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Strong on momentum, but shy of real power, TEA Party’s political weight remains to be seen

A year ago, Scott Cummings would never have pictured himself standing on the sidewalk pumping a homemade sign in the air for passing motorists to see. But last week, he found himself front and center in a 200-strong crowd at a TEA Party rally in downtown Franklin.

“I didn’t have nobody that shared the same views as me until the TEA Party came along,” said Cummings, 45, a childcare worker in Franklin.

A recent WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll of registered voters in Jackson County shows a nearly even split of how people view the TEA Party: 42 percent reported a favorable opinion of the TEA Party versus 40 percent unfavorable.

“We have a very polarized country right now,” said Gibbs Knotts, a WCU political science professor who developed the poll.

The highly accurate poll was conducted among 600 or so registered voters in Jackson County last month, gauging views toward government at the local, state and national level. The TEA Party incidentally has a higher approval rating the federal government, according to the poll.

“Love the TEA Party or hate the TEA Party, they are an important movement in American politics,” said Chris Cooper, another political science professor at WCU who developed the poll. Cooper said the TEA Party — and in particular whether it will leave a lasting mark — is not yet well-understood by political analysts like himself.

To Gail Chapman, however, the TEA Party has given her life newfound meaning. She described her first brush with the TEA Party during a march in D.C. as the “best day of my life.”

“To be with so many people who felt the way I felt, who believe in getting back to our core conservative values,” said Chapman, 65, a retired high school teacher in Franklin. “I think it is important that we, the silent majority, stand up and speak out.”

The TEA Party can’t yet claim a majority — at least among registered voters polled in Jackson County. But the movement definitely has a higher approval rating in the mountains than among the nation as a whole. In a national New York Times poll, only 18 percent said they were supporters of the TEA Party.

Cooper has a theory why more than twice as high a percentage of people here are TEA Party sympathizers — one that goes back to the Scotch-Irish roots of the Appalachian settlers.

“Western North Carolinians have a streak of independence historically and culturally,” Cooper said. “There is a strong distrust of the federal government here in particular.”

TEA Party supporters believe they would have even higher favorable numbers if not for the leftist media casting them in a negative light.

“We are not radical. We are not crazy. We are not right-wing nut jobs,” Chapman said.

She is doing her part to change perceptions. She wears her TEA party button everywhere she goes and uses it to start conversations with other people in line around her at the grocery store.

Bruce Gardner, a TEA Party activist in Haywood County, said more people would support the movement if they understood it.

“I fail to believe that 40 percent of the people are in favor of higher taxes and bigger deficits,” said Gardner.

Knotts agrees the TEA Party has caught some bad publicity and has been negatively portrayed as anti-establishment. He was impressed with how well the TEA Party polled locally, given the strikes against them in the media.

Beverly Elliot, a member of the TEA Party in Waynesville, said the movement has been pigeonholed by the national media.

“It is easier to marginalize someone if you can stick them in one camp or the other and say they are just a shill for this party or the other rather than being free thinkers,” Elliot said. “If people only get their news from 90-second sound bites, they are gong to believe hook line and sinker what the TEA Party is about.”

One of the labels — that the TEA Party is merely Republicans in disguise — should come as no surprise, however. Speakers at the TEA Party rally in Franklin, as with most TEA Party rallies, were all Republicans. Their talking points read like a conservative anthem. And signs in the crowd decried President Obama.

“The TEA Party claims to have dissatisfaction with both parties, but clearly Republican or conservative leaning folks are more likely to support the TEA Party,” Cooper said.

The PPI/Smoky Mountain News poll backs that conclusion with hard data. TEA Party sympathizers were far more likely to be Republican and more likely to view themselves as conservative, as opposed to moderate or liberal.

TEA Party activists admit to being conservative more readily than being Republican. A flyer for a weekly TEA Party meeting in Haywood County implores those attending to “leave your political party at the door.” Yet when the same group formed a political action committee, its stated purpose, according to the paperwork filed with the N.C. Board of Elections, is “to support candidates with conservative values.”

While TEA Party members rail against illegal immigrants and lament the loss of Christian influence in government, their universal rallying cry is to cut spending.

“If people care about this country and don’t want to leave this country with an unsustainable debt, they need to get off their sofas,” said Elliot.

The deficit is cause for real fear among TEA Party activists — the equivalent of global warming for their liberal counterparts. Gardner said the country is headed toward “financial ruin.”

“We are going to be dominated financially and probably militarily by foreign powers,” Gardner said. “We cannot afford to continue on the road we are on. I am not even sure if it is reversible.”


Now what?


Exactly where the TEA Party movement will go from here is unclear — or even how to define it. Don Swanson of Franklin, who helped organize last week’s rally, summed up the TEA Party as a “philosophical movement.”

The TEA Party prides itself on its grassroots nature. There is no national headquarters and no national spokesperson. But that could prove limiting, relegating the TEA Party to influence policy around the margins rather than becoming a real player.

