Retired superintendent, former commissioner join Democratic incumbents in Swain

Though both commissioner candidates running for re-election in Swain County have safely landed a spot in November’s election, a newcomer earned the top spot in Tuesday’s primary.

With only four commissioner seats up for election, all four Republican candidates automatically advanced to the November election. Democratic voters had to choose four out of nine commissioner candidates running in the crowded primary.

Democrat Robert White received the most votes in that race, with about 15 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Commissioners Steve Moon and David Monteith both received about 14 percent of the vote.

“I was a little surprised, let’s be frank about it,” said White, on election night. “This is my first venture in politics, and I really didn’t know what to expect.”

As a retired superintendent, White emphasized his experience in Swain County’s school system during the race, emphasizing that he’d spent countless hours creating a balanced budget and creating a strategic plan for the Swain’s schools.

If elected as commissioner, White promised to create an ad hoc committee of citizens to look at Swain County’s needs in the long-term.

Donnie Dixon, the fourth Democrat to move forward to the November race, received about 12 percent of votes cast in the Democratic ballot.

Dixon, a tool and dye maker and machinist, focused on bringing high-paying jobs to the county, creating a more open government with televised meetings and also focusing on setting long-term goals.

With Swain County’s reserve funds dipping dangerously low in the last budget cycle, Dixon vowed to bring financial stability to the county if elected. He served as commissioner in the 1990s when a similar budget crisis occurred and was able to help rectify the situation.

Monteith said he would be more than happy to work with all four Democrats primary winners should they win the November election.

“That, to me, would be a great bunch of people to work with,” said Monteith. “If this is the pick of the people, I would love to have this to work with.”

Monteith said if elected, his top priority is to develop an assisted living senior center in Swain County, which would not only help the elderly community but would bring jobs to the area.

Swain County commissioner

Democrat – top four advance

Robert White: 929

Steve Moon (Incb.): 877

David Monteith (Incb.): 856

Donnie Dixon: 741

Gerald (Jerry) McKinney: 629

Billy R. Woodard: 612

Tommy Woodard: 611

Judy Miller: 427

Janice Inabinett: 328

Raymond Nelson: 136

*There are also four Republicans and one Libertarian running for commissioner, all of whom automatically advance to the fall primary.

Swain County chairman

Republican – one winner advances

Mike Clampitt: 435

William (Bill) Lewis: 220

*The winner will face Democrat Phil Carson in November.

Friedman fails to give Haire a green scare

Phil Haire is a fortress as a state candidate. The seven-time incumbent is head of the General Assembly’s appropriations committee, and he’s been endorsed by every kind of voters group from realtors to the Sierra Club. On Tuesday night, he beat challenger Avram Friedman in a Democratic primary election characterized by a low voter turnout.

Haire took the vote as confirmation that his track record in Raleigh speaks for itself.

“It just tells me that people know my roots are here and I’m a mountain person and the voters feel like I’m representing them to the best of my ability in Raleigh,” Haire said.

In the election four years ago, Avram Friedman challenged Haire with a green platform that shook up the business-as-usual feel of the race. Friedman won 30 percent of the vote then, a total that gave him hope to challenge Haire this time around, but he fell short by a wider margin than last time.

Friedman said the low voter turnout was a sign of a demoralized electorate.

“I think the one thing that is pretty clear is the voter turnout was extremely low and what it shows is people are fed up with business-as-usual politics,” Friedman said.

Friedman challenged Haire’s reputation as an environmentally friendly candidate and offered voters a progressive platform that included reforming the way the state government does business.

Friedman said the media coverage of the election didn’t allow for a real debate on issues, which hurt his chances.

“I felt the issue behind the election were not well discussed in any of the media,” Friedman said. “For me, the race was worthwhile because it did get the message out to some degree.”

Haire said Friedman’s challenge was too one-dimensional.

“I had a tradition of support for environmental causes before Friedman got into it,” Haire said. “Friedman is basically a single-issue candidate and that’s being against Duke Energy and coal power.”

