Recount results in: Queen wins House race by a hair
Two weeks after the primary election, an official winner has finally been declared following a recount in an insanely tight race between two prominent Waynesville Democrats for the N.C. House of Representatives.
Joe Sam Queen beat out Danny Davis by a mere 17 votes — less than 0.002 percent of the 9,969 votes cast in the race.
“It definitely shows that one vote can make a difference,” said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, the director of the Jackson County Board of Elections.
While Democrats were clearly torn on which man they wanted to send to Raleigh, Queen said he is pleased to win.
“I want to pull together because this is an important year,” said Queen, who will now face the Republican opponent Mike Clampitt from Swain County come November.
Queen and Clampitt are vying for the N.C. House seat currently held by retiring Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva. The seat represents Jackson and Swain counties and the greater Waynesville and Lake Junaluska area of Haywood County. The district leans strongly Democratic.
The race between Queen and Davis came down to the wire on election night, with Queen emerging as the top vote-getter by a mere 11 votes. Queen’s margin widened to an 18-vote lead the following week after a few dozen provisional ballots and late absentee ballots were added to the results.
Provisional ballots are cast when poll workers can’t find a voter’s name on the roster of registered voters. They are given a provisional ballot, which is then set aside in a special stack until election workers have a chance to research whether the ballot should be counted.
A few late absentee ballots usually trickle in after the election as well, but as long as they are postmarked by Election Day, they get counted.
Davis then called for a recount — a right entitled to any candidate under state election law when a race is within a 1-percent margin.
In today’s era of computerized voting terminals, however, recounts rarely change the outcome. But, Davis did pick up one extra vote in the recount, discovered by election workers in Jackson County when hand counting a handful of paper ballots from voters who mailed in absentee ballots.
“They just didn’t do the bubble correctly,” Lovedahl-Lehman said. “The scanner wouldn’t read it, but the board members could look at it and see the voter intent was for Davis.”
Queen said he and Davis both ran fair, clean campaigns.
“It is by far the most pleasant election I have been through,” said Queen.
Annexation and fracking and voter ID, oh my! A look at the General Assembly’s short session
While arguments over the state budget are likely to dominate everything in Raleigh as the General Assembly convenes for the next six weeks, there are certain bills and aspects of the budget making their way through the chambers that are of special interest to this region.
Annexation, automobile inspections and certain local bills will be considered during this short session. But the budget is definitely the gorilla in the room, the three lawmakers — Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill; Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva; and Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin — from this region unanimously agreed.
“That’s the major point of why you even have the short session,” Rapp said of the budget.
Aspects of the state’s financial plan as written by GOP House budget writers will be unveiled for the first time this week, Rapp said, which will undoubtedly set the stage for fierce debate between the two parties.
Education is likely to emerge as the hot-button issue in regards to the budget. Schools are losing federal stimulus money and are looking at steep budget cuts if things stay as they are. Gov. Beverly Perdue proposed increasing the education budget by $785 million using new sales tax revenue. But while Republicans have indicated they want to find more money for schools, that might be difficult in these fiscally austere times and with their promises of adhering to a fiscally austere budget path and stout opposition to a sales tax hike.
“This has major implications in education,” Rapp said. “There’s the possibility of losing more teachers and school employees — this is the frontline battle that will grab headlines (this) week.”
In regards to various bills that are moving through the General Assembly, Davis said the one on annexation is capturing a lot of attention.
“This is particularly aimed at some municipalities that have involuntarily annexed people in outlying areas. In some cases the people haven’t received services for 12 years,” Davis said.
The State senate last week approved two bills that were written in response to a judge who disallowed annexation rules passed in 2011, Rapp said.
One bill would kill certain annexations that have already taken place and the other gives people the ability to stop a municipality from annexing their land into the town limits against their will.
“That one says that if you want to annex an area you have to have a referendum and a plurality of people must say they want to have this happen,” Davis said.
One GOP-backed proposal that Davis supported did not make the cut. Under the proposal, new-car owners wouldn’t have to get safety inspections until the cars were more than three years old.
Davis said he favored the idea because the safety inspection of new cars seems unnecessary. The proposal went down in flames, however, under a barrage of phone calls and lobbying by garage owners who make money off the inspections.
Fracking, a method of extracting natural gas hydraulically, is another hot-button issue identified by area lawmakers. There are several bills that will be introduced promoting fracking that are expected to pass. If they do, North Carolina would form an oil and gas board to oversee the procedure. Conservationists oppose fracking as posing an unnecessary risk to the environment.
Davis also pointed to voter identification as another bill to keep an eye on. This is a holdover from the 2011 session. The bill would require that voters show photo identification at the polls before they could vote. Democrats have fought the bill as a voter-rights violation.
On a more local level, several bills are being introduced that are of special interest to this region.
In yet another step in a tangled tale, Haire is introducing a bill that would allow Jackson County to delay the implementation of legislation passed last year seeking an additional 3 tax on overnight lodging.
