Archived News

Rep. Pless looks back on 2021

Rep. Pless looks back on 2021

It’s been a challenging year in Haywood County government circles, especially on the state level.

Stepping out of a contentious 2020 election with one foot still in a global pandemic, the General Assembly passed its first budget in three years but is still struggling to remedy a distinct lack of access to affordable health care and broadband, especially in rural areas. Toxic political discourse and misinformation persist from Washington to Waynesville and a devastating flood that caused a half-dozen deaths lent a somber tone to the work of local legislators in Raleigh. 

There for all of it was Mark Pless, the first-term Republican representative from Haywood County. Pless took a moment to talk with The Smoky Mountain News about the work he’s done over the past year, and the work still to be completed. 

The Smoky Mountain News: You were a Haywood County commissioner for two years, but now you’re a freshman legislator with a year under your belt. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since you’ve gone to Raleigh? 

Mark Pless: The thing that stands out the most is when I was dealing with issues here and people were approaching me, I pretty well had a handle on Haywood County. I’ve lived here my whole life and you’re never gonna have an agreement with everyone, but I kind of understood that. Now that I’m at the state level, I have learned this state is a lot larger and a lot more complex in ideas and opinions. It’s really hard to put a finger on something that is great for Haywood County and push it forward, because that may affect the coast adversely. Every time something comes forward, we have to see what that’s gonna do to somebody else. 

SMN: So what do you consider Haywood County’s biggest victories in the General Assembly over the past year? 

Related Items

MP:  I don’t know that there’s any great successes. I was pleased that they heard my voice. I spent a lot of time communicating with folks in Raleigh about the disaster, about the flooding, about where people were at, and we moved that as quickly as we could. So I feel really good that they listened and I was able to be there and help the people in county through the flooding process. But that’s really the only thing that I see as being a huge success, is being able to bring money back so people can get their lives back together. 

But also what I’ve gained from sitting here in the last year is something that you can’t get in a school, you can’t get in everyday life. I wanted to go down there and I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to stand and I wanted to be there for the people and do what I could do and represent them. After a short period of time, I realized that I could make a difference, but my biggest difference shifted to helping people navigate government. 

SMN: It sounds like you’re really focused on the constituent services aspect of this job as opposed to legislating. 

MP:  Even though we have a majority, you still have to get 61 people to agree with you and you have to get 26 in the Senate to agree with something and then you gotta get the governor to agree. So there are checks and balances to the legislative process and it needs to be that way. That’s a slow process, a very slow process. 

SMN: What do you see happening in the next year in the General Assembly? What’s the focus? 

MP: We have some more infrastructure money and we’re gonna try to do some more things in the short session to help now that everything is finally stabilized with the budget. The short session will be a lot about handling the bills that weren’t passed in either chamber and trying to get some more stuff moving to help the local governments to be able to be successful. We were fortunate enough to have a lot of money coming in from the federal government, and we need to get that out. 

SMN: One of the things that’s certainly top of mind here in Canton is their town services – police, fire, and administration. They need new buildings. They’ve said that even with FEMA money and insurance, that they’re looking at a pretty significant hole. If they wanted to build something from new scratch, they’d need at least $10 million. If they want to retrofit something, they would still need about $3 million. What’s the possibility that we are able to get a state bailout on that and have no cost to the taxpayers of Canton? 

Pless: I’ve had a lot of discussions with Nick [Scheuer, Canton town manager] and Zeb [Smathers, Canton’s mayor]. We’re trying to figure out where they’re standing and what they’re gonna do, and then we are gonna help them. Is that relocation? I don’t know, that’s the town of Canton’s decision, right? If that’s the direction they want to go in, then we’re gonna fight for funding to help them move. If they decide they wanna rebuild where they’re at and do some things to mitigate the flooding, we’ll help ‘em with that. We can’t really help until we know what’s gonna be next. Now, that could come as this infrastructure money or that could come out of the disaster relief monies that we’ve put aside in the budget. I don’t think they’re gonna have a decision made for a few more months because I don’t think FEMA has decided whether they can mitigate [potential future flooding]. I don’t see a way to mitigate it, just personally living there my whole life. I don’t see a way they can do anything to keep it from happening again and again and again and again. 

SMN: It’s kind of a similar situation with the ongoing pandemic. We probably can’t do much to stop it from happening again — maybe in our lifetime, maybe not. What lessons do you think state government has learned? 

