Two well-known Waynesville Democrats running against each other for a shot at representing mountain people in Raleigh so far are playing fair and keeping the race clean.
But their similar platforms, progressive rhetoric and measured campaigns mean voters deciding between Joe Sam Queen and Danny Davis will likely be left to size up the man behind the race rather than the policies they stand for.
“There is little he wouldn’t say in his stump speech that I wouldn’t say ‘Amen’ to,” Queen said of Davis. “This is a Democratic primary, and Democrats have to choose among their friends. I have heard ‘I like you both’ more than once.”
The two men are vying for a seat in the N.C. House of Representatives representing Jackson, Swain and the greater Waynesville and Lake Junaluska area of Haywood County. The winner will run against Mike Clampitt, a Republican from Swain County, come November.
The seat suddenly came open this year when Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, announced he would retire. Haire has served seven terms. Queen and Davis quickly emerged as Democratic contenders following Haire’s decision.
Both men lament the budget cuts witnessed under Republican leadership as being too harsh and decry Republican leadership for taking the state in a regressive direction.
But those arguments will play out in excruciating detail come the general election in November when facing an opponent from the other party. For now, in this civil race between two Democrats, Queen and Davis are left trying to convince voters they have the experience needed to get the job done.
Davis spent 26 years as a District Court judge in the seven western counties, what he calls a “front row seat” on the issues affecting people’s lives.
“There is no better training than being a District Court judge when it comes to seeing the problems people in our community face,” Davis said. “If there is a new drug on the street, we are the first to see it. If the economy is bad, we are the first to see it. People lose their jobs and can’t pay their child support.”
Davis has even witnessed the struggle over health care, when people’s insurance runs out, and they turn to credit cards to pay medical bills only to end up with collection agencies after them.
“I wish members of the General Assembly could come to court and see how people really live,” Davis said. “What they do down there has repercussions.”
Meanwhile, Queen, an architect with a side business managing a vast inventory of rental property, points to his six years spent in Raleigh as a state senator.
Queen said it’s easy for first-time candidates to draft legislative wish lists and sweeping campaign platforms. But once in Raleigh, reality sets in, something he learned the hard way his first time around.
“I have been proud, forceful and green before, and you don’t get much done,” Queen said. “I got my pocket picked plenty. There is a learning curve. Experience matters.”
Queen lost his seat in the Senate in 2010 after several hard-fought elections that saw the seat flip-flop back and forth between Queen and his Republican opponent each election cycle. Thus, his six years in Raleigh were served intermittently during the course of the past decade. Nonetheless, Queen said he can get right to work for the region thanks to the experience and relationships he’s already built in Raleigh.
“I know where the landmines are and how difficult it is to pull things off,” Queen said. “We need to have experienced legislators serving us because you get better every year. That is just a fact.”
But, Davis isn’t easily assuaged.
“I don’t think I will miss a beat when I go down there,” Davis said. “I think my experience as a judge gives me instant credibility. I think I have a much stronger background thinking through how legislation is going to affect people.”
Davis says he is familiar with the legislative process and has honed the art of approaching problems with critical and rational thinking.
“Having to sit down with folks and say, ‘Here’s where we are and here’s where we need to get,’ it doesn’t mater if you are a judge or a legislator, the art of negotiating is the same,” Davis said. “I think the best thing I have learned from being a District Court judge is how to listen. No one is ever 100 percent correct, and no one is ever 100 percent wrong.”
Davis also points to the decorum it takes to run a courtroom in a civil, respectful manner while still staying in charge.
Queen countered that his experience doesn’t stop at the steps of the legislative building, but he knows what it means to work in the private sector business world.
“I am an architect, a farmer, a businessman. I have employees and make payroll and deal with business cycles,” Queen said.
Do or die county
While Queen and Davis are both from Waynesville, the race will likely be fought and won in Jackson County — clearly the largest bloc of voters compared to much smaller Swain County and the fraction of Haywood that lies in the district.
Jackson accounts for half the likely voters who will cast ballots in the race. Swain accounts for less than 20 percent. Haywood’s partial territory accounts for slightly more than 30 percent.
The breakdown, an analysis by Queen, factors in registered Democrats as well as unaffiliated voters who typically vote in the Democratic primary.
Davis believes he has strong name recognition in Jackson County, where he served for two-and-a-half decades as judge, a post that spanned all seven western counties. Likewise, he has been serving in Cherokee as one of the three justices on the Cherokee Supreme Court and as a substitute tribal court judge.
Queen said his name is known outside Haywood from his years in the state Senate. Even though his Senate district extended to the north and east of Haywood — and did not include Jackson or Swain — his name was still out there. Queen said he partnered with other mountain legislators to get regional projects accomplished, including initiatives in Jackson even though he technically didn’t represent that county in the senate.
But to make sure, Queen is campaigning heavily on the ground in Jackson and Swain counties. He is pulling out all the stops with a series of meet-the-candidate events, complete with free food and a line-up local bluegrass bands at each. His events have run the gamut from a waffle brunch at an outdoor park in Sylva to an upscale restaurant in Cashiers.
“I have really enjoyed this primary. It has been fun, and I try to make it fun,” Queen said. “I try to have good music, good food and a good vision — the vision excites people.”
The kind of campaign Queen is running also takes money, between hiring bands and feeding anyone who shows up. Queen has a history of tapping his personal finances, spending well over half a million of his own money his later Senate campaigns.
Davis is hosting two campaign events compared to Queen’s eight.
There’s more than sheer population that makes Jackson a heavy-hitter in the Queen-Davis race.
Jackson County might see higher voter turnout than its neighbors thanks to a ballot measure on whether to legalize alcohol sales countywide (see article on page 12).
Democratic voters in Jackson County also have a primary contest for county commissioner, unlike Haywood or Swain.
It’s hard to predict what kind of voter turnout Davis and Queen can expect. Primaries generally don’t draw a lot of attention.
While there’s not likely to be nearly the interest as in 2008 when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were duking it out in the Democratic primary, it’s not exactly a sleeper either.
For starters, there’s the referendum on a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages and civil unions that is bound to turn out voters who otherwise would sit out the primary.
Democrats also face the task of picking their nominees to run for governor and congress, in the wake of the political retirement of Gov. Beverly Perdue and Congressman Heath Shuler.
Do I vote in this race?
Yes, if you live anywhere in Jackson and Swain counties. Also yes, if you live in the greater Waynesville area, Lake Junaluska or Iron Duff in Haywood County.
The answer gets tricky if you live in Maggie Valley, as the Ivy Hills precinct lies in two different N.C. House districts. The best bet for Ivy Hills voters is to call the board of elections at 828.452.6633 and ask them to check your address. But as a rule of thumb, the Dellwood area of Maggie votes in this race. Residents of Maggie Valley proper and Jonathan Creek do not.
The primary is upon us
The Smoky Mountain News begins an information-packed month of election coverage this week. Stay tuned for coverage of county commissioner races, U.S. Congress, the same-sex marriage amendment and Jackson County’s alcohol vote.
Early voting starts April 19. Election Day is May 8.
Voters can cast ballots in either the Republican or Democratic primary but not both. Unaffiliated voters can chose which party’s ballot they want when they show up to vote.