NCAE needs to work for schools, not Democrats

In spite of Scott McLeod’s assertion that “it would be hard to argue otherwise” in his column (“Vote on NCAE dues a slap in the face to teachers,” The Smoky Mountain News, Jan 11 edition), I am going to give it a try.

I am not an apologist for the N.C. House of Representatives, but their leadership determines their agenda, not the governor. The legislature was called back into session to consider the veto override of S9, No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty. The Senate overrode the veto in a 31-19 partisan vote. The House did not have the votes but instead referred it to the House Committee on Judiciary for future consideration.  

Speaker Thom Tillis has been very candid from the start in telling members that the governor’s vetoes could be considered at any time when the legislature is in session. Consequently, since they were in session they brought up the governor's veto of S727, “No Dues Checkoff for School Employees.” The Senate overrode the veto on July 13, 2011. The House overrode the veto in the early morning hours of Jan. 5. Two Democratic House members were absent due to illness and one Republican member is deployed in Afghanistan. The speaker had the votes to override two other vetoes but chose not to do so at that time.

There has been much misinformation put forward about S727. It is not an assault on teachers or education, merely an end to the practice of the state being the dues collection agency for the NCAE. The citizens of North Carolina should not be forced to bear the cost for collecting NCAE dues. That should be the responsibility of the NCAE. I am sure the teachers that choose to be NCAE members can find an alternative to the automatic dues checkoff, e.g., electronic funds transfer from their personal checking account.

Considering the NCAE is a thinly veiled lobbying group for Democrats, it should be no surprise that it does not have many sympathizers in the Republican ranks. More than 98 percent of the NCAE campaign donations go to Democrats.

During my 10 year service as a Macon County commissioner, I voted for every capital facilities improvement in Macon County Schools since 1997, investments of more than $50 million. For the first time in more than 35 years there will be no mobile classrooms at the start of the 2012-13 school year. That is a record I’m proud of and a testimony to the value Macon citizens place on their public schools. In spite of that record, the NCAE chose to spend thousands of dollars on mailers that contained misleading information and/or outright lies about my record. So, is the NCAE for education or is the NCAE for the Democrat Party? My personal experience makes me wonder.

I have met no person in the Legislature who is interested in an “orchestrated evisceration of the state’s public schools,” as was stated in the column. I have met many who are interested in improving public education so that students are better prepared to compete in a global economy. Our results are not adequate at this time and it will take more than money to improve them.

Your readers should be reminded that H200, the bipartisan budget passed for this biennium, cut K-12 education budget 0.5 percent more than the governor's recommended budget. Hardly the draconian cuts described by some. That does not include the $60 to $100 million the governor wanted to pass on to local governments for school bus purchases. Ask your county commissioners what they thought of that idea. The legislature worked diligently to craft a budget so that our state was fiscally sound. We have begun that journey but there is still much work to do.  

The present legislature inherited a $2.5 billion deficit, a $2.6 billion debt to the federal government for unemployment compensation, $7 billion in tax supported debt, a $2.8 billion underfunded state employee retirement system, a $40 million underfunded consolidated judicial retirement system, a $40 million underfunded National Guard retirement system, and a $32.8 billion unfunded liability for retiree health insurance benefits. The legislature would prefer to dedicate more to education programs that work and reward good teachers with merit pay, but those efforts will not reach full fruition until we have our fiscal house in order.

We do agree that teachers should not be held accountable for society’s ills. We cannot continue to dump our problems at the schoolhouse door and expect our teachers, our educational system, to make it all better. To use Mr. McLeod’s own words, “Student achievement still has ground to make up with counterparts around the nation. Many counties have put together quality programs that send students on to college prepared for what lies ahead, but others are lacking.”  

We need to invest in finding out what works and need to stop doing what clearly does not. As we move forward to provide our students with the very best we can offer, we must infuse integrity into our stewardship of funds for education so that those same students will not be shackled with state and nationally imposed debt they will not live long enough to repay. That, sir, is a burden they do not deserve and one against which I will continue to hold my guard.

(Sen. Davis, a Republican, lives in Franklin. His 50th District, after the recent redistricting, covers all of Haywood, Jackson, Swain, Macon, Clay, Cherokee and Graham counties. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Democrats sort out who will run for what in bid to reclaim seats

Two well-known Democrat senators from the mountains who lost in 2010 and hoped to reclaim their seats this year faced a conundrum.

Joe Sam Queen of Waynesville and John Snow of Murphy both wanted to run for the Senate again, hoping to take back the seats they lost to Republican challengers two years ago. But they found themselves at a stalemate after suddenly landing in the same political district when new legislative lines were re-drawn following the Census.

Queen’s home turf of Haywood County — once part of a jumbled legislative district that reached as far north to Mitchell and as far east to McDowell County — was grouped into a new district neatly comprised of the seven western counties. It put Queen and Snow in competition in their bid for office.

