The Shuler effect: Democrats face uphill battle to hang on to seat

The race for the Congressional seat representing Western North Carolina was flipped on its head last week when incumbent U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, announced he would not seek re-election this year — leaving no heir apparent within his party.

“It is somewhat difficult for the Democrats to find someone at this late date to run,” said Tommy Jenkins, former Democratic state senator and state representative in Macon County. “The Republican candidates, some of them, have been out there campaigning for a year.”

The Republican side of the race was already overcrowded with at least eight people declaring that they will run. But now, with Shuler out of the picture, the election is anyone’s game.

“(Shuler’s decision) changes everything,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

The Republican primary was already hotly contested, and that won’t change, according to Jeff Hunt, a Republican candidate from Brevard. But the Republican nominee will no longer have to do battle with Shuler come the general election.

SEE ALSO: As Shuler steps down to spend time with family, finding a Shuler-esque candidate to fill the void has Democrats scrambling

“It makes November a different ball game,” said Hunt.

The lack of a frontrunner for the Democratic Party could mean that the seat falls under Republican control.

“Shuler is the one Democrat in my mind who had a chance,” Cooper said. “One, he was extremely moderate. Two, he has the name recognition. Three, he had a fundraising advantage.”

Even if Shuler betroths his war chest to a candidate who is Shuler-esque in their political views, they still won’t have the name recognition that Shuler did — not given his football stardom on top of Congressman status.

While a replacement Democrat might be coming from behind in the name recognition field, so are all the Republican challengers, Shuler pointed out.

“The Republican candidates, no one has ever heard of them at all,” Shuler said.

 

11th-hour bomb

Thus far, Asheville resident Cecil Bothwell is the only Democrat to officially declare his candidacy. He was already planning to run in the Democratic Primary against Shuler. Bothwell is considerably more liberal than Shuler, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, and faces overwhelming odds in a historically conservative district.

“I don’t understand how Bothwell has much of a chance here,” Cooper said.

Despite this, with Shuler out of the running, Bothwell said he is confident that he will compete in November’s election.

“That is good news for the campaign,” he said. “I look forward to being the nominee of the Democratic Party for Congress in 11th District.”

But, a wide-open seat could draw a number of potential candidates out of the woodwork before the candidate filing period closes at the end of the month.

So far, however, Shuler’s Chief of Staff Hayden Rogers is the only Democrat to say he is considering a run for Shuler’s seat. (See related article)

Despite a relative lack of name recognition, Rogers is a conservative Democrat and could potentially garner votes from across the political spectrum similar to Shuler.

A 2010 Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters revealed an anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

The Democratic nominee — no matter who it is — will have a tough battle ahead in the November election.

“Of course the election will be difficult. It’s always difficult,” said Luke Hyde, head of the Democratic Party in the 11th District. But, “We expect to win in the fall.”

But the 11th-hour bomb dropped by Shuler hasn’t done his party any favors.

“I think he’s done a tremendous injustice to the Democrats for announcing so late,” said Ralph Slaughter, Jackson County GOP chair. “This assures (Republicans) of a victory in 2012.”

Last year, the state reshuffled the 11th District, cutting the liberal-concentrated Asheville out of the district and stirring in four Republican-leaning counties. Now, only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, compared to 43 percent prior to the redistricting.

“This Republican redistricting was masterful,” Cooper said. “It is shocking at how good a job they did to take a state that was about 50-50 Democrat Republican and draw districts that will result in a state with about three Democrats in (U.S.) Congress.”

However, the district is still home to a decent bloc of unaffiliated voters who could sway the election either way.

“You never take for granted that a Republican is going to win even if it has been redrawn,” Hunt said.

The head of the district’s Republican Party said that Shuler bowing out of the competition does not ensure a Republican victory. However, it does improve the odds.

“That fact that it is an open seat rather than an incumbent … can’t help but encourage the Republicans,” said Dave Sawyer, an attorney from Bryson City. “I think we are more optimistic about being able to do so now.”

Mark Meadows, a Republican candidate from Jackson County, agreed with Sawyer.

It would be a “great mistake” to think the election is a cinch now, Meadows said. However, “You look at it as a much easier campaign.”

One obstacle that still faces Republicans is the current size of its candidate pool.

“I think the field right now is extremely large,” Meadows said.

At least eight Republicans are currently battling for the nomination, and the party will need to narrow the field and focus on beefing up the profile of a few candidates.

 

Democratic decline

Shuler is not the only prominent Democrat from North Carolina who decided to retire this year.

Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue announced in late January that she would not seek re-election. Perdue served only one-term as governor, but it was plagued by battles with the Republican-controlled state legislature.

And, just a month prior, long-time N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, divulged that his 14-year stint in politics would come to an end this year. The nearly 76-year-old state representative decided to retire to spend more time with his grandchildren and possibly travel.

These retirements leave their vacant positions in limbo.

“It is not a good sign for the Democratic party in North Carolina,” Cooper said. The state is shifting from the “old solid democratic South” to “a state dominated by the Republican party.”

In the case of the governor’s race, there is no standout candidate or frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, whereas Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, seems the natural choice for the Republican Party. McCrory made a good showing during the last gubernatorial race against Perdue.

“I would be very surprised if the Democrats pulled out a victory in the governor’s mansion in November,” Cooper said.

Family first: As Shuler steps down to spend time with family, finding a Shuler-esque candidate to fill the void has Democrats scrambling.

When Coach Boyce Dietz got a call from his former standout quarterback Heath Shuler asking him to meet for breakfast at Clyde’s Restaurant one morning several years ago, Dietz dutifully got in the car and headed toward Waynesville to hear what was on the mind of his old Swain County High football player gone-pro.

“I always told my players if you ever need to talk about anything through the years, no matter how much time has passed, to just give me a call,” Dietz said. He will never forget what came next as they dug into their biscuits and gravy at the roadside diner.

“He said, ‘Coach I’m, thinking about running for Congress,’” Dietz recounted. Needless to say, it was the first time one of his players had leveled that particular question.

Dietz offered some sage advice. Shuler’s children were just 2 and 5 at the time. Dietz warned him the toughest part of the job wouldn’t be anything that happened in Washington, but what he was missing out on back home.

Six years later, it seems Dietz was right. Shuler is throwing in the towel on his congressional career representing North Carolina’s 11th District, trading in the long trips back and forth to Washington for more time at home in Waynesville with his wife and kids, now 7 and 10.

SEE ALSO: Democrats face uphill battle to hang on to seat

“It feels like time has just flown by,” said Shuler, 40. “They are growing up, and I don’t want to miss those moments.”

Shuler said the decision came out of heart-to-heart talks with his wife, Nikol, as he contemplated whether to run for governor following the recent and equally surprising news that Gov. Beverly Perdue will step down.

The suddenness of Shuler’s announcement has sent shock waves through the Democratic Party, left in the lurch without an heir apparent who is prepped and ready to fill the void.

