Poll shows majority in Jackson tired of trekking to town for beer
Whether you’re a college student in Cullowhee or socialite in Cashiers, stocking up on beer, wine and spirits requires a trip into town. But a WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll shows 56 percent of voters in Jackson County support alcohol sales everywhere in the county, not just in Sylva and Dillsboro, compared to 39 percent who would be opposed.
This particular question polarized respondents more strongly than any other issue on the poll, which was conducted by the Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, one of the Southeast’s most respected polling companies. Only 5 percent of those polled were undecided. Most questions saw undecided numbers of around 20 percent.
The poll questioned nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.
“It’s fascinating that so few people are unsure,” said Christopher Cooper, director of the Public Policy Institute at WCU. “It seems like the kind of issue, if it’s ever on the ballot, that would lead to a high voter turnout.”
The alcohol question sticks out in a poll where most of the questions address trust in government. Clay County — one of the region’s smallest and most rural — recently voted to allow alcohol sales countywide, so it seems to be an emerging issue in Western North Carolina, Cooper said.
Though the area has traditionally been conservative on alcohol sales, a lingering recession may have created more favor for the potential boost in tax revenues that widespread alcohol sales promise.
Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie, however, doesn’t see the issue as pressing.
“I don’t have a whole lot of people stopping me in the grocery store, on the streets or calling me saying ‘We need alcohol sales,’” said Massie. “It’s not one of those things on my radar screen.”
Massie doesn’t see a trend toward acceptance in Western North Carolina, either. Clay County seems to be more the exception than the rule in the region, according to Massie.
“That’s got a whole lot more to do with tradition and deep-seated beliefs held by the populace,” said Massie.
Though Jackson County Commissioner Mark Jones said there is actually more acceptance of alcohol in general, the primary motivating factor for legalizing alcohol sales countywide is most likely financial at this point.
“It is a revenue-generator at a time when sales are down and economies are tough,” said Jones.
WCU sees opportunity
According to Cooper, the biggest supporters of countywide sales were men, liberals, the more educated and the young.
Those who face a long drive to get a six-pack of beer or a few bottles of wine resoundingly said “yes” to countywide alcohol sales as well. About 68 percent of Cashiers residents clamored for change in Jackson County’s alcohol policy.
Meanwhile, Sylva residents just barely supported countywide sales, with only 50 percent voting “yes.”
Though WCU Chancellor John Bardo was reluctant to comment on the results of a poll conducted by the university, he did say legalizing alcohol sales in the county would have a tangible impact on the college.
The main effect, Bardo said, would be the potential for a viable commercial environment around the university. For now, Cullowhee is short on restaurants and grocery stores, and the total ban on alcohol sales may be to blame.
“People want to be able to go out to eat,” said Bardo. “It’s part of the quality of life they’re looking for.”
Alcohol sales countywide might lead to higher tax revenues for local government, a better business environment in Cullowhee as well as a positive impact on student enrollment.
“More services make the university more attractive,” said Bardo.
Jones agreed that Cullowhee businesses would make a handsome profit if students weren’t forced to drive to Sylva to buy their alcohol.
Moreover, Jones cited the trend of more retired individuals moving to college towns for its culture and activities. Allowing alcohol sales in Cullowhee would enhance the area’s attractiveness to these potential residents, Jones said.
But Massie said the few miles drive to Sylva most likely isn’t a major problem for students at Western. He recalled the days Jackson County was completely dry, when students would make beer runs all the way to Waynesville.
“College kids, if they want beer, and it’s legal for them to get it, they’re going to get it,” said Massie.
Cashiers highly supportive
Commissioner Jones, who manages High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, constantly encounters guests who query him on the nearest place to buy alcohol.
“For convenience, I send them to Highlands [in Macon County],” said Jones. “I’m guilty as charged.”
With Highlands a lot closer than Sylva, guests and residents alike often opt for the quicker trip when they’re thirsting for beer, wine and liquor. Jones said he cannot gauge how many thousands of dollars in potential tax revenue Jackson County loses each year in the process.
Some businesses in Cashiers are allowed to sell liquor, but only if they are established as a private club. Because these venues are required to purchase alcohol only from a Jackson County store, every restocking requires a drive down the mountain to Sylva or Dillsboro.