The upshot: only one of them would ultimately have their name on the ballot come November. Their choice: former political allies would have to run against each other in the May primary or one of them would have to gracefully concede.

As the clock ticked toward the opening day of candidate registration in February, no easy resolution was on the horizon.

“I think we are both electable,” Queen said as recently as last week. “I am not going to run against John and he is not going to run against me. We will evaluate which one of us should run.”

But the two political allies found an easy out after all. The unexpected and sudden news that Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, would retire after 14 years in the legislature presented a solution.

Queen called it a “game changer.”

Rather than make a bid for the Senate, he would instead run for Haire’s old House seat.

“If (Snow) really has the fire in his belly and wants to do it, I will support him and run for Phil’s seat,” Queen said. “It is an attractive choice. It is serendipitous. It keeps experienced legislators in the game with the opportunity to serve.”

The Democratic Party is likely relieved by the development. At a regional meeting of the Democratic Party leaders from 12 counties last week, Brian McMahan from Jackson County cautioned against wasting political energy and money in a primaries against their own.

“Let’s harness our energy,” said McMahan, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Jackson County. “We don’t need to worry about primaries. Nov. 6 is Election Day. That’s where we need to make a difference.”

Queen said the party needn’t have worried.

“I assure you we were going to work it out because that’s what kind of guys we are,” Queen said. “I certainly would not have run against him.”

In the end, had it not been for the Haire “game changer,” it appears Queen would have had to be the one to acquiesce regardless. Snow said that he was committed to run for the Senate regardless of what Queen decided, however.

“To be real honest with you, I was willing to go through a primary if I had to,” Snow said. “I think it is obvious I would be the stronger candidate.”

Snow believes he has better name recognition in the seven western counties than Queen would have had. As a judge, Snow presided over court in those same seven counties for 30 years, plus served for six years in the legislature representing those counties already.

Queen, 61, pointed out that he is nine years younger than Snow. He believed he likely had more years of political service ahead of him — and in Raleigh, tenure can be everything.

“The biggest difference between John and I was our age. Who is going to claim this seat for a decade?” Queen asked last week.

Snow, meanwhile, pointed to his record as a more socially and fiscally conservative Democrat, a leaning that squares with voters in the seven western counties.

“Anybody that looks at my record can see I am probably one of the more conservative Democrats in the Senate,” Snow said.

Just as Rep. Heath Shuler is one of the more conservative Democrats in Congress, Snow said.

“That is a reflection of the people we represent,” Snow said.

Queen’s decision clears the path for Snow to emerge as the Democratic candidate in a November rematch against Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who squeezed out a narrow victory over Snow by just 161 votes two years ago.

Queen, however, will face a primary election against long-time judge Danny Davis of Waynesville, who has also announced plans to run for the seat formerly held by Haire.

Snow said that he would back Davis in the primary race as he and Davis both served on the judicial bench together for years and are personal friends.

House race shapes up following news of Haire’s retirement

Republicans aren’t the only ones who will have a reason to head to the polls in the May primary.

While Republican voters sort out who their presidential nominee will be, Democrats have a race of their own to narrow down, although with a much-more homegrown flare.

Two well-known Waynesville men are vying for the seat soon to be vacated by long-time N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva. Joe Sam Queen, an architect by trade, and Danny Davis, a former District Court judge, both formally announced their candidacies this week.

The 119th House district includes all of Jackson and Swain counties, as well as Waynesville, Lake Junaluska and part of Maggie Valley in Haywood County.

The political rumor mill has been churning in the two weeks since Haire announced he would retire. But so far, only Davis and Queen have committed. No other candidates have emerged.

When it comes to politicking, Queen has plenty of experience. He served six years in the state Senate and has five elections under his belt, each of them hard-fought races. He is looking forward to what he calls “on-the-ground retail politics,” which puts him in touch with the people of the mountains.

“I like to give stump speeches and shake people’s hands and ask them for their vote,” Queen said. “I like to have some barbeques and square dances and the whole nine yards.”

Queen’s former sprawling Senate district extended as far north as Mitchell County and as far east as McDowell, making a horseshoe around Buncombe County. He became a seasoned road warrior in such a vast district. He also had to raise lots of money to campaign across so many counties, spending around $600,000 or $700,000 each race.

Queen estimates spending only a fraction of that in the House race.

“I don’t think this will be a high-dollar campaign,” Queen said.

While Davis is new to politics, he says there is no better experience than his 27 years as a District Court judge in the seven western counties.

“It is like a front row seat to the picture window of society,” Davis said of his judgeship. “I see how drugs affect families. I see what happens when they lose their job, and they start drinking, and we have to take their kids. I see what happens when they don’t have enough money to pay their bills or child support even though they are working two or three jobs.”

As a judge, Davis couldn’t make position statements or voice concerns over the issues that he felt affected the people of Western North Carolina. Now, he will finally be able to speak out, and his ideas for improving the lives of people and fixing the inner workings of government are voluminous enough for a dissertation, he said.