“I wish we’d had a little more advance notice that the Congressman wasn’t going to run,” said Brian McMahan, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, who added that as a new father himself, he understands Shuler’s decision.

Shuler’s announcement came less than two weeks before the mandatory sign-up period for candidates to declare their intentions to run.

Shuler has gotten some backlash from Democrats who feel slighted by his 11th-hour decision. While a darling among moderates, Shuler has learned to accept the black sheep status from elements in his own party who reject him for being too conservative.

“I wasn’t Democratic enough, but now they want me back,” Shuler joked.

Mostly, however, Shuler said he has had a humbling outpouring of support from well-wishers from both parties. Shuler was one of the true middle-of-the-aisle members of Congress. In his last two years he served as the leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, an alliance of moderate Democrats in Congress.

“Republican House members have said ‘Please don’t leave, please don’t leave,’” Shuler said. “And, of course, all my Blue Dog guys.”

Rather than guilt him into staying on, however, those bidding Shuler farewell have largely enforced that his decision is the right one.

“So many have said don’t miss that time, you never get that childhood back. Those times are gone forever,” Shuler said.

Shuler has spent the past six years living a double life of sorts — flying to Washington Monday morning to do his job as a congressman and returning late Thursday night for a weekend as a family man.

Nikol’s parents live in Waynesville and serve as a support network when Shuler is out of town. But raising two kids alone for much of the week is hard work, Shuler said. He won’t forget his first solo stint with the kids one weekend when his wife had commitments of her own. He found himself wondering how in the world she did it.

“There is nothing like the two of us being together and to share the load and the work that it takes to raise kids,” Shuler said.

Spending time with family has become a cliché status often cited by people stepping down from a job.

“I think people use that as an excuse,” said Dietz, who joined Shuler’s staff as a field representative on the ground in the seven western counties. “I think it is a cop out a lot of the time, but I don’t really think it is with him. It really bothered him when we would go out the door on Monday morning and his kids would cry.

“He had a choice to make and he put his family before his job,” Dietz said.

 

Tough road to re-election

Political observers, however, question whether Shuler was simply fearful of losing this year’s election. Congressional lines were re-drawn this year by a Republican-led General Assembly, making Shuler’s district decidedly more conservative.

But Dietz doubts a fear of losing the race led to Shuler’s decision. Shuler won re-election easily in 2008 and even in 2010 — a dismal year for Democrats by all accounts but one that Shuler survived with hardly a battle scar to show for it. He beat his Republican challenger by 20,000 votes with 54 percent of the ballots.

But, there’s no question the fight to win would have been much tougher this time.

“I think he knew it was going to be a really hard campaign, and it was going to take a lot of time,” Dietz said. “He realized he was really going to be away.”

The new district lines cut Asheville out of Western North Carolina like a bite out of an apple. Asheville’s large bloc of Democratic voters were swapped out for the markedly conservative-leaning voters in Avery, Mitchell, Burke and Caldwell counties.

“I can’t believe he didn’t do the math and figure out it was going to be a lot harder,” said Chris Cooper, a political analyst and professor at Western Carolina University.

Shuler, however, says he wasn’t daunted.

“I know what my polling numbers were,” Shuler said.

Just because the new district includes more Republicans doesn’t mean they would have necessarily supported his opponent, said Shuler, who has gotten votes from a lot of Republicans in each of his previous elections.

“Graham County is a perfect example of a county that is a so-called Republican county and we won it by 66 percent of the vote,” Shuler said of the 2010 election.

Dietz believes Shuler could have kept the seat as long as he wanted it — although he never would have guessed it sitting in Clyde’s Restaurant that morning six years ago.

Dietz admits he was doubtful Shuler could unseat the powerful, wealthy, longtime Congressman Charles Taylor, R-Brevard.

“I told him it would be an uphill battle. Nobody else has been able to even come close to doing this. You have never even been in politics before,” Dietz recalled saying.

Dietz’s mind was whirling with all the issues Shuler would have to brush up on, from obscure historical factoids to foreign policy.

“I was thinking how in the world can you prepare yourself for that?” Dietz said. “He proved he to be a quick learner on a lot of things.”

Still, Dietz said he was surprised when Shuler actually pulled off a victory over Taylor in 2006. And he wasn’t the only one.

“On paper, no Democrat should have won this district,” said Cooper.

Once in office, the surprises kept coming.

“Your preconception is we got us a big, dumb football player, but to anyone who had that preconceived notion, it turned out that this guy was sharp as a tack, and he really got it,” said Joe Sam Queen, a former state senator from Waynesville. “I found him to be one of the quickest studies in politics I’ve ever met.”

Shuler quickly made a name for himself and began wearing the title of congressman with confidence.

“I think he was more effective than one would expect a freshman congressman to have been,” said Mark Swanger, the chairman of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners and a Democrat. “I do think he established a higher profile than one would expect in his short tenure.”

Swanger said he is very disappointed Shuler is dropping out of Congress, a sentiment echoed time and again since the news broke last week.

“I really, really regret that he is not running again because he is good at what he does,” said Luke Hyde, an attorney in Shuler’s hometown of Bryson City and head of the Democratic Party in the 15-county congressional district.

 

Blue Dog at heart

Shuler’s ability to win and retain a seat in Congress as a Democrat from a conservative mountain district is a testament to his middle-of-the-road philosophy. He is pro-gun, pro-life and doesn’t support gay marriage. He voted against health care reform and against federal bailouts, winning the title as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.

“I think he found a voice for the people of Western North Carolina that was right down the center. I certainly respected and admired that,” said Queen. “He struck a good balance.”

Republicans aren’t exactly chirping a chorus of  “good riddance” over Shuler’s departure.

“I think Heath did a good job,” said Floyd Rogers, owner of Haywood Insurance in Waynesville and a Republican. “He tried to vote the heart and the conscious of the people in his district. It was a very difficult thing for Heath to balance. Overall, I would give him a good rating.”

For counties west of Asheville, having a congressman from their neck of the woods was a nice change in a political landscape increasingly dominated by metro population centers.

“Heath is the kind of person you could just pick up the phone and reach him or he would call you right back,” said Swanger.

From his own staff to political opponents, the sheer number of people who refer to him as “Heath” — not congressman and certainly not Mr. Shuler — is in itself a testament to his approachable persona.

“There was one thing I always thought about Heath,” Dietz said. “I thought he was a better person than he was a football player, and he was a heck of a football player.”

Unlike some athletes who think they are above their peers at school, Shuler always gave his teammates credit and went out of his way to reach out to the younger kids, Dietz said.

Shuler remembers going out to dinner with his parents after a football game his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, being constantly interrupted by people wanting his autograph. When Shuler gave a sigh under his breath, his mom looked at him and told him that one day he would look back and wish people still wanted his autograph like they used to.

He never forgot his mom’s words that night, and it helped shape the gracious and humble personality he still exhibits.