Friedman said the vote confirmed that the district’s voters weren’t ready for a change.

“Business as usual won. Congratulations to Phil Haire. We’ll keep on fighting,” Friedman said.

Haire will now face Republican candidate Dodie Allen in the fall, and he said that race will be about a broader range of issues.

“I think it’ll be jobs, the economy and education,” Haire said. “Those are the three things we need to be concerned about all the time. I’ve got a challenge, and anytime you have a challenge, you never take it for granted. I’ll get out there and work hard.”

N.C. House of Representatives, 119th district

Democrat – one advances

Phil Haire: 5,213

Avram Friedman: 1,894

*Winner will square off against Republican Dotie Allen in the fall. The seat represents Jackson and Swain counties, and portions of Haywood and Macon.

Low voter turnout in primary elections

Mid-term election primaries are normally characterized by poor voter turnout, and that held true this year as only 14 percent of the state’s voters made it to the polls. In Western North Carolina, the percentages were higher than the state average, a fact that points to interest in certain highly contested local races.

Swain County enjoyed a high turnout in comparison to its neighbors with 28 percent of registered voters casting ballots. Jackson County had 19 percent turnout, and both Haywood and Macon counties came in at 16 percent.

Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale expressed his concern about the low turnouts, but said he expected better voting rates in November.

“Everybody has a choice, but voting is the greatest right all of us have, and we’d certainly like to see more people turning out,” Beale said.

In Waynesville, voters who did turn out were hoping their fellow citizens would get to the polls in good numbers.

“I just hope we had a good turnout. Everybody should be exercising this right that we have,” said Chris Forga, a Waynesville voter with a nephew in the military. “People fight for this right we have. We should not take this for granted.”

Macon primary shows strength of incumbents

Going into the primary elections in Macon County, every candidate stressed the need for a fiscally conservative mindset as the county continues to contend with declining revenues. With little to separate the candidates’ platforms, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the incumbent county commissioners would win their primaries without trouble. The results showed that to be true.

In Highlands, Republican incumbent Brian McClellan held off a challenge from Jimmy Tate and is headed for a rematch with Alan Ricky Bryson, who won the Democratic primary for the Highlands seat. The two are now set to square off in a rematch of their race four years ago. McClellan narrowly ousted Bryson, the sitting commissioner at the time, by 6,311 votes to 6,186 in that 2006 race.

McClellan said the race in November will pit two candidates with clear track records and the voters will have to make a decision.

“We both have a record to run on or defend depending on how you look at it, and I expect that’s what the race will be about,” McClellan said after the polls closed Tuesday night.

During the last election, Bryson came under fire from his Highlands constituents for his actions as county commissioner that went against local interests. Bryson was blamed for a county lawsuit against Highlands when the town attempted to create an extra-territorial jurisdiction — a special area that is not taxed but is subject to town zoning regulations.

McClellan has the advantage of running as an incumbent but also has to contend with a DUI offense for which he received attention last summer.

In the Franklin district, incumbents Ronnie Beale and Bob Simpson were in a race with newcomer Carroll Poindexter to secure two seats. Beale and Simpson won their seats back, though Poindexter came close to unseating Simpson.

Beale said he was surprised by the low voter turnout in the race –– just over 16 percent –– but he took the support of the incumbent candidates as a confirmation of support for the board’s body of work.

Beale said the commissioners have a tough budget season to get through and he expects their decisions to become the basis for the candidates’ positions in the November election.

Macon County commissioner

Democrat, Franklin district — top two advance

Ronnie Beale (Incb.): 1,252

Bob Simpson (Incb.): 1,021

Carol Poindexter: 943

*The winners of this district will face two Republican challengers in the fall.

Democrat, Highlands district — one advances

Allan Bryson: 1,047

Michael Rogers: 781

Republican, Highlands district — one advances

Brian McLellan (Incb.): 997

Jimmy Tate: 771

Republicans suit up for race against Shuler

Republicans faced a major decision in the primary election: who is the best man to go head to head with Congressman Heath Shuler come fall?