“I can finally say this is what we need to do and how we need to help these folks,” Davis said.

Davis said he had already been thinking about running when Haire retired.

Davis contends that he is better known in the district than Queen, since he served not only in Haywood but also Jackson and Swain as a judge for so many years.

Queen disagrees, saying he is equally well known outside Haywood.

“I am a homegrown mountain fellow,” Queen said. “I have as strong a name recognition as any politician in the west. I have the polling data to show it.”

Besides, the district is his “own backyard,” compared to the sprawling Senate district he had to work.

Queen, 61, and Davis, 58, both played up their ties to the region. Both men come from a long Haywood County lineage. The Davis and Queen names are both established and prominent Haywood families

 

Any other takers?

For now, Davis and Queen seem to have the primary race to themselves. Many initially looked to Troy Burns from Bryson City as a possible candidate, as he ran against Haire 10 years ago. But, Burns said this week he has decided not to run. Burns said both Davis and Queen called him over the past few days to find out where he stood on a possible candidacy.

“It is a mutual thing out of respect,” Burns said of his decision not to run.

From Jackson County, the chairman of the county Democratic Party Brian McMahan was also bandied about as a possible candidate, but McMahan said he won’t be running. He has a one-year-old and doesn’t want to spend the time away from home.

The primary between Queen and Davis could prove a tougher battle than the general election in November.

Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 in the district. So on paper at least, whoever wins the Democratic primary could have an advantage over their Republican opponent in November.

“It is a solid Democratic seat,” Queen said.

Davis, however, isn’t so sure.

“I don’t think they are going to concede this seat,” Davis said of Republicans. “In this day in time, I don’t think it can be politics as usual. I think you are going to have to work very hard to retain the Democratic votes you have.”

Only one Republican has formerly announced his candidacy. Mike Clampitt of Bryson City stepped up to run within hours of Haire’s announcement.

Who will Haire’s heir be? State office holder’s retirement opens up race for House

N.C. Rep. Phil Haire’s decision not to run for re-election after 14 years in office opens the door for a possible free-for-all of both Democratic and Republican candidates seeking the suddenly available House seat.

Tuesday’s news spread like an out-of-control wildfire through Western North Carolina’s political grapevine. Top leaders in both parties will clearly be paying close attention to this now vacant seat — a seat Haire had easily secured year after year for the Democratic Party but could now be in flux.

“This is not a good sign for Democrats,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. Incumbent Democrats tend to hold on. But when their seats come open, then those seats are much more likely to go Republican.”

Taking control of Haire’s seat won’t be easy, however. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district — which is made up of Waynesville and Lake Junaluska in Haywood County, Jackson County and Swain County.

But a possible pile-on by Democrat candidates could weakend their position going in to the general election in the fall, Cooper said.

“If they have too many eggs in a basket, they will shoot themselves in the foot. The best thing for the Democratic Party is to figure out who the best candidate really is,” Cooper said.

Any Democrat with state political aspirations might figure this could be their one shot at holding office. Haire had proved immovable from the seat until he opted to step down.

For his part, Haire said there’s not an “heir” apparent.

“I am not going to speculate because I am sure there are going to be several people in the primary,” the state representative said, adding that he won’t endorse anyone.

“I am not going out on that limb,” Haire said.

Haire plans to wait and see who wins the primary, then support that candidate in the general election. The Democrat’s primary winner had better be a strong candidate and be girded for a fight, Haire said.

“Since it is a vacant seat, the Republicans will make a shot at it,” Haire said. “I guarantee you Republicans will make a good strong effort to take it.”

It could be the GOP’s one shot, too. For Republican Party leaders, the news that a veteran incumbent Democrat would be retiring came as a belated, but happily received, Christmas present.

Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party, was clearly pleased with GOP prospects of seizing the district. During the last election, Haire had to fight off an unexpectedly strong attempt by Sylva Republican candidate Dodie Allen, giving Republicans added hope this time around.

Allen, a Sylva auctioneer, ran a grassroots campaign. She narrowly beat Haire in Haywood County and ended up garnering 44 percent of the vote district-wide.

One Republican candidate immediately emerged Tuesday following Haire’s announcement. Mike Clampitt of Bryson City said he’d run for the now-vacant seat.

“I believe that North Carolina is at a crossroads, and that we must bring conservative common-sense leadership to the state,” Clampitt said in a news release issued Tuesday.

But one veteran Republican struck a cautionary note on the prospect of wresting Haire’s vacated seat away from the Democrats.

“It is a good strong Democratic district,” said N.C. Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, who has served with Haire in Raleigh for more than a decade. West said bluntly that he doesn’t see Republicans being able to capture Haire’s seat given the district’s leanings.

In the Democratic field, one name being circulated is former Judge Danny Davis of Waynesville. Davis said that he’d barely had a chance to process the news Tuesday that Haire wouldn’t run before his phone started ringing from people wanting to know if he would.