The county inadvertently triggered a mandate governing county tourism entities when it sought the room tax increase, requiring it to form a single tourism development authority. Jackson County has had two tourism agencies — one representing the Cashiers area and one for Jackson County as a whole — that oversee room tax money collected by the lodging industry. Whether to merge the two into a single countywide entity has been a source of debate. In the meantime, the county learned recently that its current structure is out of compliance with state law.
Haire said that his bill would give Jackson County until Jan. 1 to make that change, giving county leaders the opportunity to best decide what structure the single countywide tourism agency should take.
Davis, for his part, is overseeing legislation that would finalize an agreement between Graham and Swain counties over Fontana Dam money.
Swain and Graham counties have finally agreed on where to draw the county line signifying their portions of the Fontana Dam and hydropower generators. The dam straddles the two counties. How much of the dam lies in each county determines how much they each get in property tax money from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the dam, its hydropower equipment and generators. This bill nails down the dividing line as an old monument marking the center of the river on the dam that surveyors discovered.
Rapp is introducing a bill that would restore funding to the N.C. Center for the Advancement for Teaching. The center would receive $3 million in recurring funds beginning July 1 from the Department of Public Instruction under the bill.
The N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching went from a state-funded budget of $6.1 million to $3.1 million last year.
The 25-year institution is credited with helping the state to retain teachers by inspiring them through professional development. In Cullowhee, 22 fulltime positions and 11 hourly-contracted positions were eliminated because of the budget cut.
The short session is expected to conclude July 4.
“The rumor down here was if you wanted to make plans for the Fourth of July you could do so,” Haire said.
Staring over the edge of the political divide
Question: How does one come to the conclusion that the upcoming General Assembly short session will almost certainly be an extremely partisan, politically charged couple of months?
Answer: When the political claws come out even in the most benign of settings.
Rose Johnson, president of Haywood Community College, organized a legislative brunch for March 26 so that HCC leaders could discuss challenges and legislative priorities. The food was great and the room filled with about 35 to 40 people on a gorgeous spring morning, the kind of people who don’t live in the mountains can only dream about.
Johnson, who is leaving HCC this summer, has had a successful tenure at the school. She’s brought a steady, wizened leadership that has put the college and its students first. And she has made a point of getting involved in the community and encouraging her staff to do the same. This brunch was a perfect example, an opportunity for HCC staff to provide elected leaders with information that could prove valuable once the rubber hits the road during budget negotiations.
After Johnson and the staff gave their presentations on specific points, the elected leaders were invited to speak. Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, was first, and glancing at an iPad propped up in front him for reference, the man who lists his occupation as a statistician spoke knowledgeably about community colleges and their funding. He also said tax collections for the state were running ahead of budgetary projections by about $150 million. However, he added that it appears that this money would be eaten up by budget overruns in health and human services.
Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, is one of my favorite all-time members of the General Assembly. I’ve been working at newspapers across North Carolina since 1988, and Rapp ranks up there with the smartest, hardest-working legislators I remember. Successful politicians need to know when to vote according to their conscience (party ideology be damned) and when to vote according to the will of the people. Rapp walks that tightrope better than most.
Rapp was second to speak, and he pointed out that in the last legislative session— after the GOP had gained control of the both houses — lawmakers had to make cuts that hurt education, eliminating jobs and opportunities for students. He pointed out that in the two previous years the recession had already forced painful cuts, but what was done last session was much worse.
Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, was next up, and he did not mince words. He squarely blamed the painful cuts to education on the GOP lawmakers and their decision to sunset a half-cent sales tax that would have brought in $1.4 billion. Haire said that, historically, government spending during recessions helps mitigate the pain from private sector reductions.
Haire has been a co-chair of the Appropriations Committee and, after seven terms, is not seeking re-election. He gave a strong denunciation of the job done by the GOP-led legislature. It was pointed and, for Haire, emotional.
Freshman Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, was next, and he said he could not let Haire’s comments pass. “I didn’t know we were giving stump speeches,” he said to begin his remarks.
Davis said that he and the GOP leadership inherited a fiscal disaster that had been created under Democratic leadership, and that tough choices had to be made. He said they had promised that the sales tax would be ended — a promise made back when Democrats passed it, by the way — and that the GOP election win proved that citizens wanted it to expire. Davis also used a phrase I’ve heard him use before, that everyone is going to have to share the sacrifice to get the economy and the state’s fiscal situation back on track. He promised legislative leaders would look at education funding in the upcoming session, but he held out little hope for any measurable increases.
It was an unusual and enlightening meeting. HCC’s needs are great, as are those of other education institutions. This is a setting that is usually highlighted by polite talk with few specifics. But this time the swords came out. The political divide is sharp right now, and there is very little room in the middle. I sincerely hope North Carolina’s public schools, community colleges and university system don’t continue to suffer as this divide widens.
