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Wednesday, 12 October 2016 15:03

Will Presnell survive Schandevel challenge?

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Rhonda Cole Schandevel is a survivor. 

“I hate it. I miss him terribly,” she said, a limpid pool of tears welling up in her eyes. “Sure, I’m sad that my husband died, but I’m very proud that I’ve been able to raise my son in a state that valued public education and valued the working class. Those are values our legislature does not hold today, especially my opponent.”

Schandevel’s statement at once reveals who she is, and why she’s running for the North Carolina House District 118 seat now occupied by Republican Rep. Michelle Presnell, R-Burnsville. 

Schandevel has a small-town upbringing similar to many in that district; her mom worked at a small business in downtown Canton for 30 years, and her father retired from the paper mill there. She married her Pisgah High School sweetheart and attended Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, where she trained to become a dental hygienist. 

But like many in that district, she’s faced significant challenges that have not only failed to dissuade her, but have left her with a considerable understanding of adversity. After giving birth to a disabled son, she was shocked when her husband was diagnosed with cancer; he passed away a short time later. 

“Those things made me who I am,” she said. “Because of these things, I was not only able to survive, but to thrive. And I am so thankful for that.”

Alone, afraid and the parent of a special needs teen is not what Schandevel thought she would be at age 36, but like many in her district — which sprawls from Yancey County westward through Madison and on into parts of Haywood County — Schandevel was able to rely on her small-town blue-collar upbringing for support. 

“We were raised in a good home, with loving parents who would do anything for us,” she said. “And when I say anything, I mean things that really mattered. They really impressed on us the importance of being integrated in the community, and giving back. It was a good Christian home.”

Now remarried and working at Smoky Mountain Dentistry, Schandevel has served on the Haywood County School Board since 2012; although it hasn’t been controversy-free, the board has watched its state rankings climb steadily and considerably over the past decade into the top 10 percent of school districts across the state. 

This year, Schandevel’s given up her opportunity to seek reelection to that seat for the opportunity to run against Presnell, who has faced criticism locally for a host of recent actions.

She has been criticized for misleading constituents about education funding. She criticized the Haywood County School Board for its handling of budget issues. She blocked a merger of Lake Junaluska and Waynesville, neither of which are in her district. She defied leaders in Haywood County by quashing a requested room tax increase. She ridiculed vehicular emissions testing.

She voted for the controversial anti-whistleblower “ag-gag” bill in June 2015, and then received just one individual campaign contribution in the second quarter of 2016 — $2,500 from Republican megadonor and chicken processing magnate Ronald M. Cameron, CEO of Montaire Inc., which operates three plants in North Carolina. 

She referred to N.C.’s now-overturned voter ID law as “common sense” even after the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said that it purposely targets African-Americans with “almost surgical precision.” 

As unpopular as she may be in some circles, Presnell — who did not return repeated calls and emails requesting an interview for this story — can’t be counted out just yet; she’s an experienced campaigner and has traditionally enjoyed the support of the state GOP establishment, especially late in the game. 

But as with almost every other legislative race this year, there is the still-unmeasurable Trump factor — will he or won’t he motivate people to get to the polls? And if he does, are they Clinton voters or Trump voters? 

Presnell had better hope they’re Trump voters; closely aligned with Trump, she spoke at his Asheville rally Sept. 12 and at VP nominee Michael Pence’s rally Oct. 10. 

Presnell has beat both of her previous General Election opponents 51.3 to 48.7 percent, despite huge differences in turnout from 2012 — a Presidential Election year — to 2014. 

Those numbers suggest ideological stability in a fairly Republican district; however, if just 500 or so Presnell voters change their minds about her on Tuesday, Nov. 8 — another Presidential Election year — Schandevel will again have proven herself to be a survivor. 


Q & A with Rhonda Cole Schandevel

Smoky Mountain News: Let’s start with your opponent. She says teacher pay has increased. You say it hasn’t. Let’s get to the bottom of this right now. Why is there a disagreement on what should be a simple “yes” or “no” question?

Rhonda Cole Schandevel: There are more children in the system, and we are divvying up a little more money, but you have to think about the cost of living increases, but definitely not enough. 

SMN: So slightly bigger pie but more slices?