Knotts said American politics is entrenched in a two-party system where the winner takes all. He thinks it unlikely that a third party could become a viable player.

TEA Party members likewise doubt they will ever be a bona fide third party.

“I think the end game is to influence the two major parties, to move them more center-right,” Gardener said.

Indeed, both sides of the aisle are furiously pounding their fists over the out-of-control deficit. It’s now rated as the number one concern in national polls, and politicians can’t avoid the topic as they move toward the November election.

“This message that government spending is out of control, that is going to be popular,” Knotts said.

While some TEA Partiers may be happy to simply move the political dial their direction, ultimately they would like to see their handpicked candidates get into office.

While it’s not the same as recruiting a candidate and seeing them to the finish line, the TEA Party is poised to endorse local candidates in the November election after forming a political action committee, allowing them to legally accept donations and spend money on political campaigns.

The TEA Party will look for candidates most in line with their thinking.

“Not necessarily because it is a mirror image of what we support,” Elliot said.

Gardener said fiscally conservative candidates considering a run have been swayed to jump in the ring after witnessing what he calls a “groundswell of support for conservative thinking.”  The TEA Party has a sphere of influence in Haywood County that reaches 1,800 people through an email list. Not bad, considering “we started with six a year ago in March,” Gardner said.

Cooper cautioned that the TEA Party could actually backfire and motivate Democrats to turn out in bigger numbers at the polls in hopes of countering the conservative movement.

“Campaigns are either won by getting people to change sides or by mobilizing your base. I think this will be mobilizing your base,” Cooper said. “Historically, that’s what movement like this do. It is really hard to get people to switch their vote.”

Allen Demas, a founding member of the local TEA Party group in Franklin, is a case in point.

“This is the first time I have ever been politically active,” said Demas, 61, a retired store manager of Winn Dixie in Franklin.

However, he’s always voted — and always voted Republican. Come Election Day, his new-found activism with the TEA Party will mean little to conservative candidates. They’ll have Demas’ vote this year, just like they did every other year when he merely showed up at the polls as a lone voter without the weight of a movement behind him.

But it feels good to be part of something, rather than sitting home watching the news and fuming, Cummings said.

“It’s the first time people are coming together as a group,” Cummings said.

But he realizes the party doesn’t end here.

“If we don’t take our views to the polls and show them, it’s not going to work,” Cummings said. “Until we do that, we’re just holding signs.”


Poll results say …

• 42 percent have a favorable opinion of the TEA Party versus 40 percent unfavorable and 18 percent undecided.

• 82 percent of Republicans have a favorable opinion of the TEA Party versus only 29 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents

• Among TEA Party sympathizers, 95 percent have an unfavorable view of the federal government. Among all respondents, 62 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the federal government.


Local TEA Party groups


• A TEA Party group meets in Franklin at 2 p.m. on the third Saturday of the month at the 441 Diner in Otto. Mountainpatriotsteaparty.info

• A TEA Party group meets in Waynesville at 9 a.m. every Saturday at Nico’s café downtown.

• A political action committee to support TEA Party candidates locally has just been formed. The website is under construction but should be online soon. Teapartywnc.com.

WCU poll is first attempt of its caliber to measure political opinions on solely local scale

A new polling project developed by Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News aims to get data that is the meat and bread of political scientists into the hands of the voting public.

“As academics, we’re pretty good at using rigorous methods to find things out,” said Chris Cooper, the institute’s director. “We’re not as good at showing our results.”

Cooper and his colleague, Gibbs Knotts, were interested in partnering with a media company to help disseminate the results of a poll measuring Jackson County political opinions and in turn instigate a larger conversation. They hatched the idea during the debate over tearing down the Dillsboro Dam. Because there were so many strong opinions on the issue, it was hard to get a feel for the sentiment of the majority.

“Most people like people who like them,” Cooper said. “Consequently they hang around people who think like them. The idea was to get a representative sample, so people could have some idea what others were really thinking about the issues.”

Smoky Mountain News publisher, Scott McLeod, saw the project as an opportunity to explore a partnership that could get to the crux of what is on readers’ minds.

“This is what good journalism and good newspapers are about,” McLeod said “We want to provide our readers with information about this region they can’t find anywhere else and present it in a way that’s interesting and useful. These polls and the subsequent stories we do will fulfill that mission.”

By combining accurate polling data and a platform for discussion, the first poll in the project is designed to create a baseline for Jackson County voters to discuss issues in the run-up to the November election. The project is called “Creating a Regional Policy Dialogue.”

“Anytime you can get people to discuss their views on government and on elected leaders, there’s a chance it will lead to better decision making and better leadership,” McLeod said. “Maybe a frank dialogue in the media about leadership and politics — one based on actual poll results from mountain voters — will contribute some solutions to some of our problems.”


The poll


Cooper contracted Public Policy Polling in Raleigh to conduct a random sample survey of Jackson County registered voters. The polling firm has had great results with its relatively low-cost phone survey method. SurveyUSA’s report cards rated Public Policy Polling the most accurate pollster for South Carolina, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Indiana and Oregon during the 2008 election cycle.