Pope is pulling the strings in state politics
The news media in this country is abuzz with talk about North Carolina. Unfortunately, it’s not flattering. What they’re saying is that we are being controlled by an oligarchy of sorts that begins and ends with multimillionaire Art Pope, the discount store heir who has effectively bought control of state politics.
The magazine story that has lit the national fire starts right here in Western North Carolina, detailing the tight 2010 legislative race in which Franklin orthodontist Jim Davis beat former judge and senator John Snow of Murphy for a state Senate seat.
The piece in the Oct. 10 issue of the New Yorker is titled “State for Sale, a conservative multimillionaire has taken control in North Carolina, one of 2012’s top battlegrounds” www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/10/111010fa_fact_mayer.
The reporter, Jane Mayer, was already well known for reporting on billionaires Charles and David Koch and their political influence. In the week since this more recent article was published, Mayer has been on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross and on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC cable news show. Here are a couple of excerpts from Mayer’s article:
That fall, in the remote western corner of the state, John Snow, a retired Democratic judge who had represented the district in the State Senate for three terms, found himself subjected to one political attack after another. Snow, who often voted with the Republicans, was considered one of the most conservative Democrats in the General Assembly, and his record reflected the views of his constituents. His Republican opponent, Jim Davis — an orthodontist loosely allied with the Tea Party — had minimal political experience, and Snow, a former college football star, was expected to be reelected easily. Yet somehow Davis seemed to have almost unlimited money with which to assail Snow.
“…. After the election, the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan, pro-business organization, revealed that two seemingly independent political groups had spent several hundred thousand dollars on ads against Snow — a huge amount in a poor, backwoods district. Art Pope was instrumental in funding and creating both groups, Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action. Real Jobs NC was responsible for the ‘Go fish!’ ad and the mass mailing that attacked Snow’s ‘pork projects.’ The racially charged ad was produced by the North Carolina Republican Party, and Pope says that he was not involved in its creation. But Pope and three members of his family gave the Davis campaign a four-thousand-dollar check each — the maximum individual donation allowed by state law.
Back during the last General Assembly election, I kept reading about Pope and his influence. While the New Yorker will get credit for nationalizing this story, the Institute for Southern Studies, a Durham-based nonprofit that professes to be a “nonpartisan media, research and education center,” did the first real reporting. Way back in 2010 it, in conjunction with the newspaper The Independent, was reporting on Pope’s growing political clout (the institute’s Facing South online magazine is one of the best currently reporting on issues facing North Carolina and the South).
This Mayer story turns on three interesting points.
One is the tie to Western North Carolina. Not only does Mayer use the Snow-Davis race as an example of how Pope and his allies smeared candidates to influence elections, she also quotes Asheville’s Martin Nesbitt, the leading Democrat remaining in the state Senate after the Republican takeover of 2010. Further, Pope’s wealthy parents sent him to the Asheville School. Here’s a description of him from the New Yorker article, an aside from when Mayer was interviewing Pope in his office:
He is now fifty-five years old and bespectacled, but the energy with which he darted from one file to the next suggested why his classmates at the Asheville School, an elite preparatory academy, had nicknamed him the Flea. He was on the school’s basketball team, and had such a strong tendency to spin and bounce off his opponents that he was often given personal fouls.
The second — and perhaps most important — point in the New Yorker piece and the Facing South stories is how much control Pope is indeed wielding in our state. He doesn’t only contribute to campaigns, but he is the primary benefactor for organizations such as the John Locke Institute. That conservative think tank’s writers are regular contributors to newspapers and talk shows and helps set the state’s political agenda. So Pope is savvy enough — and rich enough — to push his message through the media and by influencing campaigns.
Three groups for which Pope’s foundation and family are the primary benefactors — Civitas Action, Real Jobs NC and Americans for Prosperity — contributed 75 percent of the $2.6 million spent on the state’s 2010 legislative races by independent, nonparty groups. All of that went to Republicans who won a historic majority in both houses of the state legislature. According to Facing South, Pope’s support helped influence 18 GOP victories in those 2010 legislative races. That’s a lot of power for one person, regardless of his political alignment.
Finally, according to Mayer, it’s important to look at the potential for Pope’s influence on national politics. Republicans are now in control of the General Assembly for congressional redistricting. As expected, the new maps will favor Republicans (as they would have favored Democrats if they had been in power — such is the system). North Carolina went to Obama in 2008, and is considered a swing state. The new GOP clout will certainly influence the 2012 presidential race. If he helps hand North Carolina to the Republicans in 2012, Pope has set himself up to become a powerbroker on the national stage.
Times are changing. A recent Supreme Court decision opened the door for corporations to spend more on politics, and so we will see the super-rich who have millions to spend doing just that. And it’s all legal. All voters can do is try to stay informed and keep tabs on who is pulling the levers behind the curtain. In North Carolina, it’s Art Pope who’s playing Oz.