“I am interested in it. I am not ready to commit just yet, but I am always interested in serving,” Davis said, adding that “Phil has done a great job and I hate to see him go.”

Davis said he had contemplated running for Haire’s seat whenever Haire retired — he just didn’t think it would be this soon.

N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, is probably one of the most observant watchers of the rapidly unfolding political changes in the far-western counties. Rapp’s legislative district borders Haire’s to the north. As neighboring representatives Rapp and Haire often worked together. This is a political necessity for getting anything accomplished for this slice of the state. After all, there are more state representatives from the Charlotte area alone than in all of WNC, from Murphy to Boone.

Rapp hopes that the winner of Haire’s vacated seat will be a go-to partner in the legislature, and for this reason, he isn’t about to support one candidate over another just yet.

“There are a number of qualified people who could step up and do a fine job of serving in the WNC legislature and I look forward to working with whomever the district chooses for its eventual representative,” Rapp said.

Shuler to face challenger in Democratic primary

Despite his limited name recognition and his significantly smaller war chest, Cecil Bothwell is confident he can outrun U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler during next May’s primary race for the 11th Congressional District’s Democratic nomination.

“I would not be doing it if I did not intend to win,” said Bothwell, a city councilman and former newspaper reporter in Asheville.

Bothwell and Shuler are at opposite ends of the Democratic spectrum, with Bothwell in the liberal corner and Shuler in the more conservative camp. Should Bothwell make it past the primary, however, he is not concerned about how his liberal leanings or Asheville ties will play with the region’s rural and historically conservative mountain voters.

“I think I am more likely to win in November than he is,” Bothwell said.

In past elections, Shuler, D-Waynesville, has demonstrated an ability to curry favor with voters from both political parties.

A 2010 Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters revealed an astonishing anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

Shuler said Bothwell would be unlikely to pick up the necessary independent or conservative voters in a general election.

“They won’t get any support from the other side on any issue they have,” Shuler said.

Bothwell originally planned to run as an independent but found the requirements to get his name on the ballot overwhelming.

“When I began to explore the possibility, it turned out I would need to collect something close to 20,000 verified signatures,” Bothwell said.

Bothwell added it would be “very, very difficult to win” with three candidates vying for the position.

Bothwell decided to run against Shuler in March after the three-term congressman voted against key bills in the national Democratic agenda: namely health care reform and the federal stimulus bill.

“I decided somebody had to run against him,” Bothwell said.

 

Uphill battle

Name recognition could be Bothwell’s biggest challenge if he hopes to defeat Shuler, said Chris Cooper, a political science professor from Western Carolina University.

“I think that is a major reason why incumbents win,” Cooper said.

As a former editor at the Mountain Xpress and member of the Asheville City Council, Bothwell is known in Buncombe County. However, it is unknown how many voters outside of Asheville recognize Bothwell as compared to Shuler — an incumbent and revered football hero.

Last election, however, a relatively unknown candidate from Asheville pulled down nearly 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and carried Buncombe County, the most liberal county in the region.

Shuler’s conservative stance helps him during the general election but drags down his primary numbers. Democratic voters punished Shuler during the last primary for not being liberal enough.

The fact that a “newcomer to politics” received such as large percent of the votes “indicates widespread dissatisfaction” among 11th District Democrats, Bothwell said.

But, the same dip in poll numbers did not hold true in the general election.

Shuler handily won re-election by more than 20,000 votes in 2010 against Republican Jeff Miller of Hendersonville.

“We went through the most difficult election in history for Democrats, and we still won by 10 percent,” Shuler said. “We feel very good.”

But, the primary race could also force Shuler, who has received flack for his not-always-party-line voting record, to prove he is a Democrat by taking a leftist standpoint, Cooper said.

And, that could come back to bite him in the general election.

“In some ways, the best thing for the Republican Party is for Cecil Bothwell to do well,” Cooper said.

While Bothwell has already started his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Shuler said he does not expect to spend much time or money running a primary race.

“Campaign mode does not kick in til August,” Shuler said.

Until then, Shuler said he will continue to do what he was elected to do — work.

“You still have to focus on the job at hand,” Shuler said. “Being placed on the budget committee … takes priority over fundraising.”

Shuler said he thinks the new district make-up gives him an advantage over the more liberal Bothwell now that Asheville, a traditionally liberal sect of voters, has been cut out.

Shuler said the district has “a Blue Dog type make-up,” referring  to the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats in Washington that Shuler heads.

 

Asheville booted out

Come Election Day, Bothwell won’t be able to vote for himself.

Although he is still legally allowed to run for its congressional seat, Bothwell no longer lives in the district he hopes to represent.

Every 10 years, the lines for Congressional districts are redrawn following the national census, to ensure that each district has roughly the same number of voters.

The re-organization of the 11th District added several Republican-leaning counties and carved out Asheville’s liberal voters.