The Jackson County poll, which was administered through a computerized phone call, asked 11 questions. In the end, just less than 600 respondents from all parts of the county offered their views on questions that asked what they thought of county and federal government; whether alcohol sales should be allowed outside incorporated areas; and how they felt about Congressman Heath Shuler, Governor Bev Perdue, the TEA Party and their local school system. It also measured political persuasions and collected demographic data.

Some of the results were surprising, like the fact that 95 percent of the respondents had an opinion about alcohol sales outside of Sylva and Dillsboro.

Cooper is quick to point out what the poll results — which canvassed registered voters only — can and can’t show.

“We can generalize about voters in Jackson County, but we can’t generalize about the people in a broad sense,” Cooper said.

Voters are, in general, more educated, more liberal and older than the public at large. They are also the people most likely to engage in the political process.

“The downside is we’re not getting the opinion of a whole group who by definition are disenfranchised and disconnected from the political process,” Cooper said.

Knotts estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of Jackson residents aren’t registered to vote.

The poll functioned with a plus or minus 4 percent margin of error. Cooper said he only recognized one peculiarity in the results: more than 61 percent said they graduated from college, a larger percentage than normal for the voting public.

“We over-represented educated people, but it’s not because we called more, it’s because more of them answered the call,” Cooper said.

In the end, the survey provides a starting point for the discussion of what’s really on the mind of Jackson County’s voters. Past public opinion surveys in Western North Carolina have focused on the region so broadly that voters in Asheville or Boone have been lumped in with those from Cashiers and Whittier.

The newest poll hopes to lend badly needed specificity the conversation.

“We were very interested to see how it came out to, and I feel really good about the results,” Cooper said.


Reading the mind of Jackson County

Gauging public opinion can be a tricky proposition, but for the elected officials who run Jackson County, it can also provide a glimpse at what matters to the people who elect them.

County Commissioner Tom Massie is up for reelection in November, and he likes the idea of the poll.

“I think we genuinely need to know where there are issues of concern in the public, and people ought to participate more in their government at all levels,” Massie said.

Vicki Greene, director of the Southwestern Planning Commission, has conducted numerous polls in Western North Carolina aimed at getting information on how people are employed. Greene, who grew up in Sylva and Dillsboro, said it could be hard to get good, accurate information from people through an automated phone call.

“My initial reaction is it’s a waste of time, because I’d be real surprised if you can get somebody to stay on the line for seven minutes,” Greene said.

The poll called voters on the list six times before moving on to another name. The short duration of the poll and its touch-key response system limits the complexity of the questions, but it greatly enhances the chance that people will respond.

Greene acknowledged how important good data can be in informing the larger policy discussions that shape the region.

“Assuming the questions are asked in a neutral format, the results of the polls should be beneficial to elected officials in their decision making capacities,” Greene said. “When you do a random survey, you are getting the voices of folks that don’t often participate in the discussion.”

For Knotts, who helped design the list of questions, the poll is a starting place.

“We see this as a way to put some numbers out there and use them as a starting point for a regional dialogue,” Knotts said.

At a moment in history when the economy is still mired and approval ratings of government at all levels are low around the country, the Jackson County poll is a chance to find out why voters are so frustrated and what can bring them back to the table.

For Cooper and Knotts, gathering data is the best place to start.

“The goal is to get the word out there, get out of the academic silo and communicate data and empirical results to the people who make decisions,” Cooper said.

For Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod, the polling partnership is the first step in creating a broader regional dialogue around issues.

“I can’t recall there ever having been scientific polling data from citizens in the counties west of Asheville,” McLeod said. “If we can continue this project for a year and do a half dozen or so polls, we’ll have some great information about our region that no one else has ever made the effort to gather.”

GOP hopes voter anger will help beat Shuler

Republicans hope 2010 will be their year to reclaim the congressional seat representing Western North Carolina — a seat they had long held but was wrested away in 2006 by political newcomer and football star Heath Shuler.

Whoever wins the Republican primary for the 11th Congressional District, however, will have their work cut out for them.

“This is not going to be a cake walk for anybody,” said Jake Howard, a candidate from Franklin.

While Democrats are vulnerable on the national stage, Shuler isn’t exactly a raging liberal, much to the chagrin of die-hard Democrats in the district. He’s good looking, a family man, and a devout Christian. People line up for his autograph when he makes public appearances — due more to his football fame than status as congressman

Money will be a major factor in the race against Shuler. Shuler has lots of it, and none of the Republican candidates in the running have a hope of matching it. The big question is how much money the national Republican Party will funnel to Shuler’s opponent.

“I think no matter who our primary voters elect we are going to see the national Republican Party here,” said Robert Danos, the chairman of the Henderson County Republican Party and a Shuler critic.

But Republicans have their eye on taking back many seats in 2010, so competition for national financial backing will be stiff.

“I think the Republican Party will focus first on open seats,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

Shuler’s seat would likely be a close second in line, however.

