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Meadows touts rise as self-made businessman

fr markLooking at Mark Meadows today, it is difficult to imagine him as a self-described “fat nerd” wandering the high school halls in Tampa Bay, Fla.

The Republican candidate for the 11th U.S. Congressional District has come a long way during his life — both in his self-made success and actual distance.

Meadows, 52, was born on a U.S. Army base in Verdun, France, where his father was stationed during the Vietnam War. His mother worked as a civilian nurse in the army hospital there. After a couple of years, Meadows’ parents moved into a 900-square-foot, three-bedroom home in Tampa Bay to live near family. 

Meadows parents did not have much money when he was growing up, but at the time he didn’t realize his family was poor. His mom worked as a surgical nurse and his dad worked as a draftsman. But, jobs for draftsmen came and went.

“They would kind of go through feast and famine,” Meadows said. “There was never really money for extras.”

Although he is now a successful real estate broker with a large home in Cashiers, he said his upbringing taught him to work hard because if he wanted something, he would have to save and save.

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“Growing up poor gave me a real appreciation for work,” Meadows said.

Since both his parents worked, Meadows and his two younger siblings would come home with a list of chores to do. While he excelled in academia, Meadows said his sister and brother were more outgoing.

“They were more gifted in terms of looks and sociability than I was,” Meadows said.

Meadows described himself during his formative years as “a fat nerd” — something that did not change until after he started high school and decided to ask a girl out, not realizing how large he was.

“I was probably, as they would say, morbidly obese at that particular time. So, I asked her out and she goes, ‘Well, no,’ and I didn’t leave well enough alone,” Meadows said.

He asked her if she had other plans. No. Did she have a boyfriend? No.

“I just don’t want to go with you,” Meadows recalled the girl saying. “I went home and looked in the mirror and said, ‘You’re fat.’ So, I started almost immediately to run a mile to lose weight.”

Meadows said he started out slow, partly running, partly walking the mile, eventually working his way up to four miles every night.

Being rejected for a date ended up being a blessing in disguise, Meadows said.

“We all have different motivations that motivate us to do things, so I can be thankful,” he said.

Meadows compared his experiences with being teased and rebuffed to running for political office.

“It’s tough. When you grow up as a fat kid, everybody makes fun of you, and all you want to do is fit in,” Meadows said. “When you run for office, people say stuff. It, at times, can step on pains. We just want to like everyone and be liked.”

After dropping weight, Meadows said he was unrecognizable to many — even his future wife Debbie, who went to the same high school in Tampa Bay. Debbie had thought Meadows was a new student, he recalled.

“I wasn’t the new guy. I had gone there the whole time,” Meadows said. “When you’re overweight, you know, you a lot of times blend in, and nobody pays attention at times, or they all pay attention.”

Meadows and his future wife began dating while still in high school but broke up when they went off to separate colleges. Meadows attended Florida State University in Tallahassee for a year, but the summer after his freshman year, he and Debbie reconnected and began dating again. Both ended up finishing their degrees at the University of South Florida in Tampa. They have now been married for 33 years.

Meadows had originally planned to be a weatherman but ended up studying business management.

“I still love weather, still follow it,” Meadows said. “That is the nerd part of me.”

Meadows owns as well as a couple other area weather sites. However, the websites have not been updated because of Meadows busy campaign schedule.


Making the mountains home

Meadows moved to the mountains with his wife in his mid-20s. Although his opponent has criticized him for not growing up in Western North Carolina, Meadows has lived in the area for more than 25 years.

The couple had visited on their honeymoon and decided the mountains, with its slower pace of life, would be the optimum place to raise their future children. So, Meadows quit his job at Tampa Electric and moved to the mountains.

“It was a job I enjoyed doing, but it was not the mountains,” Meadows said.

They moved to Jackson County and opened up a sandwich shop called Aunt D’s Place in Sylva.

“We just figured the worst-case scenario was we would start a business, and if we fell flat on our face, I would be 26, 27 years old starting over,” Meadows said.

Like many other small businesses in their first year, the sandwich shop struggled. The outlook improved, however, during the next couple years. During that time, Meadows earned his real estate license.

After about three years, he and his wife decided to sell the business, and Meadows became a real estate broker fulltime. He started Meadows Mountain Realty, which he later sold. Meadows now owns Highlands Properties.

Campaigning, however, has been his primary focus for the last year. Meadows had to fight off seven Republican challengers during the primary this spring.

The seat Meadows is after has been held by a Democrat the past six years, but that hardly makes the mountain voters that comprise the 11th Congressional District liberal. U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is a conservative, self-described Blue Dog Democrat.

Meadows’s opponent Hayden Rogers served as Shuler’s chief of staff and right hand man for five years in D.C., and is presumably cut from the same political cloth as Shuler and on the surface a natural replacement for the seat. 