Shuler says he’ll miss the camaraderie of other congressman more than anything else about the job. He equated it to the locker room fellowship of other football players, which is precisely what he missed most after exiting his pro football career following an injury.

“As much as people want to demonize members of Congress, the truth is there are some great, quality people,” Shuler said. “As a whole we don’t poll very well, but individually, there are great guys.”

But, Shuler had disdain for what he called the gamesmanship of politics in D.C.

“I had people who wouldn’t even shake my hand in a public setting because they knew I was a Democrat. I was like, really? Really?” Shuler said. “I am glad I won’t have to put up with it any longer.”

Queen wondered whether the toxic political atmosphere is partly to blame for Shuler walking away.

“Given the tenure in Washington, I am sure it has not been fun,” Queen said.

Shuler, a devout Christian, rented a room in a D.C. house run by a religious group for congressmen. His roommates are all currently Republicans.

While Shuler is conservative as far as most Democrats go, not all Republicans were willing to embrace him as one of their own. Jeff Norris, a Republican attorney in Waynesville, hopes to see a Republican win the seat, something that will certainly be easier with Shuler out of the way.

“Hopefully the next representative will help the district and country solve some of the critical issues facing us,” Norris said, questioning whether Shuler has any tangible accomplishments from his six years in Congress.

Dietz said the national deficit weighed heavily on Shuler and indeed became one of his leading causes in Washington in recent years. During the height of the deficit talks last fall, when the so-called Super Committee was wrestling with how to trim the budget by a $1.5 trillion, Shuler amassed the “Go Big” coalition — urging the committee to instead trim the deficit by $4 trillion during the next decade. He ultimately got 150 members from both parties in the House and Senate to sign on.

“He felt so strong about the deficit and the threat to the country,” Dietz said.

 

Filling Shuler’s shoes

With news of Shuler’s departure less than a week old, no Democrats have yet emerged to run for the seat other than Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville city councilman who was already in the race and planned to challenge Shuler in the Democratic primary.

But, Bothwell’s more liberal stance than Shuler may not go over with the district’s conservative leanings, leaving Democrats in a quandary in finding a candidate they think has a shot at winning. Meanwhile, Republican challengers for Shuler’s seat announced their intentions months ago. The frontrunners have campaign staffs assembled, headquarters humming, web sites up and running and fundraising well under way.

Cooper, the political analyst and public policy professor at Western Carolina University, doesn’t give the Democrats much hope.

“It is going to be darn near impossible,” Cooper said. “Ideologically, I can’t imagine anyone who is going to line up with the district the way Shuler did.”

But, there may be one. Hayden Rogers, Shuler’s chief of staff, is contemplating a run.

Rogers grew in the small town of Robbinsville and like Shuler played football in high school, but on an opposing team. Hardly rivals now, however, Rogers is Shuler’s closest advisor and political strategist, commuting back and forth to D.C. from his home in Murphy.

Rogers can walk both walks. He grew hunting squirrels and fishing in the mountains with his grandfather, yet went on to major in political science at Princeton, where he also played football.

“He would be an extremely strong candidate,” Shuler said.

Shuler’s endorsement of his own chief of staff has led some to speculate as to whether he intentionally timed the announcement of his decision not to run at this late stage in order to give Rogers a leg up. While any other Democrat would have to scramble to get a campaign rolling, Rogers would arguably have an easier time of it as Shuler’s anointed replacement, potentially inheriting a good share of Shuler’s half-million dollar war chest and many of his campaign workers.

Shuler said there was no plan to hand the seat to Rogers. In fact, Shuler didn’t know Rogers might be interested until after he made the announcement last Thursday.

Rogers approached him later that evening and asked “What would you think if I ran in your spot?” Shuler recounted.

If stepping down indeed was part of a grand plan, it was a well-kept secret indeed.

“I was totally shocked to learn Heath Shuler wasn’t going to run. I’ve not talked to anyone who knew it was coming,” said Jean Ellen Forrister, active party Democrat in Jackson County.

From Democratic insiders to Shuler’s own staff, the announcement came as a surprise.

Dietz says he didn’t know Shuler was planning to step down until he called an all-staff video conference last Thursday.

“None of us definitely knew, but we all had a bad feeling about it,” Dietz said of those hours leading up to the conference call. “It depresses me to think about not being able to do this anymore.”

Shuler pointed out he isn’t quitting tomorrow. He still has another 11 months to go — 11 more months to hit his favorite DC restaurant, Oceanaire, an upscale seafood restaurant popular in political circles. And 11 more months to represent the people of the 11th District.

Landslide hazard maps axed by state: Risky slopes in Jackson, Haywood to remain a mystery for now

Republican lawmakers have pulled the plug on the state’s landslide mapping unit, terminating a controversial project to assess which slopes in the mountains are landslide prone.

A team of five state geologists working on the maps are being laid-off this week, saving the state $355,000 a year.

“They are very disappointed as we all are. We felt this was important work from the perspective of public safety that had a lot of value, and we are disappointed we couldn’t complete it,” said Rick Wooten, a senior state geologist and landslide expert based in Asheville.

When the team was created in 2005, their mission was to map landslide hazards in every mountain county. The team only finished four counties: Macon, Buncombe, Henderson and Watauga.

The unit was working on Jackson County when it halted in its tracks.

“I thought it was an added benefit and I was glad we were at the front end of it,” said Tom Massie, an advocate for landslide mapping in Jackson County who serves on the Mountain Resources Commission. “Anyone getting ready to buy a piece of property or build a home would know whether it was a suitable site. Now they are going to have to proceed at their own risk.”

Haywood County was next in line, but won’t being seeing its landslide maps either.

“I feel like we will be losing a valuable tool in the planning process for the land that is left to develop in Haywood County,” said Marc Pruett, an erosion control officer in Haywood County.

Landslide mapping has proven controversial, however. Critics fear the stigma of being in landslide hazard zones would make property hard to sell or develop.

“Certainly some of the legislators have been very open in their statements that they viewed these maps as a backdoor to regulation and were not the least bit sorry to see these maps go away,” said DJ Gerken, and Asheville-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

That begs the question as to whether it was truly budget concerns and cost-savings that prompted lawmakers to target the landslide mapping. Indeed, environmental policies and funding have taken a big hit under the Republican controlled legislature. (See related story in Outdoors section.)

Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion, said landslide mapping was killed to save money — not because of an ideological stance.

“We had to make cuts throughout government this year and one of the areas that I didn’t feel like was a ‘have-to’ thing was the landslide mapping program,” Gillespie said.

But, Gillespie makes no bones about it: the state shouldn’t meddle in steep slope regulations. And Gillespie indeed feared the landslide maps would become ammunition to push through slope construction laws at the state level.

“That’s what they were doing it for,” Gillespie said of the landslide maps.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he fielded a call from emergency responders in Haywood County — where several homes have been hit by landslides in the past decade — asking him not to cut the program. The landslide team was always one of the first on the scene when slides struck.