Now, the district is 38 percent registered Republicans and only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, a possibly election-making difference when compared to the 43 percent who were registered Democrats before the re-organization. That means the general election could be decided by the 26 percent of unaffiliated voters that making up the remaining portion.

Meanwhile, Asheville was shunted into the 10th Congressional district, which is already a Republican stronghold and could absorb Asheville’s Democratic voting bloc without tipping the scales.

Bothwell chose not to run in the 10th District, which reaches from the foothills to the outskirts of Charlotte, because he does not agree with how the state’s congressional districts were redrawn. State law does not require a candidate to live in the Congressional district he represents.

“The fact that the headstrong Republican idiots in Raleigh have temporarily tried to move Asheville into the Piedmont is laughable,” Bothwell said.

Bothwell still considers himself a resident of the 11th Congressional District even though the maps say otherwise. He hopes it won’t be the case for long.

“I will do all I can to speed the redrawing of district maps to reflect reality. In the meantime, I aim to represent my people, the people of the western counties, in Washington,” Bothwell said.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face one of at least eight Republican candidates that have joined the race. The Republican candidate will face slightly better odds this election as a result of the re-organization of the congressional district.

Democrats gearing up for election 2012

The race for the state’s 50th Senate District, a seat currently held by Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, is shaping up as a potentially epic political battle next year in Western North Carolina.

The only question for Democrats is whether the party’s choice to try to dethrone Davis will be former Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, or former Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville.

Davis beat Snow in last year’s election; state political newcomer Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, ousted Queen. Hise now represents the 47th Senate District, which currently includes Avery, Haywood, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell and Yancey counties.

Snow and Queen confirmed they each want to run, but the two friends said they would not compete directly against one another in a primary. Instead, it will be one man or the other, decided somehow in a yet-to-be-determined manner.

“That’s sort of the gist of it right now,” Queen said. “We are both willing to run, and are both available to run, but we have to come up with the best solution.”

Snow said he and Queen have agreed that “whichever way the decision is made, the other will help the other.”

Snow, however, a longtime judge whose district encompassed the exact political boundaries now comprising the 50th Senate District, is cautious about getting ahead of potential court challenges.

“Our district would be upheld without question, but if others are in contest, you won’t go forward on any of the changes,” Snow said. “It would revert us back to the old district. And that has happened before.”

In other words, the 2012 race could take place using current boundaries while court challenges play out.

Snow brightened when talking about the possibilities, however, of campaigning in this new Senate district.

“I think this does create a better district for me,” he said. “It is exactly the same district I held as a judge, and I’m familiar with the people.”

GOP redistricting leaves Davis vulnerable to Democrats

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, doesn’t mince words: he knows perfectly well that his budding state political career is being jeopardized by his own party’s redistricting proposals.

“But it follows the state constitution, and I’m in favor of that,” Davis said. “The districts are clean, and they are fair, and I think following the law is a lot more important than catering to my political career.”

Davis, a Franklin orthodontist and longtime Macon County commissioner, beat incumbent Sen. John Snow, D-Cherokee County, during last year’s election in a Republican scrum that saw conservatives wrest control of the General Assembly. The victory won the GOP the right to reconfigure the state’s political landscape for the next decade.

But in recompiling state House and Senate districts to comply with population changes as recorded in the 2010 U.S. census, the GOP sure didn’t do party-member Davis any favors. The 50th Senate District has been redrawn minus Republican stronghold Transylvania County, and including all of Democratic-heavy Haywood County.

Davis knows that he could be fighting for his state political life.

The race last year was close: Davis trumped Snow by just more than 200 votes.

 

Not too fast, boys

“The 50th could be vulnerable to a Democratic challenger, but it’s far from a sure thing,” said North Carolina political expert Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

With the reconfiguring, Gov. Beverly Perdue still would have won the district 50-46 percent, Cooper pointed out. On the other hand, Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole would have won 49-47 percent over challenger Kay Hagen, a Democrat who went on to win the Senate seat, and Elaine Marshall, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Richard Burr, would have ended in a dead heat, he said. Despite all of those relatively close races, however, Sen. John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate, would have won soundly, 57-44 percent.

“It’s an interesting one for political prognosticators,” Cooper said. “We talk a lot about ‘incumbency advantage,’ the name recognition and benefits that come from being an incumbent, but with two potential challengers who have been in office before, it’s tough to know exactly how it will play out.”

 

Careful what you wish for

Janie Benson, chairman of the Haywood County Democratic Party, is excited about the prospects for her party.

“We feel like we do have two strong candidates,” she said.

Republicans, on the other hand, are left in the awkward position of supporting their party’s proposed redistricting plan even while acknowledging Davis has been left vulnerable.

“It’s going to make it very rough on Jim,” said Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party. “It really hurt to lose Transylvania. But, it’s logical, and it equalizes the counties (population numbers).”

Slaughter said the Republican Party would need to get conservative voters “revitalized” in Haywood County, and that the GOP has its work cut out for it to hold on to the 50th.