“Shuler is a vulnerable Democrat in a district that has shown it will vote for Republicans, so after putting money into open seats, this will be one of the races they look to — especially if the nominee is a candidate the national party thinks will do well,” Cooper said.

The Republican challengers are downplaying the importance of funding in this year’s election.

“It will be incumbent on whoever wins to raise a lot of money, but money alone is not going to do it this year,” said Greg Newman, a candidate from Hendersonville. “The message this year is going to be more important than ever before.”

Fellow candidate Jeff Miller agrees to a point.

“It doesn’t mean you can go in there with $100,0000 and beat Heath Shuler. He is going to dominate airwaves and he is going to dominate mailings,” Miller said.

Only two candidates have paid campaign staffs at this point. Miller and Dan Eichenbaum, who each have three paid staff.

Shuler is not only a multi-millionaire, but has also already amassed a formidable war chest. He had $1.27 million in the hopper as of January before his main fundraising push has even started.

In 2008, Shuler raised $1.67 million but spent less than $800,000 against a comparatively weak opponent in Carl Mumpower.

Coattails effect

Republicans are holding out hope that a national tide will carry them to victory against Shuler.

“I think he is going to be very vulnerable precisely because this election, just like congressional elections across the country, is going to be much more about the national issues than just ‘Do you like the guy,’” said Danos.

But whether the country is headed for a Republican landslide this year that will hurt Shuler is unpredictable for now.

“I think this is definitely going to be a better year for Republicans than it is for Democrats,” Cooper said. “That said, I think where we are really going to see that is with the open seats. Shuler is an incumbent, and for incumbents to lose they pretty much have to shoot themselves in the foot during the election.”

Not just any candidate can ride a Republican tide to defeat Shuler, Miller said.

“I think you are going to have to have the right person,” Miller said.

All candidates agreed on that point, although opinions obviously vary on who that “right” candidate is.

“This race is all about who can beat Shuler,” said Jake Howard, a candidate from Franklin. “If the Republican voters send a neophyte up against Heath Shuler he will eat their lunch.”

The most electable candidate in a general election doesn’t always emerge as the top vote-getter in a primary.

“Only a fraction of the voters are going to get to the polls,” Howard said. “So it is so easy to select the wrong candidate.”

Both years Shuler won — in 2006 and 2008 — were generally good years for Democrats.

“Many people, including a number of Republicans, were angry about things the Bush Administration did a poor job of managing,” Danos said. “But now they see turning the keys over to Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama is much further to the left than many people who voted for Obama expected.”

Painting Shuler into the same corner as Pelosi and Obama is clearly part of the Republican strategy, but it might not be that easy. Shuler voted against the Wall Street bailout, against the auto bailout, against the stimulus bill and against the health care bill.

But Danos said as long as Shuler votes for Pelosi each year to serve as Speaker of the House, he is handing the agenda over to liberal Democrats.

“Shuler talks a good game at home of being a conservative,” Danos said. But in reality, he isn’t as conservative as he makes out to be, Danos said.

Nonetheless, many Democrats are angry with Shuler for being part of the Blue Dog caucus — a band of conservative Democrats who often vote as their own block.

But Cooper doubts that liberal Democrats will be angry enough to vote against Shuler.

“He will still be a better Democrat than a Republican will be,” Cooper said.

It would be too risky for Democrats to oust Shuler and sacrifice the seat to a Republican in the short term in hopes of getting a “real” Democrat to take the seat back two years from now, Cooper said.

“I think people aren’t willing to roll the dice that much,” Cooper said. “I think at the end of the day people vote for the candidate that holds the package of beliefs that are closest to them.”

Most electable?

Six months is a long time in American politics, and no one can predict if the Republican fury will fade or sustain itself. But Dan Eichenbaum, a primary candidate from Murphy, said the movement isn’t going away.

“The direction our country is going is so abhorrent to so many people,” Eichenbaum said.

Eichenbaum is a self-described Tea Party activist.

“I have been rolling up shirtsleeves and getting out my check book since last spring,” Eichenbaum said.

Candidates that cater to purist Republican ideals like Eichenbaum may resonate well in a primary. But the right-leaning base that dominates the polls in the primary may select a candidate that is less electable come the general election.

“In the primary you have to talk to the right, then in the general election move to the center,” said Ed Krause, a candidate from Marion.

But Eichenbaum said he refuses to compromise on his principles to win votes based on his audience.

“That’s what got us in this mess in the first place,” said Eichenbaum, who was at one time a registered Libertarian.

Eichenbaum is one of the leading contenders in the primary. But so is Jeff Miller, who is far more moderate.

Miller doesn’t engage in the level of Democrat bashing that has endeared Eichenbaum to his base.

“We all have a piece of this together,” Miller said of the national crisis.

Miller said his platform will make him a more viable opponent against Shuler come November.

“You have to decide what is going to play the best. The unaffiliated voter is huge in this district,” Miller said.

Especially if winning the general election could require wooing Democrats to break ranks.