“Our role was to help out the emergency managers figure out what happened. Is it safe to work around here? Is there still unstable material up here? If there is, where might it go? Do we need to evacuate people? When is it safe to go back?” Wooten said.

If the state had plenty of money, Davis can’t say what the fate of the landslide mapping unit would have been.

“To be perfectly candid, I don’t know. That is a different conversation. Since we didn’t have the money we didn’t get to that conversation,” said Davis.

 

Good riddance

Not everyone is sad to see landslide maps fall by the wayside. Lamar Sprinkle, a surveyor in Macon County and a member of the planning board, said he feels like Macon is penalized as one of the four counties to have completed maps.

“As a property owner I would think if my property lay in one of these zones, it would devalue my property,” Sprinkle said.

Sprinkle said a prospective buyer from out of state would likely be turned off from property that falls in landslide zone, without knowing exactly what that meant.

“If I went down to the coast and there was some kind of red flag throwed up to me that I didn’t totally understand, I probably wouldn’t buy that piece of property,” Sprinkle said.

Sprinkle said he doesn’t understand how the maps were arrived at and is hesitant to take them at face value. He said the maps are a knee-jerk reaction to the Peek’s Creek tragedy. While a tragedy indeed, Sprinkle believes it was a random act of God. He sees landslide mapping as an arbitrary and fruitless endeavor that will do little to actually predict where a slide might hit in the future.

“There are some things we don’t have any control over,” Sprinkle said.

In wind storms, trees have fallen on homes, one even killing a couple inside.

“You don’t go passing an ordinance to make everybody cut the trees around their house,” Sprinkle said.

Ron Winecoff of ReMax Elite Realty in Franklin said Macon would be better off without the maps. He, too, fears it could devalue property.

Winecoff said Realtors in Macon have been confused over whether they are obligated to tell prospective buyers when property falls in the landslide hazard zone. Do the same rules apply as lead paint or asbestos? For now, the answer is no, supposedly.

“The state board of Realtors has told us we do not have to disclose it and so we don’t disclose it, but I don’t know whether that is right or not,” Winecoff said. “If you are aware of it, any item that effects the property adversely needs to be disclosed. Technically probably we should be disclosing those maps because they do exist.”

Critics of landslide mapping fear that property undeserving of such a label would be blacklisted and become impossible to sell.

More often that not, however, the landslide mapping would help people figure out where on a lot to put a house. Landslides follow predictable paths down the mountains, and building outside that path is usually all that is needed, say experts.

The path of a landslide is about 60 feet wide — about 30 feet to each side of the natural drainage course.

Gerken pointed to the Peek’s Creek disaster in Macon County, where 15 homes were destroyed in 2005. Those built closer to the drainage were flattened while those 10 yards to the side survived intact.

That’s why Pruett sees the landslide maps as a planning tool.

“If you had a chance to buy a piece of property and you knew where there might be a hazardous spot, wouldn’t you want to move your house 50 feet away from it? How could that not be helpful?” Pruett said.

There is, no doubt, some property in the mountains simply too steep, too unstable and too prone to landslides to build on — as unfortunate as that may be for the person who owns it and would like to sell it, Pruett said.

“Sometimes you just have to look a bear in the face and say it is a bear,” Pruett said.

But the landslide maps shouldn’t be blamed for pointing out the obvious.

While the homebuilders and real estate groups have actively lobbied against the landslide maps at the state level, not all developers are against them.

Ben Bergen, a builder in Jackson County and board member on the local Homebuilders Association, thinks the maps would have been a good tool.

“We would have liked to see it through to completion,” said Bergen, owner of the green building firm Legacy. “North Carolina is a buyer beware state in terms of property. I agree it is up to the buyer to inform themselves, but I thought it was going to very useful as a builder.”

At the very least, the maps would alert people to buy supplemental landslide insurance, Massie said. Regular homeowners insurance doesn’t cover landslides. Homeowners are out of luck — whether a home is totally flattened or the foundation destabilized due to shifting soil. They can’t sell their home, nor will insurance compensate them. Meanwhile, they have to keep paying the mortgage on a house they can’t live in. Often, bankruptcy and foreclosure become the only option.

The state has taken pity on some landslide victims and bailed them out. The state spent $3.2 million to buy out damaged areas of the Peek’s Creek slide in macon County.

Meanwhile, fixing a landslide in Maggie Valley cost the state and federal government a combined $1.4 million.

Gerken said the cost of landslide mapping would pay for itself by avoiding such disasters.

“It is an extremely affordable investment to avoid those costs,” Gerken said.

Gerken equated it to floodplain mapping, a long-standing practice that curtails building in flood-prone areas.

“Not because they happen every year, but it doesn’t make sense to build structures in an area that will likely get hit every hundred years,” Gerken said.

The maps aren’t exactly sweeping indictments of every steep mountainside. In Macon County, 11 percent of the county falls in the high landslide hazard zone. In Buncombe, its 10 percent, and just 6 percent in Henderson. Watauga comes in higher with 20 percent.

 

How to map a landslide

Unlike lightning, landslides nearly always strike in the same place twice. Mapping old slides is the single biggest indicator of where future slides will occur.

Many of the homes destroyed in slides over the past decade were built on top of old landslide deposits — something that landslide mapping could have warned people about, Wooten said.

“Some landslide deposits go back hundreds of thousands of years. They are usually quite large because they are an accumulation of many landslides that occur over geologic time,” Wooten said.

Wooten’s team has entered 3,000 old landslides in the state’s database so far. There are thousands more out there.

The mapping falls short of being able to predict the next slide, however.

“People say, ‘Well, where is it going to happen next time,’” Wooten said. “Eventually over geologic time it is going to reoccur.”

Geologists rely most heavily, however, on aerial photography over several decades to find evidence of slides, which remain visible for years.

In Jackson County, aerial photography from the early 1950s still revealed slides dating back to 1940, a fateful year when 13 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, triggering thousands of slides across the region.

Robbie Shelton, Jackson County’s erosion officer, was one of the team’s go-to consultants. He often acted as a guide, helping the team scout their way up mountainsides using locally known dirt roads and cart paths to reach an old slide.

After tagging along on the ground reconnaissance missions, Shelton knows what to look for and can hopefully warn builders and developers even though the county won’t have a complete map.

“I feel like I have a little better handle on it, having been out with Rick and his team, to be able to say, ‘This might not be the best place for you to think about building and you might want to consult a geotech,’” Shelton said.

The landslide unit has been working frantically to get the Jackson County maps to a good stopping point, and enter all the data they have so far into the database.

Wooten said he will drop off whatever GIS files they have done with Jackson County sometime next week, and then formally shut the books on the project.

While interesting, the half-finished map of where old landslides occurred is only somewhat helpful. The most important step — translating the location of old slides to identify low, moderate and high hazard zones — hasn’t been done.