Ironically, Haywood County’s Republican Party openly lobbied for the county to be returned to one district. Haywood currently is a split county in both the Senate and the House, and is represented by two different legislators.

County Republicans, apparently with some success, argued that two House and two Senate districts are confusing to voters and have diluted the county’s legislative influence. Local Democrats fought the change they now are embracing joyfully, maintaining only a few weeks ago that Haywood County residents were well served by having two senators and two representatives.

Davis said the Haywood County precincts he currently represents are solidly Republican, but that he’s now picking up strong Democratic-dominated precincts, based on party registrations.

But, he said, it’s impossible to argue with the geographic logic of having the 50th Senate District made up of the state’s seven westernmost counties, as it once was.

For his part, former Sen. Joe Sam Queen, a Democrat from Haywood County, doesn’t believe that GOP redistricting leaders were trying to develop a perfectly balanced and fair political scenario in this part of the state. He thinks they simply ran out of North Carolina counties while trying to juggle things elsewhere in favor of Republicans.

“They didn’t have a lot of options at this end of the state,” Queen said. “You can’t get behind John.”

Cherokee County is the state’s westernmost county, bordered by Tennessee and Georgia.

Elsewhere, the GOP’s proposed redistricting does appear to favor the party’s chances of retaining House and Senate seats. Transylvania County would shift from the 50th to the 48th District, further locking down the Republican’s hold through Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson County, the rules committee chairman in the Senate.

Also shifting in a dominoes-like manner? Polk County would move from the 48th to the 47th District, and more of the 48th District’s precincts in Buncombe County would shift to the 49th District. Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat, represents the 49th.

“Six incumbent Democrats were placed in districts with other incumbent Democrats, compared to three Republicans who were doubled up,” Cooper said. “There is also some evidence that Democratic voters were ‘packed’ into districts, increasing the chances that the Republicans hold onto more seats or expand their lead.  

“We can’t forget, however, that the Democrats would do the same thing — and did do the same thing 10 years earlier. It is one reason these districts are so difficult to analyze — we tend to compare them to the existing districts that were drawn by Democrats.”

Democrats: GOP blatantly gerrymandered WNC’s seat in Congress

New Congressional districts crafted by state GOP leaders that appear to position the party for political domination in North Carolina for the next decade drew sharp criticism late last week during a state hearing in Cullowhee.

Asheville and parts of Buncombe County would be booted out of the 11th Congressional district and lumped in with Piedmont counties and metropolitan areas on the outskirts of Charlotte.

The liberal voting bloc of Asheville would be replaced with four conservative-voting northern mountain counties — tipping the district decidedly more Republican and making it difficult for a Democratic Congressman, even one as conservative as U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, to get elected.

And that smacks, opponents said, of in-your-face gerrymandering by the GOP. Because if the plan stands despite the court challenges that are sure to come, Republicans will have neatly sliced out and diluted the liberal votes Democrats have long counted on from the Asheville area. The mountain district would shift from 43 percent of the voters being registered Democrats to 36 percent.

SEE ALSO: Proposed N.C. House District map

SEE ALSO: Proposed N.C. Senate District map

The districts must make geographic sense to not be overturned. If Democrats can prove gerrymandering and show that districts are not geographically “compact,” a lawsuit over the district lines could send North Carolina’s redistricting efforts back to the drawing board.

“Sirs, you overplayed your hand with this one,” said Janie Benson, who chairs the Haywood County Democratic Party. “It may be good politics for the moment, but it is not good for the people of Western North Carolina. Asheville is the soul of the area. Asheville is the historic, the judicial, the health, the shopping and the entertainment center of our area.”

Benson was one of at least 12 Democrats alone from Haywood County who gathered at Western Carolina University for an interactive redistricting hearing that included various other North Carolina sites.

A before-the-event poll at WCU by The Smoky Mountain News found one lone Republican signed up to speak, Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party. He, not surprisingly, thought the proposed map simply looked great.

“There will be more minorities involved this way than were before,” Slaughter said. “I really don’t have a problem with it. This comes closer to the equalization needed, population-wise.”

N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Hendersonville, said as a result of the redistricting Buncombe County would actually gain more representation than it has ever enjoyed before — it would, he pointed out, have two congressional voices instead of just one.

“Most of the bigger cities in the state have more than one representative,” Apodaka said. “It’s a sign of things happening all over the country.”

Jeffrey Israel of Haywood County, however, said he could find no historical basis for removing Asheville from the 11th Congressional District.

“It attempts merely to subvert the traditional political will of the western mountains and can only be thought to stab a knife in the progressive heart of Western North Carolina,” Israel said.

In addition to threatening Democrats’ hold on the 11th Congressional District, Democrats could also lose control of the 7th, 8th and 13th districts as a result of the redistricting.

Luke Hyde of Bryson City, before the official hearing started, said that he believes “gerrymandering was wrong in the early 1800s, and it is still wrong in 2011-12. It does not benefit the voters or serve anyone well. I’m opposed to either party redistricting against logic and geography, and I don’t think it will stand in court.”