Queen sues opponent after losing state election
All is fair in love and war, but apparently not in politics.
Former state Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, is suing his opponent in the last election for violating state campaign finance laws.
The suit claims Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine – who beat Queen in November – misled voters about who paid for a series of television commercials. In a tag line at end of the commercials, Hise said that he paid for the ad, when in fact the state Republican Party did.
If true, it is a violation of the state law known as “Stand By Your Ad,” which requires whoever pays for a political ad to identify themselves. By falsely stating Hise paid for the ad when he didn’t, the commercials got a price discount only available to candidates and potentially curried more favor with voters, according to the suit.
“He’s got to play by the rules and be fair. If he doesn’t, then we have no recourse but to file a lawsuit,” Queen said.
Hise is one of 10 Republican state Senate candidates accused of the same misstep, and one of three being sued for it. Hise said the suit has no merit, however, as did his attorney.
“We deny the allegations of the complaint. We think the lawsuit has no foundation in fact or law,” said Thomas Farr, a Raleigh attorney representing Hise and the other Republicans targeted by the same suit. “We are confident the Republican senators will be vindicated.”
The N.C. Republican Party is also named in the suit, and likewise rejected the accusation.
“We believe this is a frivolous complaint and deny the allegations,” said Mark Braden, spokesperson for the state Republican Party. “We are confident that the N.C. Republican Party and Sen. Hise will prevail.”
The N.C. Republican Party bought $1.4 million worth of television commercials for 10 Senate candidates across the state, all of whom won their seats. Hise got more than most, with $277,000 in commercials advocating him over Queen.
When buying the ads, the Republican Party used an advertising agency called American Media and Advocacy, based in Virginia. The agency arranged for the commercials to air on various TV stations, but when doing so, misrepresented who was paying for the ads, according to the suit.
American Media told the TV stations the ads were being purchased by candidates themselves, rather than by the Republican Party.
“That is not a trivial matter. That is a fundamental violation of the campaign finance law,” said Frank Queen, a Waynesville attorney representing Joe Sam Queen.
N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, is among those that ran commercials saying he paid for them when in fact he didn’t, according to the suit. Davis defeated former state Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, but Snow has not joined in the suit.
Stand By Your Ad
Democrats took a beating in the election last fall, losing control of both the N.C. Senate and House for the first time in over a century.
Despite how it might look, the lawsuits are not a case of Democrats being sore losers, according to John Wallace, a Raleigh attorney representing all three Democrats who chose to file suits.
When North Carolina created the Stand By Your Ad provision in 1999, it was only the second state in the country to make such a law.
The law was inspired by the rise in ugly attack ads. It forced those running ads to clearly identify themselves “so voters can hold the sponsor of the ad accountable,” Wallace said.
The popularity of Stand By Your Ad grew, and a version of it eventually became federal law in 2002.
“I think it is possible it keeps people honest,” said Chris Cooper, political science professor at Western Carolina University. “It doesn’t allow you to shoot at the opponent and not say who you are.”
Voters often view ads run by the candidate more favorably than ads backed by the party.
“In many markets, it is advantageous to the candidate to purchase purportedly in his own name,” the suit states.
A study of the Stand By Your Ad law by Brigham Young University showed voters put more stock in ads that were endorsed by the candidate himself. Ads endorsed by the candidate instead of a political party may curry more favor among independent voters, according to Cooper.
Cooper pointed to Congressman Heath Shuler, D-N.C., as a prime example. In his conservative leaning district, an ad paid for by the Democratic Party is the last thing Shuler would want, Cooper said. In fact, he bent over backwards to distance himself from the national party.
If Hise wanted to take credit for the ads, the Republican Party should have first donated the money to Hise, and then allowed Hise in turn to buy his own commercials. But for whatever reason, the party chose to control the ad buys.
“There are circumstances in which parities may determine that it is safer, better or faster not to contribute money to candidates,” Wallace said.
In some cases, the party may want control the ad in order to control the message, according to Cooper. Or, the party may think it can do a better job than the candidate.
“You have decades of experience at the state party level so the candidate might prefer that, too,” Cooper said.
If the party had donated the money to Hise and let him buy his own ads, the donation would have showed up on Hise’s campaign finance reports.
Tracking the money
Donations received through September are reported on a candidate’s third quarter fundraising report. During October, a candidate must report any contribution over $1,000 within 48 hours. The disclosure alerts other candidates what kind of spending their opponent has at his disposal.
“Anybody can see the money coming in and out,” Frank Queen said.
But since the money for the TV commercials didn’t come to Hise first, it didn’t show up in his fundraising reports. While the spending was indeed reported by the N.C. Republican Party, it is harder to track outside spending on a candidate’s behalf, known as soft money, as opposed to hard money spent by the candidate himself, Frank Queen said.