While Wooten will remain employed as a state geologist and landslide expert, he won’t be finishing up the maps on his own.

“The message from the legislature was they do not want the mapping done,” Wooten said.

 

Putting the maps to work

So far, no county has banned building outright in high hazard landslide zones. What’s more likely is that landslide hazard zones will pinpoint where to impose regulations.

But of the four counties that were mapped, only Buncombe has actually done anything with them. In Henderson and Watauga, the landslide maps have found a cozy home on the shelf with no sign of being taken down anytime soon.

In Macon County, planners hope the landslide map will be incorporated into a new steep slope ordinance currently in the works. If passed by county commissioners, Macon will join just half a dozen WNC counties with slope ordinances — ranks that also include Haywood, Jackson and Buncombe.

Macon’s ordinance sets out a few simple parameters, like limiting the height and steepness of cut-and-fill slopes. On the steepest slopes, builders would have to consult an engineer.

And that’s where the landslide maps come in. Areas that fall in moderate to high landslide hazard zones would also require engineers to build on.

Wooten said that is a reasonable application for the landslide maps.

“If you were looking for a place to buy and the maps were available, you could see areas where there is a high landslide potential that would give you the information to seek additional help from geologists or engineers,” Wooten said.

But Sprinkle, who sits on the Macon planning board, doesn’t think the landslide maps have a place in the county’s ordinance, questioning their accuracy. And now that the landslide mapping team is dismantled, who can they call if they find an error in the maps, Sprinkle asked.

“There are lot of pitfalls in having maps with nobody to look after them,” Sprinkle said.

 

What’s next

While landslide mapping is gone for now, future lawmakers could start it back up. But a team will have to be re-assembled and the learning curve repeated.

“We paid to develop a lot of expertise in landslide mapping that we are now throwing to the wind,” Gerken said.

Landslide mapping gained traction following two back-to-back tropical storms that dumped a massive amount of rain on the mountains in 2005, triggering dozens of landslides. The most tragic was Peek’s Creek in Macon County, where five people, including a child, were killed and 15 homes destroyed.

“That was probably the event that got the attention of legislators,” Wooten said.

Gerken said the loss of life is inevitable without a more cautionary approach to siting homes.

“This short-term political decision simply cannot hold because we are going to see the consequences again,” Gerken said. “These kinds of events are part of mountain geology, and they will happen again. It is only a matter of time.”

 

 

See the maps online

To see Macon County’s landslide map, go to www.geology.enr.state.nc.us/Landslide_Info/MaconCounty.html. A partial map for Jackson will eventually be posted with a link at wfs.enr.state.nc.us/fist/.

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.

Does right equal might? Republicans take control next week

Don’t expect business as usual when the state’s General Assembly convenes January 26: not with an epic power shift from left to right and a crippling $3.7 billion shortfall to contend with.

Despite the staggering budget crisis, Republicans — who own a majority in both the state House and Senate for the first time in more than a century — are expressing confidence in their ability to make meaningful progress on other issues.

Such as redrawing voting districts, which could pave the way for conservative dominance to continue for at least the next decade if reworked to the Republicans’ advantage. Or possibly increasing the number of charter schools allowed in the state above the current 100. And returning more control to the local level, where many of these new state leaders found their start in politics, and where those who did experienced firsthand the difficulty of meeting unfunded mandates from on high.

Meaningful legislation, however, simply won’t be possible without working closely with the Democrats, including Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, acknowledged newly elected state Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. The professional orthodontist and longtime Macon County commissioner defeated incumbent Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, in November’s election.

“I can partner with anybody and anyone if necessary,” Davis said. “The challenges we face are too daunting for us to presume we have all the answers.”

From the other side of the aisle, veteran lawmaker Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, places bi-partisan partnership high on his list of priorities in this new, radically different political landscape. The season, he said, for political gamesmanship is gone.

“It’s a very narrow band of issues that tend to divide us, but I think the important thing is that my job as a representative is to represent this district and do it in a way which reflects the will of this district,” said Rapp. “We’re in the governing season, so we need to work together for the good of North Carolina. This is not the political season.”

 

Nuts and bolts

Republicans rode a tide of dissatisfaction this past November, making significant gains all the way from Congress down to the most local and basic levels of government. Two boards of commissioners in the state’s westernmost counties, Jackson and Macon, both swung right for the first time in many years. In Jackson County, for example, Democrats relinquished a 16-year iron grip — in the previous election, by contrast, Republicans had been unable to win a single seat on that board.

Voters, dissatisfied with economic hardships and what many dubbed empty promises by Democratic leaders, responded to conservative assurances of fiscal responsibility, fat cutting and generalized messages of change.

Now state Republican leaders must pay the bill after winning those elections, knowing full well that high tide can as easily turn to low tide if frustrated voters decide they can’t govern any more effectively than the Democrats they swept from power. Davis said House leaders have already warned members not to introduce legislation containing new spending.

Francis De Luca, president of Civitas, a right-leaning North Carolina thinktank, said he believes that it is important to note this historic power shift extends beyond simply counting up Republicans in both chambers of the General Assembly. De Luca believes the House and Senate will prove more philosophically aligned this go-around than at any other time in recent history. Although Democrats held control of both chambers, De Luca said Democratic senators often proved more liberal than their Democratic counterparts in the House, and so the two chambers subsequently sometimes foundered when passing legislation.

“There will be more cooperation,” De Luca said flatly. “And priority No. 1 and priorities numbers 2 and 3 will be — balance the budget.”

 

Oh, that pesky shortfall

The number is so large — $3.7 billion — the outcomes can be difficult to comprehend. But here’s what those numbers, in concrete fallout for North Carolina residents, could mean. Sam Greenwood, a longtime county manager in Macon who now serves as town manager of Franklin, pointed to the following issues: possible privatization of the state-run Alcoholic Beverage Control; the looming threat of the state forcing counties and towns to take over maintenance of secondary roads; elimination of state funding that towns rely on to repair or build local streets and sidewalks (called Powell Bill money, it comes from a portion of the gas tax that’s distributed back to local jurisdictions each year).

“Essentially, we are just along for the ride,” Greenwood said.

Gov. Perdue proposed the possibility of privatizing the ABC system as one means of generating additional revenue. The idea has received some support from incoming Republicans, though not from all. Local governments have been busy lately passing resolutions opposing such a move. This amidst worries yet another local revenue stream would dry up.

North Carolina is only one of 18 control states in the nation. This means the state government regulates liquor sales, purchases, transportation, manufacture, consumption and possession, unlike in neighboring Georgia and South Carolina, where private businesses oversee most of those operations.

A report is expected this month by a Chicago-based consulting firm hired to analyze potential revenue gains of letting vendors overtake the business.

Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Cornelius, the Republican’s choice for House speaker, has said he expects the ABC privatization issue will be considered when the General Assembly convenes. He characterized such a move as possibly being in line with Republican intentions to streamline state government.

From a county government perspective, interim Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten is expecting funding for social services, health and transportation to be reduced below current levels.