“You can’t ignore this Tea Party movement. But I think in the end the established Republican is going to get the nomination and will get the most support from the national party and the voters of the 11th district,” Cooper said.

Unknown faces

Until now, the candidates are largely unknown except within their own counties. No one had true regional name recognition going into the race.

In a territory that spans 15 counties, candidates find themselves criss-crossing Western North Carolina several times a week in the final throws of primary season.

“It is very challenging,” Krause said. “My dogs don’t know who I am.”

Kenny West, who lives in Hayesville, has a long haul to get just about anywhere. He has been averaging 1,700 miles a week campaigning lately.

Newman said candidate forums and debates have been well attended.

“As opposed to a lot of primary election cycles people are very engaged about this particular election,” Newman said. “I believe it is symptomatic of how people feel about the country right now.”

Politicians would be wise to read the Tea leaves

By Bruce Gardner • Guest Columnist

The Tea Party movement is sweeping the nation and has found its way through the media and into almost everyone’s living room. It is not a political party; it is a frame of mind. It is a grassroots organization unlike anything in our lifetime.

Quoting Richard Viguerie in his editorial in the Investor’s Business daily: “The Tea Party Movement not only brings millions of new people to the political process, it also brings more energy, enthusiasm and excitement to politics than we’ve seen in the last 100 years. I have been working and waiting 50 years for this populist, principled and constitutional groundswell against big government and the quasi-socialistic, crony capitalistic establishment institutions that have been abusing power and trust at the expense of hard-working Americans, their children and their grandchildren. In just one year, the Tea Party has become the fastest growing political movement perhaps in history.”

TEA stands for Taxed Enough Already. It represents the historical dumping of the tea into Boston Harbor in protest of the Stamp Act of 1765. Basically this was a revolution against taxation without representation imposed by the British monarchy of the time. This movement is uniquely American.

Today, people in America are upset with both political parties. They are outraged at the massive spending, oppressive debt, self-serving, arrogant behavior of Congress as well as the current and previous administrations. The Tea Party brings focus to these issues.

Professional politicians in both parties have created careers for themselves by mortgaging future generations to finance their own reelection campaigns through earmarks, closed door dealings and “selling” their votes to party leaders in exchange for re-election campaign funding.

Taxpaying, working Americans are fed up and are now demanding that elected representatives listen to the voices of the people who are paying the bills.

What do the Tea Partiers want? It’s easy to see what political issues they are against, but what are they for? They are for smaller government, substantially lower taxes, term limits, rot reform, individual liberty restoration, less intrusion by government, a fair tax code for everyone, transparency and accountability in government, respect for the Constitution, elimination of earmarks, a balanced budget, a strong defense, elimination of waste and fraud in government, state’s rights as defined by the Constitution, social programs that create independence rather than dependence on the system, and a no nonsense criminal justice system that favors the victim.

At first, the mainstream media ignored the Tea Parties. Now, the national media would have the public believe that this is a radical right wing movement. Look at the list above and ask yourself if anything on that list seems radical to you. The Tea Party is made up of folks that live in every hometown. They are Middle America — not extremists.

The Constitution was written to protect our individual liberties and order the structure of the federal government. The federal government was to be empowered by the states to provide for the states those things that were needed in common such as national defense. Over the years the federal government has expanded its role, enslaving the states through mandates in almost every area of our lives. The expansion of government and the unconscionable spending of the last 10 years have financially crippled our children and all future generations. This expansion has led to the near bankruptcy of our country and the degradation of our dollar around the world. The legacy we are leaving for future generations is the direct result of political greed and a total disconnect from and disregard for the American public.

Much of the strength of the Tea Party movement is in the fact that it is totally decentralized. There is no national leader or common set of talking points. Each group concentrates much of its efforts on local and state issues. These groups are challenging candidates for every elected office that affects their area. It’s all about policy and philosophy. Political party affiliation is of no consequence.

Every area seems to have a different organization with a variety of names. The common thread is the mindset found in the Tea Party movement. In Haywood County, the Tea Party movement is represented by the 9/12 Project. This nonpartisan group has grown tremendously in the past year and is extremely active through monthly meetings, Saturday morning coffee gatherings and events featuring speakers and candidates for office. Contrary to anti-Tea Party sound bites repeated by the national media, the Haywood 9/12 Project is made up of Democrats, Republicans and Independents who feel that government is out of control.

The Haywood 9/12 Project will be announcing an initiative to inform the voting public which candidates best represent the ideals of the Tea Party Movement at all levels: local, state and national. Any candidate for any office belonging to any party will be invited to participate. Watch for additional details or get involved with the 9/12 Project to learn more.

For information about the 9/12 Project and the Tea Party movement in Haywood County, visit the Web site at www.912wnc.com or call 828.506.5007 for meeting information or for ways to get involved.

(Bruce Gardner lives in Haywood County and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Robust citizen input vexes public officials

Johnnie Cure said she never expected to become a local celebrity when she started speaking up during the public comment period of Haywood County commissioners meetings.