The two front-runners going into election day came from opposite sides of the conservative spectrum: Dan Eichenbaum, a Tea Party activist at one end, and Jeff Miller, a more moderate small businessman at the other.

Ultimately, Republicans chose Miller — the more moderate of the two — as their man.

Miller, 55, is the owner of a dry-cleaning business in Hendersonville with 24 employees. He is well known for founding Honor Air, a program that charters airplanes to bring groups of WWII veterans to Washington, D.C., at no cost to see the WWII monument before they die. Hundreds of veterans from WNC have flown to D.C. with Honor Air. Rotary Clubs across the region have partnered with Miller as sponsors of the program to fund the charter jets and provide chaperone escorts for the elderly veterans during the trip.

With 40.15 percent of the vote, Miller barely eked out enough to avoid a primary runoff. If no candidate garners more than 40 percent of the vote, the top two voter-getters face off in a second election.

Eichenbaum, 67, an ophthalmologist in Murphy, had a strong grassroots army, drawing from the ranks of Tea Party members. At debates, he always won straw polls among audience members.

“He is a strong advocate of the Constitution,” said Bill Sterrett, who was volunteering at the polls for Eichenbaum in Waynesville Tuesday. “That’s important. There’s been too much concentration over the years with political parties. We need to get back to being Americans and solving problems.”

Heather Koonts, a Republican from Cullowhee and mother of two, voted for Eichenbaum. Eichenbaum’s strong conservative values and philosophy of limited government appealed to her, she said it an exit poll interview.

While Eichenbaum polled well among the disaffected ranks of conservatives, some voters may have questioned his electability come fall.

Eichenbaum was formerly registered Libertarian and could quote chapter and verse of the Federalist Papers. While he was the darling of the Tea Party movement, he may have been unable to court moderate voters needed to win in a general election against 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 Congressman Heath Shuler.

Republicans are holding out hope that a national tide will carry them to victory against Shuler. But six months is a long time in American politics and no one can predict if the Republican fury will fade or sustain itself — or whether it could touch Shuler. Both years Shuler won — in 2006 and 2008 — were generally good years for Democrats.

Another major story in the congressional race is how poorly Shuler did among Democrats, many of whom punished Shuler at the polls for his conservative leanings. Aixa Wilson, a relatively unknown candidate from Asheville, pulled down nearly 40 percent of the primary vote. Wilson actually won in Buncombe County, the most liberal county in the region.

Democratic voters interviewed at the polls chastised Shuler for voting against Democratic initiatives.

“He stood against his party on important issues,” Mark Lancaster, a 32-year-old Waynesville Democrat, said in an exit poll interview.

Vangie Stephens, a Democrat with Sylva, is a self-described liberal was particularly upset by Shuler’s vote against health care reform. Stephens said there are a lot of poor people in the region who need help.

Gloria Nicholson, Republican voter from Waynesville, said she liked Shuler as much as any of the Republican candidates.

“We just wish Shuler was running on the Republican side,” Nicholson said.

U.S. Congress

Republican – one advances

Jeff Miller: 14,386

Dan Eichenbaum: 12,183

Gregory Newman: 4,180

Kenny West: 2,809

Ed Krause: 1,455

James Howard: 820

Democrat – one advances

Heath Shuler: 26,809

Aixa Wilson: 16,729

Cochran hammers Dover in sheriff race

Despite widespread criticism of the job he’s done, Swain Sheriff Curtis Cochran proved unstoppable in this year’s Republican primary. Cochran buried opponent Wayne Dover in a landslide with more than 77 percent of the vote.

In November, Cochran will go head-to-head with Democrat primary winner John Ensley, who had an impressive run with nearly 29 percent of the vote despite competing with a whopping seven other candidates.

If the primary is any indication, the November race will be close. At the end of Tuesday’s primary, Ensley walked away with 513 votes, while Cochran received 525.

“I’m just in awe of how may people came out and supported me,” said Ensley. “There were a lot of great candidates.”

Cochran said he had been hoping for a landslide, and characterized the win as evidence of success during his first term.

