The race for a congressman to represent the mountains in Washington is crowded with candidates, making the political waters murky for the everyday voter.
In an attempt to differentiate the 11 candidates — eight Republicans and three Democrats — more than 100 potential voters attended a public forum last week at Haywood Community College to hear their views on a variety of subjects. The candidates hope to claim the seat currently held by Blue Dog Democrat Heath Shuler, who is not seeking re-election.
“I was very interested in the Democrats that were running, but I wanted to hear from every candidate,” said Rhonda Schandevel.
Schandevel, 47, said she was surprised to hear so many of the candidates indicate some willingness to compromise.
“We do this everyday of our lives,” she said. “That is what makes our relationships successful or not successful.”
Despite the nearly two hours of candidate discussions, Schandevel is still undecided on who she will vote for. And, she is not the only one.
More than 40 percent of registered Republican voters still don’t know whom they will vote for in the crowded congressional primary race, according to an independent poll by the Atlanta-based Rosetta Stone Communications. The poll was released April 5.
Other attendees already had one or two candidates in mind but still showed up to hear what there was to hear.
“I wanted to see the difference between the candidates,” said Pat Bennett, a 63-year-old Republican.
Bennett said his top two picks currently are Republican candidates Jeff Hunt and Mark Meadows.
Shondra Grant, 42, said she was fairly confident before the forum that she will cast her vote for Meadows.
“I had a pretty good idea but tonight solidified it,” Grant said.
One woman was pleasantly surprised to find herself leaning more toward a relatively unknown Democratic candidate, Tom Hill.
“(Tom Hill) stole the show. He was factual, and he was knowledgeable,” said Sylvia Blakeslee, 59.
Hayden Rogers, 41, Brasstown
Background: Rogers, a Blue Dog Democrat, is a native of Robbinsville, where he played high school football. He went on to major in political science at Princeton University. Rogers, who now lives near Murphy with his wife and daughters, has spent the past five years commuting to Washington, D.C., where he served as Congressman Heath Shuler’s chief of staff. Prior to joining Shuler’s campaign, he owned his own wholesale nursery and landscaping business.
He is running because: “My experience with Heath and the enjoyment and pleasure we have gotten from working for the people of Western North Carolina. That is what I would like to continue to do.”
His key issues: The U.S. needs to rebuild its infrastructure, from broadband to roads to modern water and sewer systems — a task that will also help the economy by creating jobs. However, the government must offer some form of encouragement or incentives if it expects private companies to make such upgrades, Rogers said.
“If we want to stay competitive in this world, it is imperative that we also invest in the things that will also keep our businesses successful and foster an atmosphere that they can grow in,” Rogers said.
Rogers also said he would fight against unfair trade agreements that take jobs from the U.S. and have led to the “unabashed wholesale” of the country.
Cecil Bothwell, 61, Asheville
Background: Bothwell has lived in Buncombe County for more than 30 years and is the former managing editor for the Mountain Xpress, an alternative weekly newspaper in Asheville. He has owned and operated Brave Ulysses Books, a small publishing company, since 2000. Bothwell, a liberal Democrat, is currently serving on the Asheville City Council.
He is running because: “I believe that this district needs to have a representative who votes with the president.” He believes that “we need government to do things for all of us together that we can’t do alone.”
His key issues: Bothwell said he supports the stimulus bill and Obama’s health care bill, two items that conservative Democrat Heath Shuler voted against.
“I represent the democratic wing of the Democratic party,” Bothwell said.
To jumpstart the economy, Bothwell said the country must start work on “shovel-ready projects,” such as rebuilding the state’s bridges and installing high-speed broadband.
“That is the way that we dug our way out of the Great Depression, other recessions,” Bothwell said. “There are jobs ready to be done — that need to be done.”
Green Energy projects will also create jobs as well as promote a healthy environment and less dependence on fossil fuels.
Thomas Hill, 74, Zirconia
Background: Hill grew up in a farming family in East Flat Rock. He went to Wake Forest University and later went on to receive his Ph.D. in physics from UNC-Chapel Hill. Although Hill has no political experience, he worked in the aerospace field at the U.S. Department of Defense as well as at several other government agencies. He is retired and has three children.
He is running because: “I am the only moderate and centrist candidate.” Hill added that he is not like other candidates who are simply full of hot air. “I am a scientist, not a politician.”