“If this happens, I would guess that the county can either provide additional funding or make reductions in these budgets,” Wooten said. “I suspect the latter will be the recommendation, since I don’t anticipate significant new revenues for the upcoming year.”

One important challenge for local governments involves timing, Wooten said, as in “when we know the actual (level) of support from the state. With such a large deficit to deal with, it could be late summer before a budget is finally adopted. At the same time, with a new majority in the General Assembly, they could expedite the budget process rather than delay the inevitable.”

 

School woes

Wooten, who just retired after 30 years of overseeing Western Carolina University’s finances, anticipates cuts to the state’s K-12 system and community colleges, and to universities such as WCU.

UNC system President Tom Ross has requested campuses plan for a 15-percent budget reduction.

“Since such a large portion of the budget is related to personnel costs, a 15-percent budget reduction could result in possible reductions in force. I’m sure this would be the last resort, but … it may not be able to be avoided.”

Wooten added that he doubts there will be any new money for capital needs and probably very little repair and renovation money. These needs, he said, are accumulating and threaten to become “a real issue statewide if funds are not provided to properly maintain existing facilities.”  

And, for the third year in a row, Wooten said he has serious doubts there will be pay increases for university faculty and staff.

On a secondary-school level, local school leaders are also concerned about what might soon play out. Dan Brigman, superintendent of schools for Macon County, worries more charter schools could mean additional drastic cuts in state allocations.

“Taking away more resources from the K-12 classroom will further undermine our mission — to educate all students who walk through our doors despite their socioeconomic status, nationality or disability,” Brigman said. “I see the charter school initiative as a form of re-segregation of our nation’s educational institutions, and hope legislators will ensure alignment of all standards and accountability for schools that received public funds.”

In anticipation of cuts, Brigman said the administration of Macon County Schools has been reviewing all departments and operations for efficiency and effectiveness.

“Any further reductions in our state or local funding levels will definitely impact the classrooms, as we will see more students per class, fewer teachers to provide the basic educational services to our children and more demands placed on school-level personnel,” he said.

Many legislators, however, have said that keeping classes safe is a priority for them, budget shortfall or not.

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, a newcomer to the state political scene and, at 34, the youngest member in the General Assembly, said that he’ll be pushing for cuts to earmarks and appropriations, as well as trimming back administration costs before going anywhere near education funding.

“We need to focus first and foremost on education,” said Hise. “I think there’s tremendous amounts of savings available in all areas of administration.”

Rapp echoed those sentiments, pointing to last year’s extension of an additional one-cent sales tax in an effort to stem the tide of education funding loss. Rapp said he’s not necessarily advocating another extension — something Hise and Republican compatriots are flat against — but wouldn’t be averse to it if all other options outside education are exhausted.

“The reason we put that temporary sales tax on is that after we made all the cuts we could make and we were literally approaching the classroom door, we said ‘We can’t, in good conscience, do that,’” said Rapp. “What you’re doing is eating your seed corn. You’re eating the future, and we cannot do that.”

He went as far as saying that, in light of the budget shortfall, safeguarding education at all levels was the biggest hurdle this year’s General Assembly would face.

“I think the biggest challenge is we protect the classrooms, from early childhood through K-12 to the community colleges and universities,” he said. “We’ve got to make that a priority.”

 

Drawing the lines

“The budget is obviously the elephant in the room,” Davis said, “but the other big issue is redistricting.”

That, perhaps, is the biggest prize Republicans won — the opportunity to oversee how voting districts are drawn. Districts are redrawn every 10 years when U.S. Census results show where the populations have grown or decreased.

What exactly is on the table? State legislators determine district lines for 170 seats in the General Assembly and for North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats in Washington.

With Republicans set to take control, Perdue (who lacks veto power over redistricting) suggested now certainly would be an excellent time for the formation of an independent commission, instead of Republicans, to oversee the process.

Not only was that suggestion unlikely to be followed for obvious reasons, De Luca maintained there simply isn’t enough time for such a commission to be formed and meet mandated deadlines.

“There are both legal and logistical reasons that couldn’t be done,” the conservative thinktank leader said.

De Luca said he believes the process will be fair — bear in mind, he pointed out, that the Democratically controlled U.S. Justice Department has to give any plan developed by state leaders the thumbs up.

Rapp said that he’d be in favor of a commission, too, which is unsurprising, given the tiny voice his party will be given in the process. However, Rapp said Republicans should be reminded that it’s their party that’s been clamoring for such a commission for nigh upon a decade, and that now’s their chance to make those dreams come true.

“They’re in power now, and they have an opportunity to enact and establish the very commission they’ve been calling for for a decade, and I think, truly, the ball is in their court,” said Rapp.

Hise isn’t exactly calling for an independent commission, but he is in favor of “fair” redistricting, which, by his definition, includes more whole counties, less chopping of communities.

“We want the provision of whole counties, that’s something that’s very important to drawing district lines,” said Hise. “I don’t think you’ve seen anything near that historically. I think we can focus on keeping communities together as a whole.”

They’ll have to wait until mid-February, however, when more complete census numbers are released, to see which districts will get the axe and which won’t.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, did not return several phone calls to comment on this story.

 

Staff writer Colby Dunn contributed to this report.

GOP shift spells trouble for planning advocates

Commissioners’ appointment of a man to the Macon County Planning Board who has openly opposed that very concept has sparked outrage and an outpouring of support for the board’s beleaguered members.

The showdown for now is in Macon County, a conservative mountain community with a history of attracting newcomers whose ideologies are on the political fringes. But the questions raised are identical to those also being hotly debated in other mountain counties: Is land planning important? Will this region set meaningful restrictions on development? If so, when?

“Folks, we’re looking at two choices,” Lewis Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board and a professional golf course developer, told a standing-room only crowd last week.

More than 100 people turned out for a special called meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

“The vision that you can already see on our mountainsides, a vision that will bring short-term profit to a few,” Penland said. “Or, a vision built on our local sensibilities that works hand in hand with developers, property owners, environmentalists, long-term families and newcomers to create a strong stable economy that honors rather than destroys our way of life.”

ALSO READ: New Macon commission chair selected

 

What happened

The stage was set for this debate on the future of land development in Macon County after three county commissioners voted Jimmy Goodman, a member of the Tea Party and a founder of the party chapter Freedom Works, onto the planning board late last month after the November election.

Republicans Jim Davis, Brian McClellan and Democrat Bob Simpson joined forces against Democrats Beale and Bobby Kuppers. Beale and Kuppers were not informed beforehand the game was afoot. Nor was the planning board consulted.

“What happened … has not been business as usual in this county,” said Beale, who openly acknowledged he was deeply wounded by what happened.

“This is Macon County, North Carolina, and we don’t treat people this way,” Kuppers said, and then added, “the process stunk.”

With the majority vote, Goodman replaced Al Slagle, a widely regarded native son and scion of a many-generation mountain family in Macon County. Slagle was up for routine reappointment.