MP: I had a lot of folks reaching out about mask mandates and forced closures. It wasn’t a pleasant thing, but this is the first time our generation has dealt with a medical emergency. The way things were handled, I don’t agree with a lot of it, but it was done by the laws that are in place in the state of North Carolina. Our emergency plans function very well for hurricanes, for floods, and the most frustrating part is that you can’t violate the law and you can’t change the law because you don’t like something. When we’re done with this [pandemic], we may need to change some things but the frustrating part was getting people to understand that I can’t break the Constitution and I can’t break the state laws because I swore to uphold them. 

SMN: It sounds a lot like you’re talking about Gov. Roy Cooper and his unilateral ability to declare a disaster and then keep it on the books as long as he wants. Is that process something that is going to be examined after this pandemic? 

MP:  That’s one of the things. We understand what a disaster declaration is for, but we’ve never had a disaster that lasted this long. When it comes right down to it, he may have had the best people in the world, the best people in North Carolina, the most educated people giving him advice but like I was saying earlier, the state of North Carolina is a lot bigger and the opinions are a lot more diverse than what I thought and the priorities are definitely a lot different. I think in a situation like this, the state needs to get out of it very quickly and get it back to the county level. The town of Canton, the town of Clyde, the county commissioners, all of these people need to be handling it in their areas because they know what their area looks like, not the governor and certainly not the legislature. 

SMN: This year, for the first time, the General Assembly will be judged on their pandemic response at the ballot box — once we get some maps. How do you feel the state Board of Elections did and is doing with election security? 

MP: I think if we’re allowed to move forward with voter ID, that will go a long way in securing our elections because if you produce an ID, they know who’s casting the vote. The way we do it now, where you can register and vote during early voting, I think that’s OK because they have time to proof those ballots and make sure that those folks legally are able to vote before the actual election results are in. 

I don’t think we need to go to same-day voting and registration because I think that’s gonna cause us problems. There’s a lot of counties that still do paper ballots and I don’t know that we should force everyone to go back to paper ballots, but I’m leaning more towards that because that takes the electronic fears off of the table. 

Now the other side of that, I don’t know that that’s going to completely solve the problem because if you listen to folks talk about years ago before machines were even a thought, there was stuffed ballot boxes and there was all kinds of rumors about how things went. If someone has a will to cheat, that will is always going to be there and they’ll find a way. I think our elections are secure. I think people don’t like outcomes and when they don’t like outcomes, it’s really easy to go against other people. A lot of people will disagree with me, but North Carolina did a good job with the elections. 

I don’t agree with the ballots being able to be sent in days after the election. I think that needs to be addressed. You had a year and you can’t tell me in the last six months you didn’t know from a television program or a radio station or opening your mailbox that there was an election coming. You had plenty of time to vote. If you voted by absentee ballot, if it’s not there by Election Day, then it doesn’t count, plain and simple. If you don’t pay your power bill and it’s not there by the cut-off date, they’re gonna cut your power off. There are deadlines in everything we do. We need to hold that deadline firm. 

SMN: You’re running for reelection, correct? 

MP: I fully intend to, as long as the people in Haywood County, Madison County and Yancey County — currently, that map may change — as long as they want me there, then I definitely wanna be there to try to help them. 

SMN: So the name-calling, the character assassinations, the misinformation, the virulent partisanship hasn’t jaded you too much then. 

MP:  I did a speech, at the 9/11 memorial in Clyde this year. The world stopped the day after that happened. The Sunday after that, people were in church. People stopped for just a second. And for several years after that, people were kind to each other. They could disagree and they were kind to each other. That’s not where we are right now. I don’t like that part of it. 

We all have issues. We all have varying opinions. That’s what makes North Carolina wonderful. We just have to figure out where we meet and we have to figure out what we’re going to be able to accomplish. Throwing daggers at people because you disagree with them is not where we need to be. The thing I would love for people to understand is that we don’t have to be mean. It starts with blowing the horn, at the traffic light and then it follows to confronting people in the grocery store because they don’t have a mask on or yelling at somebody from across the aisle. I try to be as nice to people as they will let me, I try to be as respectful to them and respectful of their ideas as I can be. I don’t know how you get people to understand that we can disagree, but we need to treat each other the way we would want to be treated. 

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.