The GOP won the right to control the redistricting process after taking control of the state General Assembly in last November’s election. Redistricting takes place every 10 years after new census numbers are released.

“No matter how you shape it, now matter how you slice it, Asheville is not a Piedmont community,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill. He said compactness is out the window under the new map, with a drive from Avery County in the north part of the district to Cherokee County in the west taking four or five hours — if you don’t stop for restroom breaks along the way.

Lawmakers will vote on the redistricting plan in a special session that starts July 25.

 

N.C. House and Senate districts due out this week

The maps will reflect new state legislative districts. How western counties are sliced and diced has been the source of much speculation, and will impact which party has an easier time getting elected to seats in the state legislature.

On Monday, July 18, a public hearing on the state redistricting process will be held at Western Carolina University. The session will be held from 3 until 9 p.m. in Room 133-B of the Cordelia Camp Building on the WCU campus. Speaker registration will begin at 2 p.m.

Members of the public may comment on the current district plans, communities of interest, voting history or any other topic related to redistricting. Each speaker is limited to five minutes.

Two weeks ago, state GOP leaders released redistricting plans for the state’s congressional districts. Democrats have accused Republicans of gerrymandering, or drawing the maps to favor the likelihood of Republican candidates being elected.

To sign up for the public hearing, or to submit comments on line, go to www.ncleg.net/sessions/2011/publichearings/redistricting.html.

Democrats ‘struck speechless’ by state budget cuts

Under the newly verdant trees shading the lawn of the historic Haywood County Courthouse, 29 people silently lined the sidewalk last Friday, sending the message that they were “struck speechless” by slashed state funding proposed by House Republicans.

Their signs bore slogans decrying the deep cuts handed down to schools, universities, the elderly and environmental programs, among others.

Pacing in the sun on the courthouse steps behind them, Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was anything but speechless. He’s the group’s spokesperson, and it’s probably fair to say that he’s livid about the cuts.

The phrase that he keeps returning to, and indeed the one that he has trotted out on the House floor throughout the budget debate to characterize the Republican’s approach to cuts, is “ready, shoot, aim.”

There’s no money, he said, he gets it. But there must be a line drawn somewhere, and he is concerned that the money-slashing sword is being drawn too quickly and wielded too loosely.

“We’re talking about fundamental services that are being cut to our people,” said Rapp. “These cuts are draconian, destructive and deeply disappointing.”

The ones he seems most viscerally worked up about are the ones that affect children and the elderly — the House plan calls for $1.2 billion to go from school funding and 50 percent of the money senior centers get would be taken away. Project Care, an in-home service for the elderly that got its start in Haywood County, would be eliminated completely. More at 4, a preschool program would take a big hit, as would its early development companion, Smart Start.

Rapp tends to refer to such educational reductions as “eating our seed corn,” and, he said, he thinks it’s going to have a negative impact on the future.

Rapp and his fellow Democrats have a plan to stave off some of the slash-and-burn that would sweep across the state if a similar budget emerges from fiscal wrangling in the Senate later this month. Rather than cutting the state’s sales tax by a penny, keep the sales tax at its current level. A one-cent sales tax billed as temporary to solve state budget shortfall two years ago was set to expire this year. Keeping it in place would at least defend schools from some of the more painful and deleterious blows.

“Nine-hundred million of that $1.2 billion could be erased by simply continuing that one-cent sales tax,” said Rapp.

The idea, though, isn’t likely to get much traction in a General Assembly that’s ruled by Republicans, many of whom ran on a no-tax-increase platform of fiscal conservatism, or at least promised a lightened tax load.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who bumped out incumbent Democrat John Snow last November, is one of Rapp’s Senate counterparts. He’s not going for the sales tax extension, and his Republican colleagues, he said, are unlikely to do so, either.

“It was a temporary tax for two years and it expires June 30, and if they thought that they needed a tax for longer than that, they should’ve voted for it,” said Davis.

If all goes to plan, he expects that he and his Senate colleagues may be proffering their own budget — similar, he said, to the House offering — within a few weeks.

Davis concedes that these cuts aren’t easy to swallow, but he maintains that, for now, they’re necessary.

“We’re not too excited about cutting good programs, but there’s only so much waste, fraud and abuse in the budget,” said Davis.

Davis said that he is hearing pleas from constituents, however.

“The magnitude of this problem is significant. I have lots and lots of people calling me, writing me letters, emailing me, telling me that they know we have some serious problems, but don’t cut my programs,” said Davis. “This is not easy.”

For Davis, the loss of legitimate programs is lamentable but necessary to right the state’s listing fiscal ship. He’s hopeful that things will soon get better, good programs can be restored and rainy day funds replenished. But today, even a great program may not be great enough to stay around.

“We cannot fix our state budget without touching those items, so some programs are really getting the ax,” said Davis. “But you know, nothing is a good deal if you can’t pay for it.”

