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Wednesday, 03 May 2006 00:00

Incumbents hold ground in Swain commissioner race

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Despite a slate of challengers campaigning for change in the Swain County commissioners race, all but one incumbent running for re-election was ousted by voters.

Chairman Glenn Jones narrowly defeated his main challenger, Ronnie Barker, by just 40 votes.

“All I can say is the people have spoken,” Jones said.

Jones’ narrow win can be attributed to early voting, where he scored 203 votes compared to Barker’s 51. Although Barker won in four of the five precincts on Election Day, he was unable to overcome Jones 152-vote lead from early voting.

According to exit polls during the day, Barker was faring well with voters over Jones.

“We need a different view,” said Larry Roland, who voted for Barker. “He is more in tune with the working people.”

Donnie Clough also voted for Barker, citing a desire for change.

“The ones that are in there now are useless,” Clough said.

As votes came in, Barker’s supporters watched the gap with Jones close and thought it would result in a mandate for change.

“It’s time for a change,” said Ray Mathis.

Other voters obviously expressed satisfaction with Jones.

“I think he has done a fantastic job,” said Danny Muse of Bryson City.

Some political observers watching the votes come in on election night attributed Jones’ win to the Swain County political machine. The machine is credited with turning out the more than 200 early voters for Jones, including a concerted effort to pick people up from across the county and transport them to the polls.

“The people didn’t want the incumbents,” said Lance Grant Sr., a Republican. “That’s the machine pulling in those votes.”

The Swain County election board received at least one complaint that select early voters were getting special treatment. The complaint alleged that Jones was bringing voters in to the county election office through the emergency exit door in the Swain County administration building. As county chairman, Jones has a key to the door, which is directly beside the election office. Voters not accompanied by Jones would have to enter through the front door and walk through the county administration building.

Early voters showed overwhelming support for the candidates backed by the so-called Democratic Party machine. All four commissioner candidates backed by the machine — Commissioners David Anthony and Genevieve Lindsay, Chairman Jones, along with Troy Burns and Steve Moon, who were personally invited by the Democratic Party leaders to run for commissioner — swept the early voting.

While Moon and Lindsay went on to win first and second in the commissioner race, Burns and Anthony ultimately lost once Election Day votes were tallied, and Jones’ wide margin from early voting was significantly narrowed.

A third candidate for commissioner chairman, Boyd Gunter, got only 8 percent of the vote, but it was enough to be a spoiler in the election for Barker. If Barker had gotten all the weight of voters dissatisfied with Jones, he could have won, but Gunter claiming a mere 8 percent of the vote was enough to tip the race in favor of Jones. Barker ran against Jones four years ago as well, but was defeated by a larger margin.

Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay was the top vote getter in the race.

“I am still in a state of shock,” said Lindsay, as she received hug from a line of supporters who had been watching the votes come in. “I am very excited and thankful for all my supporters.”

Lindsay is well known, having served as tax collector and register of deeds.

Moon was the second highest vote-getter. Moon, owner of an automotive shop, has served on the school board for six years.

“He has a world of integrity, and he won’t make a single decision he won’t pray about,” Jamie Fisher said of Moon during an exit poll interview.

Steve Cloer of Bryson City, one of Moon’s supporters, said Moon is known for his honesty and integrity.

Moon said he respects all the other candidates, congratulated the other winners and thanked his supporters.

“I look forward to running as a block in the fall,” Moon said of his fellow Democratic primary winners.

David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner for eight years, narrowly won re-election. According to exit polls, Monteith has a strong following, but that following is not the same as those who supported the other incumbents. Monteith was often seen as an outsider on the board for his stand on the North Shore Road. He is for the road while the other commissioners want a cash settlement.

Ellen McGaha voted for Monteith and Monteith only because of his support for the road.

“I think he is an honest person and he supports the road. The North Shore Road is a very important thing. It was promised,” McGaha said.

Others voted against Monteith for that reason.

“He only has one issue on his mind,” said Danny Muse of Bryson City, who voted for all the incumbents except Monteith. “The Road of Nowhere is going Nowhere.”

Monteith also voted against the other commissioners on the tax rate last year claiming it was not lowered enough to offset the significant increases in property values during a property revaluation year.

“He was the only commissioner who spoke out over the tax rate,” said Irma Jean Calhoun in an exit poll interview.

Ben Bushyhead, the first commissioner candidate in Swain County who is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, missed being elected by just five votes. Bushyhead was the top vote-getter in the Whittier precinct — the polling place where residents of the Cherokee Reservation vote. Bushyhead won Whittier by a huge margin with 147 votes. The next highest vote-getter in that precinct was Moon with 94 votes. It was the largest margin between first and second of any commissioner candidate in a single precinct, but was not enough to get Bushyhead elected.

“I don’t think there will be as big a turnout as we need from the reservation,” said Mary James, a Cherokee resident who supported Bushyhead. “The Reservation really needs to vote. We could have a really big voice if people would turn out and vote.”

Tanya Cooper of Whittier also voted for Bushyhead. She does not live in Cherokee but still feels like Swain County should do more to improve its relationship with the Eastern Band.

Bushyhead also emerged as the top vote-getter in Almond, the precinct that includes the Nantahala Gorge.

Given the dissatisfaction with some of the incumbents, there could be a tough race in the fall when the Democratic primary winners face Republican challengers on the ballot. There was no Republican primary, but Republican candidates could prove to be tough competition — especially Jones’ competition for chairman from Jim Douthit come November.

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