casting votes against the healthcare plan and the stimulus package.

In fact, an independent analysis of roll-call votes in the House by political scientist Keith Poole finds that Shuler is the fifth most conservative Democrat in the House. Perhaps as a result, further analyses of Jackson County survey data reveal that Democrats are no more likely to approve of Shuler than Republicans, and conservatives are more likely to support him than liberals.    This trend is most evident at the extremes where twice as many conservative Republicans as liberal Democrats approve of Shuler (60 percent to 30 percent).

All of this portends well for Shuler this fall, at least in this county. Sure he is not popular with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, but fortunately for Shuler, this is a fairly small part of the Jackson County electorate. Moderate and conservative voters of both parties as well as independents approve of Shuler in fairly high numbers. A lot can happen between now and November, but Heath Shuler can probably rest fairly comfortably in the conservative Democratic refuge of Jackson County.

Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts are both Associate Professors of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University where Knotts also serves as Department Head and Cooper directs the Public Policy Institute.

Local government doesn’t fare well in poll

By Christopher Cooper and Gibbs Knotts

Confidence in politics, politicians and government is low. President Obama’s approval rating hovers around 50 percent as he deals with two wars and what may turn out to be the worst environmental disaster in the nation’s history.  Further down Pennsylvania Avenue, only 20 percent of Americans approve of the U.S. Congress, the country’s major legislative body and, for many, the very symbol of democratic government.

Although there is ample evidence about what the nation as a whole thinks of government, there is much less information about what people here in Jackson County think about the political system. Do residents of Jackson County view the federal government with the same level of disapproval? Does the lack of confidence at the national level translate to opinions of government here in Jackson County?

Fortunately, the Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll conducted last month provides some important clues about the vitally important relationship between citizens and government.

As reported last week in The Smoky Mountain News, Jackson County registered voters approve of the U.S. Congress at rates similar to, but slightly higher than, residents across the United States (29 percent favorable, 62 percent unfavorable and 9 percent not sure). A closer look at the results shows that self-identified conservatives, a group that makes up 40 percent of registered voters, displayed less support for the federal government than moderates and liberals.

Conservatives advocate smaller government, particularly when it comes to spending on public welfare, so it makes sense that they disapprove of the federal government with a Democratic President and Democratic majorities in Congress.  In addition to conservatives disapproving of the federal government at high rates here in Jackson County, college-educated respondents approved of the federal government more than respondents with lower levels of education.

For what is probably the first time in Jackson County history, there also is evidence about support for local government. This is a compelling time to investigate approval of local government given recent events in the county. In the last few years, commissioners passed countywide land use planning, mounted a legal battle against Duke Power over the removal of the Dillsboro Dam, and approved a controversial raise package for county employees. No matter your stance on these issues, most of us can agree that these events were controversial.

The WCU PPI/SMN survey found that a third of registered voters had a favorable opinion of Jackson County government. The question was designed to gauge an overall opinion of county government, but it is important to consider what respondents may have been considering when asked to approve or disapprove of Jackson County government. They could have been thinking about the county commissioners, the county manager’s office or some other agency in county government. As County Commissioner McMahan indicated in last week’s Smoky Mountain News, ideally the poll would have asked follow-up questions about why people felt the way they did. Unfortunately, given the time limitations of the survey and the many important issues to be covered, follow-up questions will have to wait for a future poll.

Looking behind the numbers, older respondents supported county government at higher rates than younger respondents. In addition, conservatives have a more negative view of Jackson County government than moderates or liberals, more highly educated respondents had higher levels of support than registered voters with less formal education, and residents of Cashiers expressed very low support for the county government.

In addition to a question about approval of county government, the WCU PPI/SMN survey also asked respondents’ opinions of the Jackson County school system. Attitudes toward the school system were generally positive (49 percent favorable, 27 percent unfavorable, and 24 percent not sure) and rated considerably higher than opinions of both the federal government and Jackson County government. Looking more closely at the numbers indicates higher support from older respondents — even though these individuals are less likely to have school age children.  In addition, support for the Jackson County school system was highest among residents with a Sylva address, indicating higher levels of support for schools in this area.

Politicians and readers can debate whether these numbers are higher or lower than expected. There are no other polls of Jackson County with which to compare these baseline results, so it is impossible to know for certain whether these numbers are increasing or decreasing in our county. Nonetheless, most observers would probably agree that more approval of government is a good thing, and these numbers indicate that it could be higher.

So, how does a government increase citizens’ confidence? Some issues are certainly out of a politician’s control. Factors such as the economy and increasing divisions between Democrats and Republicans in the electorate may be next to impossible for any politician — especially a local one — to solve. Given these constraints, the best way to address the lack of confidence in the political system is to enhance the dialogue between elected officials and the electorate.