Since Queen monitored Hise’s fundraising reports, when a plethora of commercials began showing up in the final weeks of the campaign, he realized that Hise didn’t have the money to be paying for the ads himself.
Queen sent Hise a warning letter, which Hise received through certified mail on Oct. 29, asking him to stop running the commercials with the false tag line bearing Hise’s name.
In the letter, Queen told Hise he was “misleading the voters of the district in which you are running for office.”
“Furthermore, this misrepresentation of who is paying for the advertisement is in direct violation of the Stand By Your Ad laws, which require the group or candidate paying for each ad to specifically identify themselves and to take responsibility for the content of those advertisements,” the letter stated.
But the ads continued to run through Election Day.
Candidates are entitled to cheaper television advertising rates than third parties buying an ad on the candidate’s behalf. By law, candidates buying political ads are entitled to the lowest rate tier that a station offers.
The ads were 20 to 50 percent cheaper under the lower rate tier than it could have had the commercials been bought by its own name rather than Hise’s, the suit claims.
“By falsely representing that it was paid for by the candidate’s committee, they qualified for and indeed paid the lowest rate that was available, lower than they would have otherwise,” Frank Queen said.
While complaints have been filed with the N.C. Board of Elections, the state statute spells out an interesting recourse for violations: the other candidate is instructed to file a civil lawsuit. Thus the suit being filed by Queen is the only mechanism of enforcing the law, Frank Queen said.
What does Queen stands to gain? He won’t get his seat back, but if victorious Hise would be required under state statute to pay Queen an amount equal to the cost of the ads that carried the false tag line, as well as attorney fees Queen incurs in waging the suit.
Hise and the N.C. Republican Party will file a response to the suit in early April, Farr said.
The Smoky Mountain News Intern DeeAnna Haney contributed to this article.
Political ill will still lingers in Jackson
The election for the Jackson County Board of Commissioners might have wrapped up last fall, but the war of words didn’t end then.
Last month, newly elected Chairman Jack Debnam wrote to unseated Commissioner Tom Massie’s employer, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, complaining that Massie had possibly abused his position and power while a commissioner. Massie is the mountain field representative for the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which is within that state department.
Richard Rogers, executive director of the Trust Fund, said Monday his agency “did not take any action” regarding Debnam’s complaint about Massie “because the complaint was not associated (with) a CWMTF project and CWMTF has no regulatory authority regarding development or land disturbance.”
Debnam wrote state authorities at the apparent behest of developer and trailer park owner Wayne Smith of Jackson County. Smith complained of being harassed by state authorities because of Massie.
The developer contributed at least $650 and provided billboard space to Debnam’s campaign, according to records on file at the Jackson County Board of Elections.
The N.C. Division of Land Resources determined Smith opened a 4.5-acre mining operation without the required state permit at the intersection of Skyland Drive and Parris Branch, records show. A notice of violation was issued Nov. 2, which happened to fall on the same day as the election.
Smith has been repeatedly cited by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources for sediment control violations, most recently in 2005, when he was assessed a $37,500 penalty, according to records.
Debnam, who ran as an independent but received GOP backing and financial support, declined to discuss the e-mail he wrote on Smith’s behalf.
Massie also declined an opportunity to comment. A Democrat, he lost his commission seat in November.
“A resident of Jackson County contacted me after the first of the year about an issue that he feels may be an abuse of an appointed position on the Mountain Resources Commission,” Debnam e-mailed Coleen Sullins on Feb. 2, the apparent start of the ensuing e-mail battle.
The N.C. Mountain Resources Commission is tasked with making recommendations at the local, state and federal level on how to best protect this region’s natural resources. Massie was appointed to the board by then state Speaker of the House Joe Hackney, a Democrat, in December 2009; Massie’s term on the board continues through Aug. 31, 2013.
Sullins, who works for the state Division of Water Quality, forwarded the e-mail to Jim Simons, who is the director of the N.C. Division of Land Resources, and Richard Rogers, executive director of the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. For his part, Debnam included two county employees on the email: Planner Gerald Green and Land Development Administrator Tony Elders. Those men are tasked with working with local developers such as Smith on behalf of the county.
“It appears that Mr. Tom Massie has let his personal opinions and contacts come into play whenever Mr. Wayne Smith or one of his companies becomes involved in any grading projects in Jackson County,” Debnam wrote. “Mr. Massie seems to exert this pressure thru Mr. Gray Hauser with NC-DENR and Linda Cable, former planning director for Jackson County. Mr. Hauser and his department have been repeatedly contacted by Mr. Massie over the past several years to inspect one of Mr. Smith’s projects, to the point of embarrassment to the Jackson County Planning and Erosion Control inspectors. … No one in Jackson County government thinks that Mr. Smith is in violation of that (mining) act or any other ordinances. It is at the point that Mr. Smith has contacted me in my position as chairman of the Jackson County Commissioners to ask for assistance in resolving this matter.”