“It would save a lot of time, gas and trouble and expense to have an ABC store [here],” Jones said.
Though Jones supports countywide alcohol sales, he said he would rather see citizens petition to put the issue on the ballot than for the commissioners to get involved.
Massie, too, said he’d like to see a vote by the people, though he did not have a strong opinion on the matter.
“I’m not a teetotaler so it doesn’t bother me one way or another,” said Massie.
Still Massie, Jones and Commissioner Brian McMahan said they are all concerned that Jackson County ranks in the top 10 in North Carolina for alcohol-related accidents.
Though towns benefit economically from alcohol sales, there’s always a price to pay. “The trade-off is what are the social problems and liabilities that come with the sale of alcohol,” said Massie.
“Any time you have alcohol sales, you’re going to have that problem,” said Jones, adding that part of the tax revenues from alcohol sales do go toward law enforcement and education.
For McMahan, having widespread alcohol sales would probably not be worth the risks. McMahan said he would neither support legalizing alcohol sales in the county nor putting the issue on the ballot.
“The present system works, and there’s no need to change it,” said McMahan.
Sylva not swayed
Cooper has two theories to explain why Sylva voters were more reluctant than others to welcome countywide sales.
Of the alcohol tax that stays locally, Sylva shares half of the tax revenue from alcohol sales with the county and keeps the other half.
Allowing alcohol sales everywhere obviously means fewer people driving into Sylva or Dillsboro to buy their beer, leading to a direct decline in the town’s revenues. Sylva voters might have taken that into account when a higher number of them opposed countywide sales.
Cooper’s other theory is that alcohol is already widely available to Sylva residents.
“If you live in Sylva, what do you care if there’s alcohol in Cashiers?” said Cooper.
Massie, who represents Sylva on the county board, has another conjecture altogether. While elected officials and town employees are well-aware of the alcohol’s impact on revenues, that’s probably not driving your average Sylva resident to vote “no.”
“Sylva has a concentration of some of the biggest churches in the county,” said Massie. “That’s what I’m thinking is the reason.”
Strong on momentum, but shy of real power, TEA Party’s political weight remains to be seen
“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.”
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.
Poll shows little confidence in government
Government approval ratings are low all over the country. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re also low in Jackson County.
“The state of the economy is the strongest predictor of trust in government that I know of,” said Chris Cooper, director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute.
According to a recent WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll of Jackson County registered voters, 46 percent of the respondents had an unfavorable opinion of county government and a whopping 62 percent had an unfavorable opinion of the federal government.
The flip side of those numbers shows that county government’s approval rating was only a bit higher than the federal government’s. Thirty-three percent of the voters polled had a favorable opinion of county government as opposed to 29 percent for the feds.
The poll questioned nearly 600 voters and has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percent.
At the same time, Gallup polls showed the national approval rating for Congress is 20 percent — as low as it’s ever been.
Cooper said without tracking the approval rating of county government over a period of years, it’s difficult to make any generalizations about what the numbers mean. But he still believes there is some cause for alarm at the county’s approval rating.
“I want to be cautious, because we don’t have a baseline, but the number strikes me as low,” Cooper said. “The one thing I’m comfortable saying is it’s lower than I thought it would be, and it’s lower than I’d feel comfortable with if I were an elected official in Jackson County.”
Negativity or fair criticism?
Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie is one of the five men who have to take county’s low approval rating on the chin. Massie said the numbers concern him, but without more detailed questions, it was hard to know how to read the causes.
“I’m disappointed. I’d like to see some follow up questions as to why. Is it something specific or is it a general feeling about government?” Massie said.
County Chairman Brian McMahan had a similar reaction to the results. He questioned how significant the data could be with the poll asking such generic questions. According to McMahan, the approval rating could be a measurement of the quality of services delivered, or of the popularity of the commissioners, or of the county’s stance on a particular issue.
“I’m not just going to stab in the dark to try to come up with why they responded the way they did,” McMahan said. “Those are the questions that should have been asked.”
Jackson County government at least fared better than the federal government in the poll — which is typical and to be expected.