Rapp, however, said the cuts have become unpalatable.

“I don’t think the average citizen anticipated the depth of cuts that they’re making,” Rapp said.

Shuler selects a familiar face to help bid for national prominence

Andrew Whalen, an up-and-coming political insider who helped craft U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler’s entry onto the political scene five years ago, has rejoined the congressman’s staff.

Whalen, 30, announced he would leave his position as executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party at the beginning of the year. He will take charge of Shuler’s leadership political action committee, 3rd and Long.

Shuler was a Swain County High School football standout who went on to play for the University of Tennessee and the NFL.

Whalen, an Ohio native, served as the young congressman’s deputy campaign manager in 2006 and as his campaign manager in 2008. The state party, like the national Democratic Party, took a whipping from Republicans during the midterm elections. Democrats lost control of the state General Assembly, both the House and the Senate, for the first time in more than a century. Nationally, Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Following the state shellacking, N.C. Democratic Party Chairman David Young, a former Buncombe County commissioner, announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to the post. With the party’s executive committee set to meet in late January to choose Young’s replacement, some N.C. Democratic Party staffers in Raleigh promptly started searching for new jobs.

Whalen, however, said he wasn’t forced off the staff. Whalen said he chose to leave because he believes in Shuler’s ability to help a wounded national Democratic party find common ground and rebuild its membership base.

In short, Shuler’s determination to help Democrats regain control in Washington, D.C., simply drew him back, Whalen said.

“As he started expanding his national profile we started talking about this,” said Whalen, who will also serve as a senior advisor to the congressman. “He wants to win that majority back — and I certainly wanted to be part of his team.”

Shuler took a calculated loss in a bid to oust U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for House Democratic leader. His gains on the national stage were huge in terms of coast-to-coast coverage by television and newspapers — the party leadership fight took place during what is traditionally a slow news cycle between the November elections and the holidays.

Shuler took advantage of the national exposure to blame Democrats themselves for the beating they took at the polls. The party has moved too far left, he said, and needs to move toward the center. That’s where Shuler himself — a conservative Blue Dog Democrat — resides politically.

Shuler handily won reelection in the 11th Congressional District over Republican challenger Jeff Miller. The 11th Congressional District is made up of the state’s westernmost counties.

“It would be hard to find a Democrat whose stock has risen more in the last few months than Heath Shuler,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University who helps oversee a blog on state politics for the school’s Public Policy Institute. “His ploy to feign a run for minority leader achieved its goal — to raise his national profile. He could never win and he knew that. Nonetheless, his move was brilliant political theatre and shows that you can be the winner in politics without actual winning the contest.”  

Politicians use leadership PACs such as the one Whalen will head to promote causes and like-minded candidates — usually by raising money. Whalen said he would oversee fundraising, recruitment, communications and Shuler’s political travel.

Though Whalen’s jump back to Shuler’s staff might look like the ultimate inside baseball, Cooper said it serves as an important signal about Shuler’s political aspirations. And it speaks to Democrats’ increasing faith in Shuler’s abilities to lead.

“Now he’s stolen the head of the state Democratic Party away,” Cooper said. “It’s unlikely Whalen would be leaving Raleigh unless he thought Shuler had a chance to be much more than a junior member from a relatively small district. Shuler clearly has an eye on the leadership, and as one of the only Democrats who can survive in a competitive district, there’s every reason to believe he’ll be successful sooner rather than later.”

Shuler now becomes co-chair of the Blue Dog Caucus, a step up from his former position as Blue Dog whip. Additionally, he has been elected to the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which selects which fellow party members serve on other House committees, and advises party leaders on policy.

 

It takes a village to tend a congressman

For all offices:

• Hayden Rogers, chief of staff

D.C. Office:

229 Cannon House Office Bldg.

Washington, D.C. 20515

Phone: 202.225.6401

Fax: 202.226.6422

• Julie Fishman, communications director and senior advisor

• Jed Bhuta, legislative director

• Erin Georges, legislative assistant

• Ryan Fitzpatrick, legislative assistant

• Whitney Mitchell, legislative assistant

• Grant Carlisle, staff assistant

Asheville District Office:

205 College St., Suite 100

Asheville, N.C. 28801

Phone: 828.252.1651

Fax: 828.252.8734

• Myrna Campbell, director of constituent services

• Chad Eaton, director of public affairs

• Kelly Sheehan, director of grants and special projects

• Shelley Townley, constituent liaison

• Erica Griffith, constituent services representative

• Kate Gunthorpe, veterans services representative

• Randy Flack, district field representative for the eastern counties

Sylva Office:

125 Bonnie Lane

Sylva, N.C. 28779

Phone: 828.586.1962 x223

• Boyce Deitz, district field representative for the western counties.

Murphy Office:

75 Peachtree St., Suite 100

Murphy, N.C. 28906

Phone: 828.835.4981

• Sandy Zimmerman, constituent services representative

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