Massie, not surprisingly, wasn’t happy to learn about the email.
“I look forward to your apology,” he wrote Debnam not long afterwards.
“Jack,” Massie also wrote, “after giving your e-mail additional consideration, I am extremely disappointed that you chose to lend your name and elected position to give added weight to these reputed allegations without making any attempt to check to see if they were factual or to call me personally and ask if I were involved. These allegations are extremely hurtful to all the parties accused and cast dispersions about each individual’s integrity and motivations. I strongly resent this attempt to impugn my character and integrity!
“Forwarding these mistruths to legislators and division supervisors are temporarily harmful to my professional reputation, but the truth will prevail when the facts are investigated. Those same facts will be harmful to your integrity. I am appalled that you did not even invest the time to try to substantiate these outlandish charges. The allegations about me are dangerously close to defamation of character. I would not have thought you capable of such distortion. … You will find that you, in your position as chair of the board of commissioners, have been used to further a personal grudge against me and other innocent parties.”
What price public service? Arizona shooting fuels discussion in WNC
U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is getting the word out: from now on, he’ll be carrying a gun when meeting with constituents.
Just a short time ago such an announcement from a member of Congress probably would have been considered outrageous, headline provoking, over-the-top political rhetoric.
But not so much now, in the wake of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Arizona, and the shooting deaths of six people standing nearby and the wounding of 11 others. Giffords was holding what has been described as a routine meeting with residents in her district when the massacre occurred.
“This weekend’s tragedy has touched many of us in a very personal way,” Shuler said. “With our thoughts on this tragedy, many of us are working with local law enforcement and the capitol police to coordinate safety measure for ourselves and our staff.”
Shuler worked closely with Giffords. He is co-chairman of the conservative Blue Dog caucus that Giffords, a former Republican, also belonged to. The two worked closely together on various pieces of legislation.
“I, like many of my constituents and staff in Western North Carolina, strongly support the Second Amendment and do exercise our right to legally and safely carry a firearm,” Shuler said. “In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to work closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to ensure that our political process is not deterred by the violent acts of a few.”
The shootings, in the words of one local politician, “give pause” to those who currently hold or might seek public office in the future — the price one pays for serving could be very high, maybe too high, given the level of angry rhetoric many believe helped fuel the attack in Arizona.
“As far as this tragic event preventing good citizens from seeking public office, I believe that if the political environment does not improve it will give pause to anyone willing to get in involved on all political levels, which is very unfortunate,” said Ronnie Beale, a veteran county commissioner in Macon County. “I also think this event speaks to the importance of maintaining and improving mental health services on all levels.”
The alleged shooter in the massacre had been expelled from a local community college for exhibiting bizarre behavior. His ramblings on the Internet also seemed incoherent, though a thread of seemingly extreme right-wing beliefs could be discerned.
Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University and an expert on North Carolina politics, said it’s obvious the nation’s political discourse has grown more virulent in the past few decades.
“There are scores of studies to show that incivility is on the rise in Congress and in our political debate in general,” Cooper said. “Although it’s not ‘the media’s fault,’ name-calling and negative attacks are certainly more newsworthy, and thus more covered than stories about politicians who play nicely.
“The problem, therefore, is not just that there’s more negative, toxic rhetoric, but that we’re more aware of it than we’ve ever been. Did this cause the shooting? Of course not,” said Cooper. “Sarah Palin’s crosshairs ad is no more responsible for this shooting than Marilyn Manson was for the Columbine shooting. It does, however, create an environment that doesn’t suppress this kind of thing.”
Bob Scott, a former news reporter who now serves as an alderman in Franklin, said he believes the antigovernment movement in the U.S. is a contributing cause in the Arizona shooting.
“I am concerned that Congress will do one of its knee-jerk reactions and pass bills to provide security for congressmen and senators at a huge cost to the taxpayer,” Scott said. “But if you think about it, most of the attacks on politicians are at the local level such as town halls and school board meetings. Politicians at the federal level are so insulated by staffers that it would be pretty hard to get near them. It is much easier to get to a local politician who has no staffers and is not surrounded by lobbyists.”
Scott, a Democrat, also raised another issue likely to dominate coverage of the shootings: the right to bear arms.
“I believe in gun ownership for target shooting and hunting,” Scott said. “But you don’t need an AK-47 or a Glock 9 mm with a 31-round magazine to go hunting. Those type weapons that the National Rifle Association wants everyone to be able to own, apparently also including those who are unstable, are designed to kill human beings. Not wild game.”
Shuler getting comfortable in new position
In his initial bid for political office, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., often seemed unsure of himself.
The former NFL quarterback, while clearly comfortable in the limelight, had difficulty articulating his political beliefs and staking out positions. Back in 2006 there were jokes among reporters about the difficult task of extracting printable quotes from the Swain County native, who now lives in Haywood County.