His key issues: War, the housing crunch and “dead beat corporations” are the three reasons the economy is still sour, Hill said.
“Our economy is not going to recover until we stop these unwinnable wars,” he said. Instead of war, the federal government should focus on collecting taxes from large corporations who Hill says are evading paying income taxes.
“We don’t need to raise taxes. We need to collect taxes that are rightfully owed” Hill said, later adding that federal taxes should help fund education.
“The federal government is going to have to subsidize education because states don’t have the money,” Hill said.
Mark Meadows, 52, Cashiers
Background: Meadows is a conservative and Christian. After growing up an Army brat and moving from place to place, he moved to North Carolina from Florida about 30 years ago and eventually opened a restaurant formerly called Aunt D’s Place in Highlands. He later became a real estate developer in Jackson County. He is married with two college-aged children. He has no previous experience in a political office.
He is running because: “We’ve gotten to a place where we have relied on the government far too much to provide our needs. What we need to make sure is we stand up for life, liberty and less government.”
His key issues: The federal government needs to “get out of the way” and cut regulations that prevent private businesses from growing and creating jobs, Meadows said. “Government can’t solve the problem.”
The federal government can limit itself by looking into disbanding the Department of Education, for example.
“We need to eliminate the Department of Education,” Meadows said. “Take $69 billion, and bring it down to the state level, and help fund education on a local level.”
Government should also cut back on social programs that aid the poor or unemployed.
“As a Christian nation, we obviously need to have compassion for our fellow man,” Meadows said. “Does it need to be a government handout? No.”
Jeff Hunt, 61, Brevard
Background: Hunt graduated from Wake Forest University in 1975 with a law degree and began working for Long, McClure, Parker and Hunt in Asheville. Since 1994, Hunt has served as district attorney of Henderson, Transylvania and Polk counties. Hunt is married.
He is running because: “We are on an unsustainable path. I am running so there will be a country to leave to our children and grandchildren.”
His key issues: The government needs to slash federal spending if it hopes to reduce its current deficit.
“We borrow 40 cents on every dollar that we spend federally, and that’s got to stop,” Hunt said. “The country that you and I grew up in is not going to exist anymore unless we balance the budget.”
Part of cutting federal spending would include bringing education — its curriculum and costs — down to the state and local levels. And, the federal government should not fund social programs, which have bloated it, Hunt said. Only private entities, such as charities, should take care of the impoverished. People should not expect the government to care for them from cradle to grave, Hunt said.
Ethan Wingfield, 26, Arden
Background: Wingfield, a native of Weaverville, attended Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College for two years before finishing his philosophy degree at Brown University. In 2003, he started his own technology firm, which was bought by another company four years later. His latest job was as a senior strategy consultant for Capital One. He has no previous political experience.
He is running because: “I am deeply concerned about the direction this country is going. We have got a bunch of leaders up in Washington — Barack Obama and Democrats in particular — who I believe are driving this country off of a cliff. We are headed towards debt and decline if we don’t change course quickly.”
His key issues: Most of the candidates said they did not care about Congress’ overall approval rating, just their own rating among their constituents. But, Wingfield said the gridlock among Congress is unacceptable and inhibits progress.
“I believe we have got to make progress balancing this budget, and if we continue to run off to the four corners of the room and refuse to talk with people who are of different opinions … we are never going to make progress on this issue,” Wingfield said.
Balancing the budget includes enacting corporate tax reforms that promote growth, such as simplifying tax codes and instituting a flat 20 percent income tax rate.
“I think what we need to do is lower the rate and get rid of the loopholes,” Wingfield said.
Vance Patterson, 61, Morganton
Background: Patterson is a native of Kansas City, Mo. He has lived in Burke County with his wife for 17 years and has four kids. Patterson has 37 years of business leadership experience and started 16 companies. The TEA party candidate ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Congress in North Carolina’s 10th District in 2010.
He is running because: “My campaign is about jobs and prosperity now. The problem is that nobody knows what we have here in Western North Carolina — a lot of people don’t even know we are here.”
His key issues: As a “serial entrepreneur,” Patterson said one of his main focuses would be bringing jobs to Western North Carolina. Its political leaders should tout the benefits of opening a business in WNC and work to make improvements to infrastructure that will attract businesses, Patterson said.