However, some consider the district more Republican-friendly now — which would be a positive sign for Meadows’ campaign. New voting lines in effect this election carved the Democratic stronghold of Asheville out of the Congressional district.

Plus, Shuler’s reign could have been a mere phenomenon. Prior to Shuler’s win in 2007, the seat had been held for eight terms — since 1991 — by Republican Charles Taylor of Brevard.

Meadows said he feels good about his chances.

“We are very optimistic,” Meadows said. “It’s in the hands of the Lord and the voters.”

As Election Day draws nearer, Meadows spends most days on the road, traveling around the district. Sometimes he goes alone, but more often, he attends events, visits businesses or goes door-to-door with his campaign manager, a supporter who offers to drive him around, or his wife, Debbie.

For both U.S. House candidates, campaigning has been a family affair.

“My mom has been very supportive. She’s put out signs for us, calls and gives us reconnaissance all the time,” Meadows said with a laugh.

His children have also pitched in on breaks from college, going door-to-door for their dad. In the few days leading up to Election Day, both Blake, 20, and Haley, 19, are traveling back to Western North Carolina to help with the final campaign push.

His son Blake attends Patrick Henry College, a private college in Virginia whose mission is to graduate public servants who will serve with Christian ideals.

Meadows said the college even gives its students Election Day and the Monday before off so they can campaign for different people. Meadows said his son plans to bring about a dozen classmates to Western North Carolina to help with his campaign during the final days.

Although Meadows and Rogers have fought a relatively clean campaign thus far, Meadows said it’s difficult for family members to read the articles or letters to the editor.

“I think that is the toughest thing for family members is — for wives and children and moms —you know, is they read everything, and they want to respond, and they want to say, ‘Well, that’s not true,’” Meadows said. “You just have to say, ‘Mom, just don’t read the paper for the next three or four weeks.’”


Life outside politics

If he wasn’t out campaigning, Meadows said he would likely still be working six days a week but would have more time for his family than the 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. days on the campaign trail allow. And, Sundays would be spent at church, enjoying family time as well as his afternoon nap and walk, he said.

Rogers has painted Meadows as a citizen of the upper class who spends his time at country clubs playing tennis. While Meadows does not deny that he plays some tennis, he added that he also hikes and hunts. In fact, the license plate on his car states, “I HUNT 2.”

Meadows said that his son got the license plate a couple years ago to match another vanity plate that reads, “I DEBATE.” Prior to running, consultants advised him to get rid of the plate, Meadows said.

However, during the election, the vanity hunting plate has taken on new meaning. Rogers is repeatedly using the fact that Meadows was not born in Western North Carolina as ammunition against him. Rogers has claimed that Meadows can’t represent the mountains because he did not grow up here.

Despite insinuations to the contrary, Meadows said he started hunting with his dad when he was young and started hunting more often after moving to WNC. Meadows said his son, Blake, was 4 when he took him hunting for the first time. 

His son was so excited he could hardly sleep, but eventually he did. In the morning, “I went over to wake him up, and I didn’t even touch him, and he goes ‘Ready to go!’ He was Johnny-on-the-spot,” Meadows said.

After talking the whole way in the car, Meadows wasn’t sure Blake would sit still or stay quiet enough to see any deer, he said. But once they situated themselves, Blake fell asleep in his dad’s lap, holding onto an unloaded 22-caliber rifle.

“We saw more deer that day,” Meadows said.


‘Tis the political season

During a recent day of campaigning, Meadows looked and acted like a seasoned political candidate. Dressed in tan slacks, brown loafers, a blue button-up and a Patrick Henry College jacket, Meadows stood in front of the Republican booth at Waynesville’s Apple Festival, shaking hands and passing out “Mark Meadows for Congress” stickers.

“I’m Mark Meadows. I’m running for Congress,” Meadows said repeatedly as the endless line of people flowed by.

A few stopped for prolonged chats, but most who said “hello” just took a sticker, shook his hand and promised to vote for him. Even some out-of-town visitors paused to talk for a moment and agreed to wear a sticker.

“It’s just about meeting as many people as you can,” Meadows said. “There are a lot of folks who aren’t from here, but part of it is just being an ambassador.”

A big part of campaigning is simply meeting people and taking the time to talk to them. People seem more excited to vote after meeting a politician, Meadows said. And, “The more time I can spend with people, the more energized I am.”

Meadows estimated that he spends only about 10 to 20 percent of his time at festivals but touted them as an effective way to meet many people at once.

“You really have to work hard for my vote,” quipped voter Ken Brown, who was already sporting insignia supporting Meadows as well as presidential candidate Mitt Romney and vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. 

As little kids passed with their parents, Meadows asked the child to wear one of his stickers and jokingly asked them for their vote.

“If I can’t get votes with you, then I can’t get votes,” Meadows said as he placed a sticker on an infant.

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