That was then.
These days, Shuler, who turns 39 this month, seems transformed. Leading up to the Nov. 2 election, he displayed intellectual agility and political aggressiveness in debates with Republican challenger Jeff Miller, who often relied on notes to combat the incumbent’s grasp of current issues. After trouncing Miller and winning his third term in office, Shuler turned his attention toward elevating his standing in the Democratic Party, left stumbling for answers following a thrashing in the midterm elections.
This time, Shuler took a calculated loss. He challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for the soon-to-be-open position of minority leader. Pelosi, speaker of the House, has been demonized as a liberal harridan by her Republican foes. Democrats had to defend against being paired with her by opponents during the election. Even Shuler, pro-life and pro-gun Blue Dog Democrat that he is, felt the need to run ads declaring: “I am not Nancy Pelosi.”
“I can add and subtract,” Shuler said of his challenge to Pelosi. “I knew we could not win. But it was so important that the leadership in the Democratic caucus should be made to realize why we lost so many seats.”
That would be because the leadership, as personified by Pelosi, needs to be more moderate and centrist, Shuler said. Just like him.
And just like that, Shuler emerged a player on the national stage. He was interviewed on CNN and other major networks and cable shows. He was featured in news articles from sea to shining sea, quoted on the front pages of the nation’s greatest newspapers. Not bad for a boy from the mountains of Western North Carolina who could play a bit of football.
It certainly doesn’t hurt Shuler’s prospects that his now-polished speaking abilities are complemented by a winning political combination of awe-shucks country boy manners and photogenic good looks.
“Big tent” sure has a nice ring
The vote came on Nov. 17. Shuler versus Pelosi was not exactly David and Goliath, but those underdog overtones were evident in the news coverage that followed. As predicted, Shuler lost, 150 to 43, by secret ballot.
Shuler promptly expressed surprise he’d received so many votes, spinning defeat into a good college try. After all, he pointed out to various news agencies, the caucus he represents, the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, shrank from 54 to 25 members in the midterm election.
That’s one of the more interesting aspects of covering Shuler these days: His ability to spin the news, plus stay on message. He finds a sound bite that works and delivers it, over and over again:
• The Huffington Post, Nov. 14: “You know, I can add and subtract pretty well. I don’t have the numbers to be able to win, but I think it’s a proven point for moderates and the Democrat Party that we have to be a big tent.”
• Politics Daily, Nov. 15: “I can add and subtract pretty well. I don’t have the numbers to be able to win, but I think it’s a proven point for moderates and the Democrat Party that we have to be a big tent. We have to be all-inclusive. We have to invite everyone into the party.”
• Asheville Citizen-Times, Nov. 18: “We are strong because we are a big-tent party, not in spite of it.”
• To The Smoky Mountain News on his defeat: “We are the big tent party. I wanted to make sure our corner of the tent still stands strong.”
A liberal in sheep’s clothing?
Boyce Deitz is one of the most accomplished football coaches in WNC. He guided Swain County High School to five state championships, getting help from Shuler for three of those. Today, the shoe is on the other foot, with Deitz working for his former player as a field representative out of an office in Sylva.
Deitz is pleased, but not particularly surprised, to see his former football player blossom into his role as congressman.
“When he was in school he was a good student, but it didn’t come easily to him,” Deitz said. “Heath knew if he wanted to accomplish some of his goals, he had to make good grades.”
To that end, Deitz clearly remembers Shuler sitting in the school’s library putting in the necessary time studying. Shuler applied that willingness to work on the football field, as well as the classroom. Shuler focused on his weaknesses instead of glorying in his gifts. He strengthened his vast natural athletic talent, and became even better.
“I just see that same thing in him now,” Deitz said of Shuler’s ability to define goals and focus on them.
The longtime coach added he believes the former football star suffered a bad case of nerves early in his political career, but has since been able to settle down and find a comfortable stride.
After attending Swain County High School, Shuler became a standout football player for the University of Tennessee. He was a runner-up in 1993 for the Heisman Trophy. After leaving the NFL he returned to the University of Tennessee to finish a degree in psychology. He built a real-estate business in Knoxville, and moved to Waynesville in 2003.
Not everyone is as enamored of Shuler as his former coach. Kirkwood Callahan, a former college political science professor who serves as an officer in the Haywood County Republican Party, believes Shuler is guilty of posturing.
“If Shuler is a committed moderate why did he vote for Pelosi as speaker twice before?” Callahan said. “Shuler is what he is — an inconsistent opportunist who will enable the advancement of the liberal agenda in the House of Representatives when it is essential to retain favor with leftist party leaders. When there is nothing to lose with the leadership, he will resume his charade as a moderate.”
Callahan cited votes of support on cap-and-trade legislation (limits on carbon emissions, with permits for emissions issued that allows companies to buy and sell them) and card check (majority sign-up, a method for workers to organize into a labor union), saying it would have deprived workers of a secret ballot in union-organizing drives.