Slagle was chairman of the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee, a group tasked with studying mountainside development in the wake of natural and manmade landslides in the county. The worst occurred in 2004, when five people in Macon County died in the Peeks Creek community. Their homes were in the path of a natural debris flow. This tragedy helped convince commissioners to ask the planning board (which formed the steep-slope subcommittee) to consider where and how houses are built in Macon County.

This decision — to simply study steep-slope development — triggered widespread opposition, fueled by a slowing economy in which builders and developers couldn’t find work.

Helping lead this anti-planning movement was Goodman, a former member of the planning board. Who, Commissioner Beale revealed, had not been reappointed because other planning board members asked that he not be. Because, they said, Goodman deliberately obstructed their work and ability to function as a board.

 

Explaining the vote

The decision three years ago not to place Goodman back on the planning board was wrong, Simpson said.

“I was part of it, and I’ve regretted it ever since,” Simpson said during the special called meeting, adding that Goodman’s views on planning are representative of a large segment of Macon County’s population, “and they cannot be ignored.”

“I righted a wrong and I’ll stand by that,” Simpson said.

Republicans Davis and McClellan did express regrets over how the Goodman matter was handled. But there were no regrets in evidence over their appointment of an anti-planning advocate to the planning board — they said the planning board and steep-slope subcommittee, which includes real estate agents, developers and more traditional planning advocates — lacks diversity.

“I am not against planning,” McClellan said. “I am for planning. I am for diversity of thought.”

Davis echoed those sentiments. He, McClellan and Simpson each personally apologized to Slagle, rationalizing aloud that they had not really voted against him per se, but rather for the aforementioned diversity of thought. Slagle, who was offered the opportunity to speak in front of commissioners, declined.

 

The future of planning in Macon

Simpson was voted off the board of commissioners during the last election.

Davis is moving on to the state senate, with moderate Republican Kevin Corbin scheduled to take his place starting in January. Only McClellan, of the three who voted for Goodman, will remain on the county’s board of commissioners with Beale and Kuppers.

Republican Ron Haven, who has expressed strong reservations about placing controls on growth and flat-out opposed regulating steep-slope development, rounds out the board.

The new commission board has agreed to consider expanding the planning board so that Slagle can be placed back on it (see accompanying article). But Goodman — who has remained silent during this fight over his appointment — remains on the planning board, too.

Despite Republican commissioners’ apologies for how things were handled and assurances they support planning and the planning board as a whole, there is a real possibility many of the current members might yet resign their posts.

“Yes, we are still a board,” member Susan Ervin wrote in an email. “Some of us initially wanted to quit, but have been prevailed upon to hang in there. We will see how this settles out; it could still go completely down the tubes, depending on what happens with additional appointments if they enlarge the board.”

 

 

Cast of characters

• Al Slagle — Former chairman of the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee. Not reappointed to planning board.

• Jimmy Goodman — Appointed to planning board in Al Slagle’s place. Ran unsuccessfully for state Senate against Macon commissioner and fellow Republican Jim Davis. Founder of a Tea Party chapter in Macon County called “Freedom Works.”

• Lewis Penland — Chairman of the Macon County Planning Board. Owns a company that specializes in building golf courses.

• Ronnie Beale — Democrat. Former chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, reelected to a four-year term. An owner and operator of a construction company, and a strong proponent of land planning.

• Bobby Kuppers — Democrat. Two years are remaining on his four-year commission term. Is now the vice chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

• Jim Davis — Republican. Ousted state Sen. John Snow and won election to the General Assembly. His two-year term as a county commissioner will be filled by Kevin Corbin, a moderate Republican and a long-time member of the Macon County School Board.

• Brian McClellan — Republican. Reelected to another four-year term. New chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

• Ron Haven — Republican. Newly elected to the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Opposed studying the possible regulation of steep-slope development.

• Bob Simpson — Democrat. Lost a bid for reelection to the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

Queen ousted in GOP takeover of state Senate

Incumbent Joe Sam Queen (D-Waynesville) lost his state Senate seat to fresh-faced Republican challenger Ralph Hise, making Hise the youngest North Carolina senator and adding another member to the now-Republican majority in that chamber.

This is just the latest in a series of tough battles fought by Queen over the last few elections for the 47th Senate District. His fortunes at the polls have risen and fallen with the tides of national sentiment – he lost his seat in the Bush-bonanza of 2004, but swooped in to reclaim it in 2006 when Bush’s ratings – and, by extension, his party’s – plummeted, and held it easily in 2008, riding the Democratic wave led by now-President Obama.

Queen himself attributes this loss, the second of his Senate career, to the national backlash against incumbents as well as the wealth of attack ads lobbed at him by his opponent and outside groups unaffiliated with Hise.

“It was a unique kind of race, as anyone knows that followed it,” said Queen. “There’s been a million dollars of negative advertising, which is twice as much as you would expect, even in a high profile race like I usually have.

“It’s hard to withstand a million dollars of negative advertising and still keep your public persona.”

Meanwhile, winner Hise attributes his win to the feeling among voters that their interests and needs aren’t being properly represented in Raleigh.

“We’ve heard an anger across the district that people are upset with their government and representation since we started this campaign,” he said, noting that his own frustration with the way government is run prompted his bid for the seat in the first place.

While 60-year-old Queen has served intermittently since 2002, 34-year-old Hise comes to the assembly from his position as mayor of Spruce Pine, carrying with him minimal legislative experience.

He said his priorities in Raleigh will be to “return us to some fiscal discipline” while seeking out new opportunities for jobs in the district.

Hise took just under 56 percent of the vote, winning McDowell, Yancey, Mitchell and Avery counties. Queen surpassed him Haywood, his home county, and neighboring Madison County.

Although he is out for this legislative term, Queen has made comebacks before, and wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a return to the campaign trail on the next election cycle.

“I am 60 years old and I’ve still got a lot ahead of me,” Queen said, “but whether it’s in politics or business or what, I’m not certain.

“I like public service and I will look at the future appropriately as it develops, but I certainly have enjoyed getting to do the things I’ve been able to do for my region.”

Hise said he is excited about the win, after what he called a “hard, tough fight,” but takes a cautious attitude towards the role of the new Republican majorities in both state chambers, warning that he and fellow Republicans must be careful to keep promises lest they find the tables turned on them when voters hit the polls again.

“If we don’t return representation to our government,” Hise said, “this will be a two-year opportunity.”

 

47th Senate District

Ralp Hise Jr. (R)    31,098

Joe Sam Queen (D)    24,531

Davis headed to Raleigh as part of Republican surge

A hard-hitting campaign, coupled with a surging Republican tide helped Jim Davis claim the state’s 50th District Senate seat on Tuesday.

Davis, a Macon County resident, beat incumbent state Sen. John Snow, a Cherokee County Democrat. If unofficial election night results stand, then Davis helped give Republicans control of the state Senate for the first time in more than a century . Republicans also took control of the N.C. House.