“I think the support shows that the people are pleased with the job we’ve done,” said Cochran.

Ensley said his emphasis on community involvement in the sheriff’s office, more education for officers, outreach programs in the school system and better networking with surrounding counties all contributed to his win.

During the primary, almost all candidates emphasized their experience in law enforcement, drawing a sharp contrast between them and Cochran, who had no prior law enforcement training before being elected sheriff.

But Cochran has retorted that he is the lone candidate with on-the-job experience as sheriff. He has undergone training and participated in seminars since taking office as well.

Cochran said despite many candidates touting their experience, no one could ever say they’ve had enough training. “It’s a learning process every day,” said Cochran. “We run across something new just about on a daily basis.”

Ensley is the owner of Yellow Rose Realty but is also a North Carolina certified law enforcement officer. He has worked as a jailer in Florida and worked for Swain’s Sheriff’s Office for nearly two years as well.

Controversial issues were not few or far between during Cochran’s first term as sheriff: a suspected murderer escaped from Swain County’s jail last year; Cochran sued Swain’s Democratic county commissioners for discriminating against him by essentially reducing his salary; a Swain detention officer purchased a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; and a newly built $10 million jail continued to sit half-empty.

Candidates were lining up and campaigning more than a year before the actual primary. Now, the focus will be on the upcoming general election.

Ensley plans to emphasize his 18 years of business experience, in addition to his law enforcement training. “You need to know the law, but also be an administrative and PR guy [to be sheriff],” said Ensley, adding that he knows how to run an organization and build working relationships.

Ensley says he will also cooperate with county commissioners if elected as sheriff. “It is imperative that we do that,” said Ensley.

Cochran said he hopes both Republicans and Democrats will come together to support him in November.

Similar to his last election campaign, Cochran will focus on eradicating drugs in Swain County.

“We have taken a stand against drugs from day one, and we’re going to continue that,” said Cochran.

Swain County sheriff

Democrat – one winner advances

John Ensley: 513

Mitchell B. Jenkins: 285

David Thomas: 236

Julius F. Taylor: 218

Steve Buchanan: 197

Steve Ford: 150

David Franklin: 119

Chuck Clifton: 53

Republican - one winner advances

Curtis Cochran: 525

Wayne Dover: 156

Other sheriff races:

Haywood County sheriff

Democratic primary

Bobby Suttles*: 3,720

Dean Henline: 966

*The winner will face a Republican challenger in the fall.

Macon County sheriff

Democrat – one advances

George Lynch: 965

Richard Davis: 776

Ricky Dehart: 114

Ashe holds on in Democratic primary

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe proved he could survive a tough race during the Democratic primary, defeating challenger Robin Gunnels by nearly 700 votes on the unofficial count.

Ashe may have another tough race in November, but on Tuesday night he could celebrate holding off a crowded field and a strong challenge from Gunnels, a former employee. Ashe also had to stave off the efforts of a third-party political action committee en route to winning his third consecutive Democratic primary nomination for Jackson County Sheriff.

In the end Ashe’s popularity in Jackson County and his firm resolve not to enter into dialogue with his critics proved decisive in the hotly contested race.

Ted Coyle, a Caney Fork resident, said the ugly tactics employed by a third-party political action committee from the Cashiers area prompted him to vote for Ashe.

“I was kind of disgusted by the politics of that race coming out of Sapphire and I’m not for private law enforcement on public roads by any stretch,” Coyle said.

The sheriff’s primary was far from typical this year. After Gunnels emerged as an early challenger in the race, his business was burned in a case still under investigation as arson. Gunnels did not blame Ashe or his supporters for the fire, but he insisted it was politically motivated.

On Tuesday night, after the votes were totaled, Gunnels still rued the incident.

“With the whole fire business it took a couple of weeks to get that cleaned up and get back out there,” Gunnels said. “I don’t want to blame the result on anything, but it was a real issue for us.”

Ashe looked vulnerable because he received a controversial pay raise during the recession and had to withstand allegations of questionable financial transactions involving an account from narcotics seizure money.