“We’re the closest level of government to the people, and they know us,” Massie said. “They see us in the restaurants and in the streets and so they feel a little bit better about us.”
Rep. Phil Haire, who represents Sylva in the 119th District of the North Carolina Assembly, doesn’t put much stock in polls and, like McMahan, said more narrowly defined questions would be more useful.
“I’m not a big fan of polls,” Haire said. “A lot of the questions that were asked are what you could call knee-jerk questions.”
Haire said for poll data to be useful, it has to target a specific population and asked detailed questions about issues that are on the table for decision-makers.
Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe sees the poll results against the broader backdrop of national opinion.
“I think it’s a nationwide trend where society has become frustrated over the economic situation, and they’ve become anti-government and anti-authority,” Ashe said.
For Ashe, the confusing thing is that while government approval is at its lowest, voter turnout in this year’s mid-term primaries was abysmal.
“When we have a 14 percent voter turnout, we have a problem,” Ashe said. “It’s up to the people to take back the government.
For Cooper, whether or not the polls create a clear angle on issues, they are a starting place for improving the quality of communication between the public and elected officials.
“I would hope elected officials would take this and think about what they could do to communicate better with the public,” Cooper said.
Jackson County issues
County politics and federal politics are different. One of the things they have in common, though, is the economy.
“At the local level, we’re not as interested in partisan issues as pocketbook issues, but when the economy’s bad, we still need to raise money to provide the services that people ask for,” Massie said.
When the economy is bad, county voters look to government to explain their taxing and spending habits in greater detail. In Jackson County, a number of high-priced decisions by the county board have created a starting point for criticism.
The county’s drawn-out court battles with Duke Energy over the fate of the Dillsboro Dam, which ended last year, resulted in half a million dollars in legal fees and failed to produce their desired results.
Last year, commissioners awarded steep raises for the county’s highest-paid employees, a highly controversial move in a recession. The raises were recommended by a firm contracted to analyze the county’s pay structure, but that didn’t sit any easier with some members of the public.
This year, Sheriff Jimmy Ashe came under fire for his alleged misuse of a narcotics seizure fund while he was fighting a high-profile legal battle with Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn.
The county has also been embroiled in protracted struggles to reform its economic development commission and restructure its airport authority after controversial upheavals left both in disarray.
Mark Jamison, a member of the Webster town board who has also been active in county politics, said the cumulative result of those events has created bad feeling in the voting public.
“Whether or not there are legitimate concerns related to each and every one of these issues may not be as meaningful as the totality of their weight,” Jamison said. “Combine that with a county government that doesn’t have a very pleasant or helpful face and that generally doesn’t seem to communicate well and you have a prescription for disenchantment.”
Massie said all of the same issues may be playing a role, and he put some of their impact at the feet of the way they’ve been handled in the media.
“I think it’s a combination of all of those things,” Massie said. “The pay raises, the dam, the lawsuit against the sheriff’s office –– that’s all about the news media grabbing attention, and negative attention grabs more attention than what you’re doing well.”
Jamison acknowledged that the county might be getting the blame for a more general ill ease in the voting public. He also agreed that the local media coverage focuses on outspoken critics of certain county decisions. But he still believes the county hasn’t done a good enough job of communicating with voters around its decisions on key issues.
“One has to at least acknowledge that the presence of our local gadflies has somewhat poisoned the political dialogue,” Jamison said. “Still, communication and advocacy for local interests seems lacking.”
Cullowhee business owner Jack Debnam, who is running against McMahan for county chairman in November, focused his criticism of county government on its spending. Debnam said this board has been slow to recognize the recession and plan for it.
“The majority of the reason people are unhappy is the spending that’s been done and how it’s been handled,” said Debnam. “I’ve been angry and other people are angry and I believe they’re ready to do something different.”
McMahan takes issue with the idea that the county doesn’t communicate well with voters and at the same time wonders if people really know what the nuts and bolts of county government are all about.
“Most people don’t come to our meetings,” McMahan said. “How do they know what kind of decisions are being made?”
Massie, who is also running for reelection in November, said the county lacks a forum for issue-based dialogue. Without a League of Women’s Voters or the chance to debate at the Rotary Club, Massie said county politicians take the path of least resistance.