Davis late Tuesday night described himself as excited, elated and exhausted. The Franklin orthodontist said he intends to continue his dental practice.

Davis will now also resign his seat as a Macon County commissioner, with two years left to his term. He said his understanding is that the county’s Republican Executive Committee, via a subcommittee, will select his replacement.

Davis ran on an economic platform that promises a new policy of frugality. He blamed out-of-control taxing and spending by Democrats for North Carolina’s economic problems. He also said the state has created a climate that is unfavorable for businesses, squelching job creation.

Jim Blaine, head of North Carolina’s Senate Republican Caucus, told The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago that he believed mountain voters would help overturn Democratic control of the state because of a desire to receive a more equitable distribution of tax dollars when compared with amounts received in the eastern portion of the state.

Snow is a retired District Court judge and prosecutor who had served three terms in the state Senate.

 

50th Senate District

Jim Davis (R)    30,838

John Snow (D)    30,634

Republicans look to control state Senate

State Senate races here in the mountains could determine whether a historic shift occurs in North Carolina’s overall political landscape.

Many experts are predicting that voters in North Carolina might punish Democrats and incumbents for the shaky economy. Republicans have not controlled the state Senate in more than a century. That could change in a matter of days as Republicans need to pick up just six seats to gain a majority. Nine seats are needed for Republicans to gain control of the state House.

“This is shaping up to be a very rough year for Democrats, just as it was a rough year for Republicans in 2008,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

For the state Senate, two of the mostly closely contested races are here in the mountains between incumbent and Democrat Joe Sam Queen and Republican challenger Ralph Hise for District 47, and incumbent and Democrat John Snow and Republican challenger Jim Davis for District 50.

A statewide poll by Public Policy Polling earlier this month found 50 percent of likely voters would support Republicans, 42 percent would support Democrats, and just 8 percent of voters remained undecided.

More specifically, some polls are indicating leads for Republicans in both District 47 and District 50. N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, a statewide research and education group serving business and industry, noted Queen fell narrowly behind Hise, the mayor of Spruce Pine, in two polls in June. One taken in mid-September had Hise 10-percentage points in the lead.

“Sen. Queen has proven himself a tenacious politician, but is facing a substantial headwind this year that could return the seat to Republican hands,” John Ruskin, executive director of the foundation, said in a recent news release.

A poll Oct. 8 showed Snow trailing Davis by 16 percentage points.

“If this district goes Republican, the entire portion of North Carolina’s Senate district map west of Charlotte, with the exception of a single senate seat in Buncombe County, could turn red,” Ruskin said.

Jim Blaine, head of North Carolina’s Senate Republican Caucus, credited the surge in the polls to the two GOP candidates’ hard work. He also cited a desires by mountain voters to receive an equitable distribution of state tax dollars when compared with the amounts received by those in the eastern portion of the state.

Not so fast, responded Andrew Whalen, head of North Carolina’s Democratic Party, who is deeply familiar with Western North Carolina and its voting patterns from two successful stints as U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler’s campaign manager and, most recently, as the congressman’s communications director.

“Early voting numbers show Democrats are leading out west, in ballots returned,” Whalen said. “I’m confident that Sen. Snow and Sen. Queen are going to be reelected.”

Unaffiliated candidates denied access to party voters

With more unaffiliated candidates running for office this year, political party leaders are torn over whether to open their doors to those who won’t declare party affiliation as either  Democrat or Republican.

In Jackson County, three unaffiliated candidates will be on the ballot this fall: one for sheriff, one for county commissioner chairman and one for District Court judge. The Jackson County Democratic Party has barred them from attending candidate meet-and-greets hosted by the party.

“It is not right for the Democratic Party to support a Republican or unaffiliated candidate when there is a Democratic candidate on the ballot,” said Kirk Stephens, chair of the Jackson County Democratic Party. “The role of the party organization is to support and elect Democratic candidates, so why would we stray from that?”

Kris Earwood, a candidate running for District Court judge, said she was disappointed to be barred from the meet-and-greet. Judge races are nonpartisan — meaning that even though candidates might subscribe to one party or the other when it comes to their voter registration, party affiliation isn’t listed on the ballot as it is with most races.

Stephens said some of the other candidates running for judge have been active in the party, and that it would be unfair to give those with no affiliation or involvement in the party equal access to the Democratic voter base.

Stephens said opening the doors to other candidates would actually violate the party’s national bylaws, which stipulate that party leaders can be removed for supporting a candidate of another political party.

But that hasn’t stopped party leaders in other counties. Earwood has attended both Democratic and Republican party events in other places.

“Most of them have looked at independents not as an opposing party,” Earwood said. “I have been allowed to come to things for the simple reason that both parties are realizing they are going to have to deal with the independents.”

Earwood’s opponent for the seat, David Sutton, is a registered Democrat but he has been allowed to attend meet-and-greets hosted by Republican Party in Haywood, Jackson and Macon counties — since the race is technically nonpartisan. He was barred from attending the annual convention of the Republican Party in Swain and Macon, however.

As a Democrat, Sutton has actively tapped the organized party structure to connect with voters.

“It is important to the extent that it makes networking easier,” Sutton said. “It has definitely been helpful.”

Earwood said that she was warned by politicos that her lack of party affiliation would hurt her in the race, especially when it came to campaigning.

“I was told that an independent could not win in Western North Carolina,” Earwood said. “Across the board, people told me I needed to change my party affiliation, and I felt like that was disingenuous.”

Earwood said she doesn’t think the average voter cares. In fact, the number of voters registered as unaffiliated is growing by leaps and bounds, so it may even be an asset.

“It has upset me at times when I’ve been treated ungraciously because of my independent status. But for a judicial race it should be based on the person and their career rather than what their party affiliation is,” Earwood said.

Earwood said party affiliation doesn’t factor into the job of District Court judge — witnessed by the state designating judge races as nonpartisan.

“We don’t do any policy,” Earwood said.

But Stephens said it does matter.

“Being a Democrat is not a check box on paper. It is a lifestyle. It is a philosophical way of approaching and viewing your surroundings and your community,” Stephens said. “It is important for us as a party that we have judges that represent our values.”

While party affiliation likely doesn’t affect a judge’s outlook on a speeding ticket, District Court judges also decide critical family issues such as child custody and parental rights where philosophy matters, he said.

Sutton agrees with Earwood that your party isn’t important as a District Court judge. But that doesn’t mean voters don’t care.

“People definitely want to know,” Sutton said.

Without a party label, voters are left guessing, Stephens said.

“It doesn’t make it impossible to know what that person believes, but it does make it more difficult,” Stephens said. “Democrats like to say we have a big tent and we try to be inclusive. There are a lot of different kinds of people involved in the Democrat Party but the thing we have in common is we are all Democrats. There has to be a boundary somewhere.”

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