The contest heated up considerably when a group of Cashiers residents, led by Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn, formed a political action committee aimed at unseating Ashe.

Ashe refused to enter into a back and forth with his critics, instead electing to run advertisements that included personal testimonies of supporters. The tactic seemed to pay off in Jackson County, where Ashe has been one of the most popular and widely recognizable political figures in recent years.

Ashe did not immediately return a request for comment before the news deadline.

Jackson County sheriff

Democrat – one advances

Jimmy Ashe: 2,290

Robin Gunnels: 1,572

Marty Rhinehart: 140

Radford Franks: 116

*The winner will face competition from two unaffiliated candidates in the fall.

Other sheriff races:

Haywood County sheriff

Democratic primary

Bobby Suttles*: 3,720

Dean Henline: 966

*The winner will face a Republican challenger in the fall.

Macon County sheriff

Democrat – one advances

George Lynch: 965

Richard Davis: 776

Ricky Dehart: 114

Queen to face new challenger

After three straight match-ups with the same Republican challenger, Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, will face a new opponent on the Republican side of the ticket this year.

Ralph Hise, the mayor of Spruce Pine, narrowly beat out two other challengers in the Republican primary for state senate and will take on Queen in the fall. The sprawling mountain district spans six counties, stretching from Haywood up to Mitchell and back down to McDowell, forming a horseshoe.

Queen has served in the state Senate since 2002, taking a two-year break after losing the seat in 2004, but reclaiming it again in 2006. For years, Queen faced off against the same opponent, Keith Presnell of Yancey County, over and over — in 2004, 2006 and 2008. The only year Queen lost in 2004 was marked by Republican sentiment in favor of Bush, a presidential coattails effect that spilled its influence onto state races as well. Years Queen won were all good years for Democrats.

Given the fickle nature of the seat, if a Republican tide manifests this November it could help Hise and hurt Queen.

A 33-year-old native of Mitchell County, Hise would be the youngest member serving in the state Senate. He is already serving his second term as Spruce Pine mayor.

Mitchell County leans heavily Republican, a territory where Queen picked up few votes anyway.

The second runner up, Andy Webb, who trailed by just a slim margin of votes, was from McDowell County, which could have proved more formidable for Queen.

McDowell is the quintessential battleground county. It leans neither Republican nor Democrat, and neither Queen nor his opponents have ever had a home advantage there.

McDowell has been the only “swing” county in the race in past years, but had a candidate from McDowell been on the ballot, it could have proved challenging for Queen.

The toss-up nature of the district required a large and expensive campaign on Queen’s part, spending around $800,000 the past two elections. In his home county of Haywood, Queen took 64 percent of the votes in 2008, and won the district by 54 percent. He took four of the six counties that comprise the district — a marked improvement compared to past victories narrowly eked out.

The six counties comprising the district have markedly different leanings. In Avery and Mitchell, Republicans out number registered Democrats by 8 to 1. It means Queen has to win big in Haywood, his home county, to make up for the known losses to the north.

Queen supporters believe he can pull off a win.

“All his races are tough,” said Chuck Dixon, a Waynesville Democrat and Queen supporter, citing the nature of the district. “He has to work hard for all his votes.”

Dixon said the district is oddly drawn. The state legislature will redraw election district boundaries this term, however, so the party that wins usually gets to draw district lines to its own advantage.

N.C. Senate, 47th district

Republican – one advances

Ralph Hise: 4,965

Andy Webb: 4,610

Tamera Frank: 4,328

*Winner faces off against Democratic Sen. Joe Sam Queen in the fall.  

N.C. Senate, 50th district

Republican – one advances

Jim Davis: 5,467

Jimmy Goodman: 3,542

*Winner faces Democratic Sen. John Snow in the fall.

Crowded judge field narrowed

District Court judge candidates who made it past the primary hope the race will become more digestible to voters now that the field has been narrowed down.

Three judge seats are up for election in what is considered a watershed year for the bench. Two seats are being vacated by long-time judges, leaving the races wide open. The third seat has been occupied for less than a year, so the sitting judge doesn’t have an entrenched toehold or incumbent’s advantage, making that seat competitive as well.