“We need a serious aggressive business plan to take our district to the rest of the country, to the rest of the world to pull those jobs in,” Patterson said.
Patterson said that he believes God and government are entwined and should not be separated.
“I affirm God in government — that our government is charge with defending all believers but not all beliefs,” Patterson said.
If elected, Patterson said he would donate his entire congressional salary to charities in the 11th District.
Spence Campbell, 67, Hendersonville
Background: Campbell, a native of Chattanooga, Tenn., graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1966 and then began a career as a military intelligence officer. In 1992, he retired to his wife’s hometown of Hendersonville. There he has served on the boards of several nonprofits and worked for Ewbank & Ewbank Insurance and Real Estate. Campbell has no previous political experience.
He is running because: The Democrats have taken the country in the wrong direction, Campbell said. “We need to talk more about leadership and what the Democrats are trying to do to the country relative to what we all want to have done to this country.”
His key issues: Campbell said he has the 4C’s of leadership: competence, character, commitment and courage.
Government has a time and a place but the federal government should hold less power and the state should hold more. The federal government has taken on roles outside of what the founding fathers intended, including a prominent position in how kids are taught.
“I think they have stolen the communities’ responsibilities for education,” Campbell said. “Education is the way we imprint our values on our kids.”
And, although he does not personally believe abortion is justified in most cases, government should stay out of personal health decisions, Campbell said.
“I don’t think a government has a role in any of that,” he said. “I don’t think the government should be messing around our health.”
Chris Petrella, 45, Spindale
Background: Petrella, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., received a computer science degree through the U.S. Army and Almeda College, an unaccredited university. He owned his own company for four years but is currently working as a lobbyist for economic development in Western North Carolina. Petrella ran unsuccessfully for governor of Nevada in 2002.
He is running because: “We need to fix the problems here in the district. Unemployment rates are too high; we have too many hungry kids and not enough action here at home.”
His key issues: Petrella is a man of few words compared to his counterparts but briefly outlined his views on several issues — immigration, taxes and social security — at a forum last week.
The U.S. needs to militarize the border with Mexico to stop illegal immigration, Petrella said. “I am a big proponent of having a national ID card that could be used as voter ID,” he added.
The federal government also needs to reform its current tax code and to replace personal and corporate taxes with a national sales tax, or so-called “fair tax.” And, although the federal government should maintain social security, it should not play any other roles in helping the aging U.S. population.
Susan Harris, 55, Old Fort
Background: Harris was born in Downers Grove, Ill., the daughter of a military man. She and her husband moved to Old Fort in 1989 and have two children. Harris is a private accountant and owns her own firm. She previously ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2010.
She is running because: “I’m the only candidate with the skills, discipline and experience to hit the ground running. We don’t have time for learning curves or second-hand knowledge. We must move forward with fiscally prudent methods that have been in practice for centuries.”
Her key issues: Because of her experience as an accountant, Harris said she is well equipped to deal with the country’s most pressing problems — the budget and the economy.
“Bottom line, if we spend more than we make we will eventually go bankrupt,” she said. Harris said she is “disturbed over our federal governments lack of fiscal discipline.”
Americans must stop electing “media darlings” and the candidates with the most financial backing and vote for the candidate with financial expertise and first-hand knowledge of how budgets work.
“Experience and leadership are the most crucial attributes to clean up this economic mess and move forward responsibly,” Harris said.
Kenny West, 55, Hayesville
Background: West is originally from Georgia but moved to Hayesville 12 years ago with his wife and two children. He spent 15 years as a national sales trainer and regional sales director for PCA International Photo Corporation and the last four years as a supplemental specialist with Liberty National Life. West previously ran for Congress in 2010.
He is running because: “This district is suffering. We’ve got to get jobs back in the state. I’ve got a plan for that.”
His key issues: West said that one key to growing the economy is reducing regulation and taxes.
“We have to take some of the regulations and burdens off the oil industry,” he said. Drilling gives off the perception that the U.S. is taking action and ready for business.
West said he would rollback regulations to year 2005 and cut the capital gains and corporate taxes to 10 percent. He is also for eliminating the death tax.
These changes would cause “a flurry of investment,” West said. “This country right now is the highest (corporate) tax country in the world,” West said, which inhibits business growth.
West said his years of hard-work experience set him apart from other candidates.
“I think I am the only candidate in this race who has actually worked for a living,” West said.