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Political newcomers run for Jackson’s District 3 seat

Tom Stribling and Susan Bogardus. Tom Stribling and Susan Bogardus.

As in the District 4 race, the ballot for the District 3 county commission seat in Jackson County is devoid of incumbents. But unlike in District 4, both choices are first-time candidates who have not previously served on any elected or appointed board. 

Democrat Susan Bogardus beat out two Primary Election opponents for her place on the ballot, winning 42.02 percent of the vote to best second-place Cody Lewis by more than 7 percent. This will be Republican Tom Stribling’s first election, however, as he did not face a Primary Election contest. 

District 3 includes the Cullowhee, Webster and Savannah precincts, and while candidates must live within the boundaries of the district, all Jackson County voters help choose the winner. 

In August, Cullowhee resident Chad Jones, a conservative, announced that he would be running for the seat as well, but as a write-in candidate. However, hours before press time Jones informed The Smoky Mountain News that he was withdrawing from the race and throwing his support behind Stribling in order to prevent splitting the vote and giving Bogardus an automatic win. 

The District 3 seat is currently held by Republican Ron Mau, who won it from incumbent Democrat Vickie Greene in 2016. This time around, Mau declined to stand for re-election in Jackson County and instead sought to replace Rep. Joe Sam Queen in the District 119 seat to the N.C. House of Representatives. However, he ultimately lost that Primary Election race to former Rep. Mike Clampitt. 

The issue: The national discussion about the place of Confederate monuments in modern-day America hit home this summer as the fate of Sylva’s Confederate statue became the subject of intense public discussion. What does the statue mean to you, and how do you view commissioners’ Aug. 4 decision to let it stay but to cover pro-Confederate messaging on the pedestal? 

Bogardus: “I think the statue’s different for different people, and I think actually it’s sad because it’s not a very good representation of the people who actually were taken out of the hills here to go and be on both sides of the conflict, and they didn’t necessarily want either one. If you look back, most of the people in the mountains just wanted to be left alone.”

Bogardus does not view the statue as racist or as a symbol of white supremacy. However, she acknowledges that many people do view it that way and said she does not believe it needs to remain at such a prominent location because it no longer represents the makeup or circumstances of Sylva today.

Stribling: “It’s a symbol of freedom. It’s a symbol of fighting for what’s right and what’s not. There’s a bunch of things. You could go on and on and on. Mainly it’s history. It doesn’t need to be erased. It needs to be taught. It’s heritage, not hate.”

Stribling is adamant in his view that the statue is not racist and that the current controversy is “a bunch of junk” from “a few liberal crybabies” who are “having a fit because they think it’s racist.” Stribling wants to see the statue remain unaltered, saying that the decision to cover the Confederate flag shows they “don’t know what the Confederate flag stands for.” Stribling said that northern states had slaves too — these states had outlawed the institution well before the Civil War occurred, however — and claimed that “it’s the South that freed the slaves,” though he did not state how he arrived at that conclusion. 

The issue: In 2016, commissioners raised the property tax rate 32 percent after a tax revaluation delivered a much-reduced taxable property value in the county. In 2021, a new revaluation will take effect and currently values are expected to rise by more than 10 percent. Would you support decreasing the tax rate to keep the budget revenue-neutral, or would you prefer to maintain or raise the current tax rate? 

Stribling: “That’s a tough question to answer. That I’m not sure of.”

Stribling said he thinks the county is in a good place financially at the moment and would not support raising taxes — unless the tax in question was a fire tax. The Cullowhee Fire Department is badly in need of greater financial support so that it can hire paid firefighters rather than relying on volunteers, thereby decreasing response times, Stribling said. 

Bogardus: “I would let them go into effect and wait about two years and then reevaluate it, because then we could see what was going to happen after this pandemic. I think right now we’re not going to have enough money in our budget to do what we need to do, especially with the schools.”

The pandemic has made many things difficult to predict, so it would behoove the county to wait and see how many people are paying property taxes and how other sources of tax revenue are affected. Counties are not allowed to go into deficit, so the county must be sure it has enough money coming in to cover its bills. 

The issue: COVID-19 has disrupted normal routines and expectations around the world, and Jackson County is no exception. What challenges do you foresee as Jackson County continues to grapple with the virus, and what policies would you support to spur recovery on the other side of the pandemic?

Bogardus: “I think the tourism aspect and trying to support small businesses that are in that realm — the outdoors, the fishing and the kayaking and all those things — I think that’s really important.”

As the pandemic continues, it’s important to get out the message that people should not put off preventative and routine health care. The community needs to bolster support mechanisms for families who are out of work due to changes in the tourism and service industries — food pantries, shelters and the like. Bogardus would like to see the county support marketing and advertising to help the county’s tourism industry rebound as quickly as possible and to examine Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Authority policies to ensure that small businesses face as few barriers as possible. 

Stribling:  “The way Trump runs the country, the way the economy was going before this COVID hit, it was unbelievable. The stock market was just crazy. People were buying, investing I mean, it was never like it in the history, ever, and then COVID in my opinion was released on purpose because of that.”

Until the virus is under control, it’s important for everyone to use hand sanitizer and keep their social distance. The biggest challenge for Jackson County has to do with people not being willing to travel during the pandemic. 

The issue: In the General Election, Jackson County voters will be asked to approve a $20 million bond referendum to build an indoor pool complex in Cullowhee. If the referendum passes, commissioners will decide whether the project moves forward and how to pay for it. Do you support this project? 

Stribling: “It’s a fantastic idea because swimming is the best exercise that you can get. It works every muscle in your body when you swim.”

Stribling fully supports the project as a boon for public health. An indoor pool would give the elderly a safe way to exercise and stay fit and would provide another constructive activity for youth to take part in. 