Local politicians should create more opportunities for citizens to learn about county government and for citizens to communicate with their elected officials in a safe and partisan neutral environment. Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie’s recent suggestion to televise commission meetings is an excellent start.  Of course, Jackson County citizens must take advantage of these opportunities for them to be successful. If politicians reach out to the people, the people must reach back. If citizens and politicians meet each other halfway, the result will benefit Jackson County, no matter the specific outcome.

Christopher A. Cooper and H. Gibbs Knotts are associate professors of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, where Knotts also serves as department head and Cooper directs the Public Policy Institute.


Poll shows little confidence in government

Government approval ratings are low all over the country. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re also low in Jackson County.

“The state of the economy is the strongest predictor of trust in government that I know of,” said Chris Cooper, director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute.

According to a recent WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll of Jackson County registered voters, 46 percent of the respondents had an unfavorable opinion of county government and a whopping 62 percent had an unfavorable opinion of the federal government.

The flip side of those numbers shows that county government’s approval rating was only a bit higher than the federal government’s. Thirty-three percent of the voters polled had a favorable opinion of county government as opposed to 29 percent for the feds.

The poll questioned nearly 600 voters and has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percent.

At the same time, Gallup polls showed the national approval rating for Congress is 20 percent — as low as it’s ever been.

Cooper said without tracking the approval rating of county government over a period of years, it’s difficult to make any generalizations about what the numbers mean. But he still believes there is some cause for alarm at the county’s approval rating.

“I want to be cautious, because we don’t have a baseline, but the number strikes me as low,” Cooper said. “The one thing I’m comfortable saying is it’s lower than I thought it would be, and it’s lower than I’d feel comfortable with if I were an elected official in Jackson County.”

Negativity or fair criticism?

Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie is one of the five men who have to take county’s low approval rating on the chin. Massie said the numbers concern him, but without more detailed questions, it was hard to know how to read the causes.

“I’m disappointed. I’d like to see some follow up questions as to why. Is it something specific or is it a general feeling about government?” Massie said.

County Chairman Brian McMahan had a similar reaction to the results. He questioned how significant the data could be with the poll asking such generic questions. According to McMahan, the approval rating could be a measurement of the quality of services delivered, or of the popularity of the commissioners, or of the county’s stance on a particular issue.

“I’m not just going to stab in the dark to try to come up with why they responded the way they did,” McMahan said. “Those are the questions that should have been asked.”

Jackson County government at least fared better than the federal government in the poll — which is typical and to be expected.

“We’re the closest level of government to the people, and they know us,” Massie said. “They see us in the restaurants and in the streets and so they feel a little bit better about us.”

Rep. Phil Haire, who represents Sylva in the 119th District of the North Carolina Assembly, doesn’t put much stock in polls and, like McMahan, said more narrowly defined questions would be more useful.

“I’m not a big fan of polls,” Haire said. “A lot of the questions that were asked are what you could call knee-jerk questions.”

Haire said for poll data to be useful, it has to target a specific population and asked detailed questions about issues that are on the table for decision-makers.

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe sees the poll results against the broader backdrop of national opinion.

“I think it’s a nationwide trend where society has become frustrated over the economic situation, and they’ve become anti-government and anti-authority,” Ashe said.

For Ashe, the confusing thing is that while government approval is at its lowest, voter turnout in this year’s mid-term primaries was abysmal.

“When we have a 14 percent voter turnout, we have a problem,” Ashe said. “It’s up to the people to take back the government.

For Cooper, whether or not the polls create a clear angle on issues, they are a starting place for improving the quality of communication between the public and elected officials.

“I would hope elected officials would take this and think about what they could do to communicate better with the public,” Cooper said.


Jackson County issues


County politics and federal politics are different. One of the things they have in common, though, is the economy.

“At the local level, we’re not as interested in partisan issues as pocketbook issues, but when the economy’s bad, we still need to raise money to provide the services that people ask for,” Massie said.

When the economy is bad, county voters look to government to explain their taxing and spending habits in greater detail. In Jackson County, a number of high-priced decisions by the county board have created a starting point for criticism.

The county’s drawn-out court battles with Duke Energy over the fate of the Dillsboro Dam, which ended last year, resulted in half a million dollars in legal fees and failed to produce their desired results.

Last year, commissioners awarded steep raises for the county’s highest-paid employees, a highly controversial move in a recession. The raises were recommended by a firm contracted to analyze the county’s pay structure, but that didn’t sit any easier with some members of the public.