The inner game of politics
“I think when he came to Congress, people did see him as a retired NFL quarterback,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark. “Now they see Heath as a national leader. He’s gone from being able to hold a football to holding a mike.”
Ross and Shuler are the newly minted co-chairs of the greatly diminished Blue Dog Coalition. They are also good buddies, with Ross characterizing the N.C. representative as one of his best friends in the Congress.
Ross, first elected to the House in 2000, has made no secret that his long-term goal is to help lead his home state of Arkansas. The only question is the timing of his move from national to state politics.
Shuler isn’t publicly stating what career trajectory he is seeking, though he seems much more enamored with national party politics than Ross. It is dead certain, however, that Shuler has crystal-clear goals in mind. And whatever his other shortcomings might or might not be, the football player-turned-congressman is like a chicken on a June bug once he’s focused. And these days, Shuler is looking very focused indeed.
“The game in Washington is about getting re-elected and gaining power,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University who helps oversee a nonpartisan N.C. politics blog for the school’s Public Policy Institute. “Shuler’s move to run for Pelosi’s seat accomplishes both.”
The 11th Congressional District, made up of North Carolina’s 15 westernmost counties, is essentially a conservative Democratic district, Cooper said. There might be more Democrats than Republicans, but by the same token, they are decidedly not Nancy Pelosi Democrats.
“Running against Pelosi sends a strong message to Shuler’s constituents that a vote for him is not a vote for Nancy Pelosi,” Cooper said. “That helps him carry over a major theme from the election and build a name brand for his next re-election. This move also accomplishes the second goal — power.”
The traditional method of gaining power is to pay your dues and work up a ladder based on seniority, the political science professor said. By going directly to the people, Shuler worked around this system, al la Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s.
“By running for minority leader, Shuler’s been covered in virtually every major newspaper and media source in the country,” Cooper said. “Heath Shuler’s now a household name — and not just for football.”
What are the Blue Dogs?
The Democratic Blue Dog Coalition formed in 1995, ostensibly to represent the center of the House of Representatives and mirror mainstream American values. The current 54-member coalition will decrease almost by half, however, as a result of this month’s election. Heath Shuler, formerly Blue Dog whip, now is a co-chair of the coalition.
Taking the pulse of a region
We in the news business provide historians with some of the crucial data necessary to write the story of any particular point in time. Reporters gather facts and opinions that are snapshots of how people feel, and then we make every effort to put that information into perspective so that it’s meaningful and useful to readers. At its best, good journalism can help people make informed decisions.
Years from now, those who look back at the summer of 2010 will no doubt write about the BP oil disaster, the lingering international economic crisis, and Barack Obama’s withering public support. Perhaps those digging into what was happening in our little corner of the world might look at the results of the recent Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll results that have been published in this newspaper and online (www.smokymountainnews.com, “WNC Public Opinion Poll”) during the last couple of weeks.
The project, which we’re calling “Creating a Regional Policy Dialogue,” is the first of its kind in Western North Carolina. WCU professors Chris Cooper and Gibbs Knotts saw a dearth of hard data about how residents of this area felt about important political issues. They approached us about partnering to gather that information and then publishing the results. The poll called nearly 600 registered voters in Jackson County, and it was conducted by Public Policy Polling out of Raleigh. Public Policy Polling has earned a reputation as one of the most reputable polling agencies in the Southeast.
Some quickly write off polling data, and that’s not surprising given the sheer volume of such information on a national basis. But what’s unique — and extremely interesting — about this PPI/SMN poll is its subject matter. We now have a baseline of information about how Jackson County residents feel about certain political issues during June of 2010. That information is interesting in and of itself, as the stories on our website attest.
But perhaps more intriguing will be to update this information in six months or a year to see how the onslaught of media we are all exposed to can change opinions. Maybe we’ll find that the barrage of information doesn’t necessarily lead to quickly changing public opinion.
The demographics of Western North Carolina are unique. The traditional, conservative mountain residents are now intermingling with new faces from all over the country. Anecdotally, we know this is a place that values tradition and attracts alternative lifestyle advocates. It’s a dynamic populace that — along with the mesmerizing draw of the mountains — has made this area one of the most popular places in the country to live.
Our hope — that is, The Smoky Mountain News and the WCU Public Policy Institute — is that we can continue to accumulate polling data unique to our region that provides insight into what people are thinking and why. Anytime you can get voters to think about and discuss important issues, it will hopefully lead to better decision making by leaders. That’s a good enough reason in itself to try to continue and build on this regional project to assess the feelings of residents west of Buncombe.
Tis the season of politics and lies
The truth is that, at the state level, no one is giving Pat Smathers a chance to win in his bid for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. The Canton mayor and attorney is trying to run a statewide race with low-budget campaign, and so the odds are stacked against him.