But the choices were overwhelming: 10 candidates running for three seats. All the names on the ballot were likely brand-new to those outside the legal arena.

Roy Wijewickrama and Steve Ellis were the top vote-getters in one primary while David Sutton and Kris Earwood got the most votes in the other primary. Incumbent Danya Vanhook will face Donna Forga in the third race.

Based on the numbers, many who passed through the polling booths didn’t vote in the judge race.

“From talking to voters, I hear many of them leave the ballots blank when it comes to judicial races,” said Roy Wijewickrama, one of the winning judge candidates.

“It is the last race people think about and last thing people decide about before they vote,” said Steve Ellis, one of the candidates advancing past the primary.

But it wasn’t from a lack of trying on the candidates’ part.

“We all worked hard for the past two and a half months,” Wijewickrama said.

Kris Earwood, another candidate who will advance, said it would be easier for the candidates to convey their message to voters now that the field has narrowed.

“There were a lot of candidates in this race from a lot of backgrounds and a lot of counties. It will be less stressful to focus on one opponent as opposed to four,” Earwood said.

Earwood said all the candidates worked hard during the primary, and they all got to know each other quite well from constantly running into each other at the same functions and forums, sometimes several times a week. Earwood said the race stayed cordial and pleasant.

“Yesterday everyone said good luck and good race and really meant it. It was a really good experience,” Earwood said.

David Sutton said he was humbled by the support.

“With so many variables at play with five different candidates, I wasn’t sure I would do this well,” Sutton said.

The candidates agree they will now have to redouble efforts through to reach the masses between now and November.

“The people we talked to were very receptive to us, but you can only reach directly a small number of people,” Ellis said. “It will be about letting people know the role of the District Court and what the judges do and then distinguishing ourselves.”

Ellis said the judge’s spent so much time at the same functions and forums, their spouses got to know each other quite well.

District Court Judge

Seat one – top two advance

David Sutton: 6,969

Kristina Earwood: 6,268

Greg Boyer: 3,617

Justin Greene: 3,386

J. Caleb Rogers: 3,222

Seat two – top two advance

Roy Wijewickrama: 8,587

Stephen Ellis: 7,428

Russell McLean: 7,215

*The fall election wil determine just one winner for each seat. A third judge’s seat is also up for election this year, but there were only two candidates running, Donna Forga and Danya Vanhook, both of whom will advance past the primary to square off in November.

Shelton beats Brown in Jackson primary

Incumbent William Shelton beat challenger James Bo Brown by almost a two-to-one margin to win the Democratic spot on the November ballot for the Whittier/Dillsboro district seat. The race was the only one of three county commissioners seats up for grabs in Jackson County this year that had a contested primary.

Shelton said the difference in the race came down to the fact that the Jackson County board has tried hard to push the county forward, even during one of the harshest economic climates in history.

“I think it was a choice between moving forward and moving backwards,” Shelton said. “With all the mistakes we’ve made, we’ve tried to lay the groundwork for future growth when the economy turns around, and it will turn around.”

Shelton said he was humbled both by the support he received during the primary run, and also by the significant vote count of his challenger.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners has been criticized for giving pay raises to some of its high-ranking employees, for losing a fight with Duke Energy over the Dillsboro Dam, and for enacting stricter building regulations.

Shelton said his board was elected during a boom and worked through a bust and has at all times been proactive about its agenda.

“We’ve tackled a lot of controversy,” Shelton said. “We’ve inherited a lot of controversy and created a lot of controversy. We have not shied away from the issues, and I guess I should say I feel lucky to get the nomination.”

Shelton will run against a Republican candidate in the fall. He said that election will likely focus on the economy and jobs.

Whittier/Dillsboro district

Democrat – one winner advances

William Shelton: 2,417

James Brown: 1,315

*The winner of this race will face a Republican challenger in the fall. There was no primary for county commissioner chairman or the commissioner for the Sylva district, although both will see competition in the fall election.

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