Typically taking the county to task over what she perceives as excessive spending, Cure has become a regular fixture on the front row of county meetings in recent months. As a result, she gets primetime on the county’s government access channel where the videotaped proceedings are aired repeatedly in the days following the meeting.

“People I don’t even know will say ‘Good going,’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Glad you are standing up for us,’” Cure said.

While he can’t hold a candle to the number of Cure’s appearances, Ted Carr gets his share of street compliments following meetings where he speaks out.

“I am surprised at the number of people who say ‘I saw you on the commissioners meeting. You made some good comments,’” Carr said. “A lot are people I wouldn’t expect to be paying attention but who watch it quite religiously.”

The barrage of public comment — both the volume and repetitiveness — has tried county commissioners’ patience over recent months, however.

“Rumor has it they want to move the public comment session to the end of the meeting, which would require common citizens to sit there for the whole meeting before we have the opportunity to speak,” Cure said.

Carr said he hopes the commissioners won’t change the format, either by moving comments to the end of the meeting or by taking them off the air. If they do, it will be perceived as trying to stifle the public, he said.

“I think it would hurt the community. The community wouldn’t get the impact of what individuals have to say,” Carr said.

But commissioners say they have no intention of changing the meeting format.

“Everybody has a voice and should be heard,” Commissioner Bill Upton said. “We aren’t trying to suppress that. I feel like we are very open. I think this board has been very patient.”

Those who are regulars during the public comment period say they aren’t purposely grandstanding or filibustering.

“What is being expressed are legitimate comments that do have merit,” said Bruce Gardner, part of an organized grassroots movement called the 9-12 Project.

Gardner said shifting the public comment period wouldn’t silence them.

“It wouldn’t stop me,” Gardner said. “But it would lose some effectiveness. All the good ideas don’t generate from the front of the room anyway. We elected these people and need to interact with them.”

Cure thinks any move on the commissioners’ part to shift public comment to the end or even take it off the air would be perceived as stifling public comment.

“I think I am getting on their very last nerve,” Cure said. “They want to shut us down, turn us off, they want to reduce our exposure. They don’t like us. They do not want to held accountable. They don’t want to be asked any questions.”


Local activism, national movement

The recent outpouring at Haywood commissioners meetings — centering around fiscal restraint — is a local manifestation of conservative activism witnessed nationwide since the loss of power by Republicans in the last election. With the national Republican Party struggling to redefine itself, the social issues that had galvanized the party for the past two decades are being traded in for economic talking points.

“The Republican Party is in a bit of an idea vacuum and leadership vacuum,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “Instead of coalescing around a national leader, you are seeing this bottom-up activism.”

Ted Carr, a Haywood County Republican, said the commissioners are “caught in the firestorm.”

“Nationwide, citizens feel like they aren’t being heard,” Carr said while speaking to the board during its public comment period this week.

Linda Bennett also drew a comparison to national movement when speaking to commissioners last month.

“Over the past several weeks and months, we have seen the town hall presentations on the TV where people have had a lot of passion,” Bennett said. “I think you have also seen record numbers in your courtroom you haven’t seen it the past. They are here for a reason.”


Accommodating despite the costs

Haywood County commissioners’ approach to the recent wave of public comments has varied. In general, they are polite and accommodating, listening intently and often taking notes. They usually devote a portion of the meeting to addressing concerns raised during public comment, and have even assigned county staff to prepare PowerPoints and compile timelines to address recurring points of contention.

“We are trying to be as transparent and open to the public as possible,” Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said.

Nonetheless, commissioners have shown signs of aggravation, witnessed by an exchange between Kirkpatrick and Cure at a county meeting this week.

“Ms. Cure, I am never going to be able to answer all your questions for you to your satisfaction,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick has pointed out that the cost of airing public comments costs all the taxpayers.

“The more we televise, the more cost that is to the county,” Kirkpatrick said. “We would televise everything we did if it didn’t cost. But it does cost us money.”

Despite concerns over cost, commissioners said they have no plans to discontinue public comment as part of the televised meetings.

“I don’t want to deter the public from seeing what people have to say on television,” Kirkpatrick said.

Haywood County is one of the few counties in the region that tapes and televises their meetings. For those who don’t have cable, a copy is placed at each library and can be watched online. Commissioners even tape and air their work sessions in addition to regular meetings.

“We are the most open board by far. We have taken to televising work sessions,” Commissioner Upton said.

Cure questioned just how much the public comment really costs, however. The cost of actually airing the meetings is the same no mater how long they are. The added expense is related to the filming, done by a private video production company that charges $175 an hour. Assuming public comment takes up an hour at each meeting — although it is often half that — it comes to less than $5,000 for the whole year to televise the public comment portion of the meeting.


Who is listening?

Haywood County commissioners have become visibly irked that the entourage present at the beginning of their meetings dissipate rapidly following the public comment period and have all but evaporated by the midway point in the meeting. Often later in the meeting, county commissioners take up the issue raised during public comment or provide the information that the critics had been seeking. But by then, they are gone.