This year, Sheriff Jimmy Ashe came under fire for his alleged misuse of a narcotics seizure fund while he was fighting a high-profile legal battle with Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn.

The county has also been embroiled in protracted struggles to reform its economic development commission and restructure its airport authority after controversial upheavals left both in disarray.

Mark Jamison, a member of the Webster town board who has also been active in county politics, said the cumulative result of those events has created bad feeling in the voting public.

“Whether or not there are legitimate concerns related to each and every one of these issues may not be as meaningful as the totality of their weight,” Jamison said. “Combine that with a county government that doesn’t have a very pleasant or helpful face and that generally doesn’t seem to communicate well and you have a prescription for disenchantment.”

Massie said all of the same issues may be playing a role, and he put some of their impact at the feet of the way they’ve been handled in the media.

“I think it’s a combination of all of those things,” Massie said. “The pay raises, the dam, the lawsuit against the sheriff’s office –– that’s all about the news media grabbing attention, and negative attention grabs more attention than what you’re doing well.”

Jamison acknowledged that the county might be getting the blame for a more general ill ease in the voting public. He also agreed that the local media coverage focuses on outspoken critics of certain county decisions. But he still believes the county hasn’t done a good enough job of communicating with voters around its decisions on key issues.

“One has to at least acknowledge that the presence of our local gadflies has somewhat poisoned the political dialogue,” Jamison said. “Still, communication and advocacy for local interests seems lacking.”

Cullowhee business owner Jack Debnam, who is running against McMahan for county chairman in November, focused his criticism of county government on its spending. Debnam said this board has been slow to recognize the recession and plan for it.

“The majority of the reason people are unhappy is the spending that’s been done and how it’s been handled,” said Debnam. “I’ve been angry and other people are angry and I believe they’re ready to do something different.”

McMahan takes issue with the idea that the county doesn’t communicate well with voters and at the same time wonders if people really know what the nuts and bolts of county government are all about.

“Most people don’t come to our meetings,” McMahan said. “How do they know what kind of decisions are being made?”

Massie, who is also running for reelection in November, said the county lacks a forum for issue-based dialogue. Without a League of Women’s Voters or the chance to debate at the Rotary Club, Massie said county politicians take the path of least resistance.

“All the candidates say is ‘I’m honest. I’m a good person. I’ll do a great job,’” Massie said. “You really don’t have the opportunity to discuss issues. We don’t have enough chances to go head to head with the public.”

For Massie, the lack of a forum for discussion combined with low voter turnout make it hard to figure out how to take the criticism of the public constructively. He wants to begin televising county meetings on cable so interested voters can see how the commissioners work.

“We’re human beings not mind readers,” Massie said. “If we don’t hear from the public, what are we supposed to do?”


The Cashiers question


Perhaps the most glaring statistic generated by the poll is that only 15 percent of Cashiers voters have a favorable opinion of county government — lower than even the federal government.

“The big question we’re trying to get at is why?” said Gibbs Knotts, one of the poll’s creators. “That could be for many reasons. If there’s a way to engage people in the southern part of the county, then that could be one take-away.”

Jackson County Commissioner Mark Jones, who represents Cashiers, said he believes the dissatisfaction in his part of the county has a concrete cause.

The county began the construction of a new $4.3 million recreation center in 2006 but construction delays, mainly the result of unforeseen environmental engineering costs, have seen the completion date pushed back over and over again.

“I’m frustrated, too,” Jones said. “People up there feel like their tax dollars aren’t being utilized for them and that recreation center is an example.”

Jones said Cashiers voters often think of themselves as a sort of cash cow for the county, since the area contains many high-priced homes that add to the property tax base.

Jones thinks if the economy has turned around and the recreation center is finished when he comes up for election in 2013, he’ll stand a good chance of surviving the current approval rating.

“I think the people of Cashiers want to see visually what the county is doing for them,” Jones said.

Jones also acknowledged that the high-profile coverage of the legal suit between Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe and Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn took its toll on the voting public.

Finn and a group of supporters ran a negative ad campaign through a political action committee called Taxpayers Against Ashe for Sheriff during the May primary.

“People read the stuff and if they don’t know what’s going on, they believe it,” Jones said. “Negative campaigns can be very successful.”

Ashe was cleared of allegations that he used his position to hinder Finn’s private security business, which has strong ties to many of the developments in and around Cashiers, but the lasting effects of the animosity between the two men could continue to affect public opinion there.

And then there’s the archetypal divide between the mountains and valley, a gap Jones feels is narrowing slowly.

“The distance from Sylva to Cashiers is a barrier that even the press has a problem with,” Jones said.


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