Bogardus: “I’m hoping that people get out and make their feelings known on this. I live in Cullowhee. I would love to have a pool in Cullowhee.”

Bogardus pointed out that the county has already expended significant funds — more than $50,000 — to develop a plan for the aquatic center and get the question on the ballot. If the people vote in favor of the project, she said, there’s no reason why commissioners should not vote to issue the debt. 

The issue: The N.C. Department of Transportation is planning a makeover of N.C. 107 in Sylva. What is your opinion on the project, and what can the county to do mitigate some of the negative side effects of the construction process? 

Bogardus: “The county has resources that we could assist people to rearrange their property so they could still have parking and be able to stay in business. I don’t want them to go away. But how do we do that?”

The road project is needed, but it will be painful — especially since it’s coming on the heels of all the disruption caused by the pandemic. Bogardus said she would do whatever she could to help affected businesses and reduce impacts. Perhaps some businesses could be saved or impacted less by changes to rules regarding mandatory setbacks from roads and property lines.

Stribling: “It kind of goes back to the old saying, ‘You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all the people all of the time.’ It’s needed.”

Improving traffic movement along N.C. 107 is vital, even if the process is difficult. While the work is taking place, people will have to use alternate routes such as Cope Creek Road when possible and will simply need to leave a little earlier in the morning to get to work on time. 

The issue: The opioid epidemic continues to wreak havoc in Jackson County and nationwide. What can the county do to address it? 

Bogardus: “There are specific functional and structural changes that happen in your brain when you’re addicted. We need to as a society accept that. Not that we can accept the people doing drugs or being addicted, but we have to accept the fact that their brain has changed. It’s not going to go back to what it was. We need to go ahead and put the money into preventative services, whatever cost that is.”

While prevention is the most effective tool, it’s important for a community to offer support services for people who are in recovery. Recovering addicts need to stay busy in a constructive way, because once they get bored they often fall back into destructive patterns. Society also needs to be more forgiving of past offenses — employers should be more willing to give a chance to people who committed crimes in the past while intoxicated but are now clean.

Stribling: “They’re carrying this burden, this guilt, and that doesn’t help any. They need to be comforted, relaxed and loved. That’s what they need.”

Stribling would like to work with the Jackson County Health Department, nonprofits and medical professionals to provide Alcoholics Anonymous-style support groups of people who are recovering from opioid addiction. 

The issue: Western Carolina University is becoming an ever-larger presence in Jackson County as a whole and in District 3 in particular. What are the challenges and the opportunities of having a 12,000-student university in Cullowhee? 

Stribling: “There’s really no challenge. It’s great to have the university here.”

Stribling said that, if elected, he would look forward to communicating with university leaders to foster greater collaboration between WCU and local government. College housing has “just exploded” in Cullowhee in recent years, so there should be “no problem” with student housing at the moment. 

Bogardus: “We need to have people able to walk if they’re within a mile. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to do that safely and not feeling like they’re putting their lives in danger.”

Walkability and transportation are key challenges in the Cullowhee area, and Bogardus would like to see a collaboration between Jackson County Transit and WCU’s Cat-Tran that would better connect campus, Cullowhee and Sylva for people who can’t or prefer not to drive. 

The issue: It’s becoming increasingly difficult for people who work in Jackson County to own property in Jackson County due to lack of housing inventory and high prices. How would you approach this problem? 

Bogardus: “It’s not affordable if you can’t pay it, and there are a lot of people here who rent who would probably buy a house if they could afford it.”

Bogardus would like to see better enforcement of health and safety standards on rental units, because too many renters live in places that are not maintained as they should be. She would also like to bolster activity in the local Habitat for Humanity Chapter to help people who are priced out of the current market get into a house by investing “sweat equity” in addition to money. 

Stribling: “It’s just tough to say because it’s not the county’s position to say, ‘We’re going to build a house for you.’”

Stribling said he would support some type of job training assistance to help people who are homeless get a job and begin to afford housing. In general, he said, people need to live within their means and realize that if they’re making $10 an hour they can’t afford a $400,000 house.


Meet the candidates

Tom Stribling (Republican)

Stribling, 56, has lived in Cullowhee for the past 16 years with his wife and two children who have since graduated from Jackson County Public Schools. Originally from Hawkinsville, Georgia, he attended college for two years before leaving to work in the excavation business. He owns Stribling Land Corporation, whose services include grading work and site development. Stribling has served as a church deacon, coach and youth mentor.

Reason to run: “There’s a lot of issues that have been talked about and talked about and talked about for years and years and years, and nothing has gotten done. I want to get in and I want to get some of these things done.”

Top three priorities: Seeing the indoor pool project through to completion, instituting a fire tax to better fund the Cullowhee Fire Department, improving broadband access.

Susan Bogardus (Democrat)

As an “Air Force brat,” Bogardus, 63, moved all over the country growing up, but she and her husband have been in Jackson County for the past 13 years. She is a registered dietician with a doctorate in nutrition sciences, and she has one adult son. Bogardus has worked at WCU and as an organic grower at the Jackson County Farmer’s Market. She’s currently a dietician at the Cherokee Indian Hospital, also volunteering with the Cullowhee Community Garden, Community Table and Circles of Hope. She is an active member of the Jackson County Democratic Party and has served at various times as precinct chair and assistant chair in the organization. 

Reason to run: “I still am interested in affordable housing and living wage jobs, and I haven’t changed my mind. I feel like there are things that can be done better in Jackson County to support both of those areas.”

Top three priorities: Improving access to affordable housing, supporting small businesses and supporting transportation planning aimed at creating a more walkable community.

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