“All the candidates say is ‘I’m honest. I’m a good person. I’ll do a great job,’” Massie said. “You really don’t have the opportunity to discuss issues. We don’t have enough chances to go head to head with the public.”
For Massie, the lack of a forum for discussion combined with low voter turnout make it hard to figure out how to take the criticism of the public constructively. He wants to begin televising county meetings on cable so interested voters can see how the commissioners work.
“We’re human beings not mind readers,” Massie said. “If we don’t hear from the public, what are we supposed to do?”
The Cashiers question
Perhaps the most glaring statistic generated by the poll is that only 15 percent of Cashiers voters have a favorable opinion of county government — lower than even the federal government.
“The big question we’re trying to get at is why?” said Gibbs Knotts, one of the poll’s creators. “That could be for many reasons. If there’s a way to engage people in the southern part of the county, then that could be one take-away.”
Jackson County Commissioner Mark Jones, who represents Cashiers, said he believes the dissatisfaction in his part of the county has a concrete cause.
The county began the construction of a new $4.3 million recreation center in 2006 but construction delays, mainly the result of unforeseen environmental engineering costs, have seen the completion date pushed back over and over again.
“I’m frustrated, too,” Jones said. “People up there feel like their tax dollars aren’t being utilized for them and that recreation center is an example.”
Jones said Cashiers voters often think of themselves as a sort of cash cow for the county, since the area contains many high-priced homes that add to the property tax base.
Jones thinks if the economy has turned around and the recreation center is finished when he comes up for election in 2013, he’ll stand a good chance of surviving the current approval rating.
“I think the people of Cashiers want to see visually what the county is doing for them,” Jones said.
Jones also acknowledged that the high-profile coverage of the legal suit between Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe and Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn took its toll on the voting public.
Finn and a group of supporters ran a negative ad campaign through a political action committee called Taxpayers Against Ashe for Sheriff during the May primary.
“People read the stuff and if they don’t know what’s going on, they believe it,” Jones said. “Negative campaigns can be very successful.”
Ashe was cleared of allegations that he used his position to hinder Finn’s private security business, which has strong ties to many of the developments in and around Cashiers, but the lasting effects of the animosity between the two men could continue to affect public opinion there.
And then there’s the archetypal divide between the mountains and valley, a gap Jones feels is narrowing slowly.
“The distance from Sylva to Cashiers is a barrier that even the press has a problem with,” Jones said.
Jackson County Poll Results
1. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Jackson County government?
Not Sure 20%
2. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the federal government?
Not Sure 9%
3. Currently alcohol sales are legal in Sylva and Dillsboro but not allowed elsewhere in the County Would you support legalizing alcohol sales anywhere in Jackson County?
Not Sure 4%
4. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party movement?
Not Sure 18%
5. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Jackson County schools?
Not Sure 24%
6. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue?
Not Sure 23%
7. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of U.S. Representative Heath Shuler?
Not Sure 15%
8. If you are a Democrat, press 1. If you are a Republican; press 2. If you are an independent or identify with another party; press 3
9. What is the highest level of education you’ve completed?
Did not complete high school 10%
Graduated from high school,
but not college 30%
Graduated from college 61%
10. If you are a woman, press 1 if a man, press 2.
11. ThinkIng about politics today; would you describe yourself as a liberal, moderate. or conservative?
*The poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, surveyed 587 registered voters in Jackson County and was conducted in early June. It has an error margin of +/- 4 percent.
A few additional notes
People who approve of Jackson County government are more likely to be:
Less likely to be from Cashiers
People who approve of the federal government are more likely to be:
People who approve of Jackson County Schools are more likely to be:
Less likely to be from Cashiers
People who approve of Shuler are more likely to be:
Interesting Note: Party ID has no effect
People who approve of Perdue are more likely to be:
People who approve of the TEA Party are more likely to be:
Disapprove of the Federal Government (this is VERY strong)
Disapprove of Jackson County Government (not as strong as for federal government)
People who support alcohol being available and legal in the County are more likely to be
Less Likely to be from Sylva
More likely to be from Cashiers