During the public comment period at a meeting two weeks ago, county commissioners were asked for a copy of the legal settlement brokered with a landowner suing the county over its enforcement of erosion laws. The county had brought a copy to the meeting in anticipation of such a request. Critics of county spending had previously criticized the legal costs incurred as a result of the suit. The county asked the speaker to come up during a break and get the copy of the settlement, but the individual left without the copy — a point that didn’t go unnoticed by commissioners later in the meeting.

“The settlement offer that they asked for, we have a copy of here, but they have left,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said, then turned to the camera to address the TV audience. “If you are listening to the broadcast, they are available to pick up.”

Commissioners have also shown irritation when the same points are raised again and again, even after they have been addressed. Cure has repeatedly advocated for privatizing the county trash business and during one public comment period accused the county of not seriously examining the option.

But Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said the county had indeed talked about it.

“The majority of people here tonight got up and left after they made their comments. I was hoping after they left they would at least look at our meeting on television to see what we were talking about, but evidentially y’all didn’t do that,” Curtis told the audience during one meeting last month.

The point hit home again at the county’s meeting this week. County staff had prepared a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation in direct response to a recurring public comment.

“Unfortunately we have no one here that normally attends the public comment periods,” Kirkpatrick said, looking around the meeting room that was empty except for two local reporters. “The county is trying to be responsive and put the information out there for the public to hear, and it is disheartening sometimes when no one is here who had asked the questions.”

The meeting had nearly hit the three-hour mark, and given the empty room, Kirkpatrick suggested postponing the presentation until the next meeting. The presentation would have detailed how the county does its purchasing, be it supplies or contracted services. The purpose was to lay out the process so local businesses and contractors could hopefully snag a piece of the county’s business.

“I think there should be a priority given to local businesses whether it is goods or services,” said Bruce Gardner, who twice brought up the issue during public comment periods, recommending a crash course to help local businesses navigate the county’s procurement process.

Cure said it is unreasonable to expect the public to sit through three-hour meetings, even longer sometimes, when they have jobs and families to attend to.


Lengthy criticisms, lengthy answers

Some meetings see much heavier comment than others. On Sept. 20 a half a dozen members of the public spoke up. Topics were varied, but all focused on the common theme of fiscal restraint.

“They are spending my money, our money. We have given them a credit card with no limit,” Cure said.

Speakers have criticized the county’s efforts to harness methane, a byproduct from decomposing trash. The county has been condemned for its recent propensity for landing itself in expensive lawsuits. Commissioners were even chastised for not attending a 9-11 memorial held on the courthouse steps.

“None of you showed up,” Al Goodis told commissioners. “Doesn’t anybody care?”

Clearly offended, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said he did care but didn’t know about the memorial in advance and was out of town.

Often the commissioners’ response to comments takes longer than the public comments themselves.

“Their rebuttal is lengthy,” Cure said.

But Kirkpatrick says it is necessary. Otherwise it appears the county isn’t taking the public’s concerns to heart if they merely listen and don’t respond. So the commissioners have taken to keeping a running list of the grievances brought up during public comment session and then addressing them one by one following the public comment period.

While presented as explanations, they sometimes come across as the last word by the county.

“Personally I am not looking for an immediate answer. I would rather have a studied answer to a serious question,” Gardner said.


Clearinghouse or bottleneck?

In addition to the surge in public comments, the county is also facing a significant volume of public record requests by the speakers. In response, commissioners plan to adopt a written request form for any county documents being sought by the public.

County Manager David Cotton said a clearinghouse for public record requests would solve the problem created when the same person makes the same record request to multiple county employees.

“Had we known, we would have been able to answer once rather than have five or six different county staff answer the same question five different times,” Cotton said.

The written requests would be funneled through the county’s public information officer.

Cure, who frequently requests county finance documents to track county expenses, opposes the idea.

“I believe this protocol to go through an information person is going to be a bottleneck,” Cure told commissioners.

In addition, county staff have been directed to stop compiling information in a specific format, such as spreadsheets, and walking people through the information they request.

“You don’t need to spend special time preparing special documents,” Kirkpatrick said at a meeting two weeks ago.

“Because there’s no end to it,” Swanger added.

Cure said she prefers to go sit down with Julie Davis, the county finance officer, who takes the time to explain the county budget documents.

“She welcomes me to come into her office,” Cure said. “She is a dynamite communicator.”

But Kirkpatrick said it is taking too much time.

“There is not necessarily a requirement she speak to you about everything. All we are required to do is provide the information to the public. She bends over backwards to try to accommodate you,” Kirkpatrick told Cure.

Cure said the budget documents are written in a finance code difficult for a layperson to understand, however.

“It is not an issue of IQ, it is a question of the language. I would bet you lunch you can’t understand it either,” Cure said. Cure said she would have to hire a finance person to explain it to her otherwise.

“You may have to,” Kirkpatrick responded.

“So you are saying I will not be able to sit with her and talk with her?” Cure asked.

“What we are saying is we are having an abuse of that. We can’t have the staff spending several hours of their time at taxpayers’ expense to explain things to certain members of the public,” Kirkpatrick said.

Swanger said it is preventing county employees from performing their primary duties.

“We would have to hire extra people and you would be one of the first people chastising us for that expense,” Swanger told Cure.

Al Goodis, who’s become a regular speaker at meetings, suggested the county scan all the paperwork that passes through its hands over the course of a day and put it on the county’s Web site with a searchable database. Along with it, the county should provide a glossary of terms used by government bureaucrats so the public can keep up.

“I feel like you should be trying to help us save our money,” said Goodis.

“We are trying to be as transparent as possible and provide as much information to the public as possible so they can understand it,” Kirkpatrick said. “We do value your public comment, but we cannot make everybody happy.”

Putting the requests in writing serves another end goal: giving the county cover when the information request is met. The person who requested the documents will have to sign for them when picking them up, giving the county cover should they be accused of not complying.

“They come in here and ask the same questions over and over. We have already provided most of the information they ask for, but they keep asking for it,” Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said during one recent meeting.

While the new method of requesting information appears likely to become county policy, commissioners have backed off from any idea to alter they way they conduct the public comment period.

Cure said it would have been a bad move politically, particularly with three of the five commissioner seats up for election next year.

“They will nail the last nail in their coffin if they cut the public comment out. It is a death wish,” Cure said.

As for Cure, she doesn’t plan on running herself.

“I’ve been asked, but I will not do it. My place is at the podium,” Cure said. “I am going to ask questions for a long time.”

Group, angry with government, descends on Franklin

An angry crowd stormed downtown Franklin on tax day last week, protesting the federal government’s bailouts, high taxes and pork barrel spending.

The Tea Party protest was one of hundreds that took place across the nation April 15, the first tax day since President Barack Obama has been in office. The demonstrations have been touted as non-partisan, but the Franklin protest had a Republican bent with speakers and sign- wavers denouncing Obama and government-funded bailouts.

Signs waved by the shouting throng stated, “Freedom Works, Bailouts Hurt,” “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Debt,” TEA — Taxes Enslaving Americans,” and one that was a direct attack on Obama’s presidential campaign said, “So How’s That Hope and Change Working Out For You.”

Another sign stated, “We Are Proud of America Mr. Obama, Why Aren’t You?” while another said, “Bailouts + Debt = Fiscal Child Abuse.”

The event featured patriotic singing, with members of the audience singing along and one audience member was waving a Bible in the air.

Approximately 400 attended the rally put on by Freedom Works, a local political organization. The organization’s leader, Don Swanson, urged the crowd to push for change by writing letters to the editor.

“Do not leave this place and do nothing,” Swanson pleaded. “We’ve done that long enough.”

Staunch conservative and Asheville City Councilman Carl Mumpower — who was the Republican nominee for Congress against Democrat Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, in the 11th District race — quipped that he doesn’t need a teleprompter to speak like Obama.

However, Mumpower said the protest was not about political parties, but instead about freedom.

“Enough of Washington policies that make people smaller and government bigger,” Mumpower told the cheering crowd.

Mumpower denounced welfare programs that “rest on the backs of our children through borrowed dollars.”

There also should be no tolerance for people who are indifferent to the U.S. Constitution, said Mumpower.

“We’re here to fight for the lives and future of our children,” Mumpower said.

Duty is the essence of being a human being and the baby boomer generation is the first to leave its children with a smaller vision of the American Dream, he said.

He urged the crowd to believe in the Constitution, not live off the labor of others and to believe in the American Dream. Mumpower quoted Gandhi, saying when someone tries to affect change, the first thing people in power do is ignore, then they laugh, then they fight and finally they surrender.

It is not too late to bring the change to America that is needed Mumpower said. In fact, the fight has just begun, he said. The nation’s founding fathers should be the role models as they were thoughtful, courageous and persistent, he said.

He turned to the American flag on the stage and pointed to the bronze eagle.

“We have to fight for that eagle,” Mumpower said.

As the most conservative member of the Asheville City Council, Mumpower voted against hiring new police officers for the city because they wouldn’t be allowed to enforce immigration laws.

Franklin businessman Phil Drake, who owns Drake Software and is the second largest employer in the county with 500 employees, spoke against the government bailing out corporations and banks.

“There is a place for government,” Drake said. “The primary role of the government should be defense.”

Drake then applauded the Navy seals for their recent rescue in the pirate standoff.

The real tax rate imposed by the government is not what is taken but what is spent because eventually that money will have to be paid back, Drake said. The money will be paid back by either raising taxes or printing more money, which will make “your money less valuable,” Drake said.

The tax code has 74,000 pages and no one understands it, Drake said, adding that the federal deficit is $11 trillion.

The problem in this country is that the government is demanding things today that it is not willing to pay for. Also, the 30 million babies killed by abortion could be alive today and contributing to Social Security, he said.

The government’s No. 1 expense is the “redistribution of wealth,” he said, adding there is only one way out of the current situation: “Stop spending.”

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