RCS: Exactly. When you walk into classrooms and you talk to teachers, they’re not making more. They’re barely getting by. Some of them — especially teachers who aren’t married and don’t have that other income — they’re having to work extra jobs. Here they are professionals, they’ve got a degree. Their salaries are being compared to the median income of North Carolinians. They’re professionals, and I say all the time we need to be paying them and treating them like the professionals they are. 

SMN: Another thing your opponent said recently was that the school board — on which you serve — stopped taping meetings because they got caught with their hands in the cookie jar regarding the closing of Central Elementary. Chairman Chuck Francis took responsibility and said it was his decision to stop taping committee meetings, but also said that any board member could have voiced concerns and he would have put his decision to a vote. No one objected, not even you. Do you regret not objecting at the time, even though the decision was reversed a few days later?

RCS: I didn’t know that was coming. I didn’t know that he had made that decision (to stop taping committee meetings), so rather than jump at something like my opponent has done many times, I had to absorb that. And I will say quickly, it was definitely questioned afterwards. 

SMN: That was kind of a black mark in this campaign season that got a lot of static. So the question that comes out of that, do you feel like it’s OK to blindly follow your leadership and what they do or that you should always always be checking these people and questioning them?

RCS: Oh absolutely. You’ve got to follow your heart and your head, but the thing I want to stress is you always have to gather the facts and not make a hasty decision on anything. 

SMN: High speed internet –— every candidate says we need it, no one says how we get it. 

RCS: Joe Sam [Queen, D-Waynesville] has talked a lot about introducing a bill to have smart meters. Yancey County is good – they got a grant, I don’t remember exactly when. But Madison County, only 40 percent do, and the people who do, it’s spotty. And I know parts of Haywood County don’t. I think the smart meters is a start. And we have to start somewhere. But that is a priority. That’s how we’re going to grow our economy, bring jobs in here, people who went to start businesses from their homes. 

SMN: That being said, is that the best way to create high-paying jobs in this region?

RCS: Education. Having a well-trained workforce. And that starts with vocational education, which they’ve been cutting in our high schools. Those kind of jobs are going to be where it’s at; we have to make sure that we have a well-trained workforce. 

SMN: Following up on that, the 2010 census says that 20 percent of Haywood County is 18 years and younger. So how do we attract those 18-year-olds to remain in Haywood County or bring their degrees and their skills back?

RCS: Good schools, good health care — those kind of quality-of-life issues. Given the recreation that’s available to our younger families, our mountains have to stay gorgeous, like they are. Our water has to be drinkable, our trout streams …

SMN: Your opponent says that emissions testing on cars is “a sham.” Do you think it’s a sham?

RCS: No. 

SMN: But those earning median incomes in your district can’t afford the $700 of emissions-related repairs on a car that some have to have to pass the test. 

RCS: What would put more money in people’s pockets is if we didn’t have the fees on car repairs. 

SMN: The sales tax?

RCS: They kind of hijacked the middle class when they said that our taxes are lower but then they raise fees on things that affect the middle class. So things like that would put more money in our pocket. That would make it more affordable to have those repairs on their cars. 

SMN: Then here’s another good individualism-versus-collectivism question: Do you think that an individual should have to comply with those regulations when they don’t really benefit from them directly?

RCS: Eventually it’s going to benefit them. We are all better when we work together. This mentality of thinking just about yourself, that’s not how I was raised. And I don’t disagree – I respect and understand people who think like that, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. I know that I would not be the person I am if I had that kind of attitude. 

SMN: Most of your donors,and donations, what are they like? 

RCS: Over 900 individual contributions, and my total contributions have been over $150,000, with an average contribution of about $166. 

SMN: If I recall correctly, your opponent had very few contributions, but very big contributions, including one from the “chicken man.” 

RCS: As soon as she signed that ag-gag bill, he donated. 

SMN: Your opponent said mountain folk know which bathroom to use. Do they?

RCS: I don’t want a man in a woman’s bathroom. 

SMN: So HB2 – has it been good for North Carolina?

RCS: No. 

SMN: Would you vote to repeal it if you had the opportunity?

RCS: There are provisions in this law that if Canie [her son] needs to go to the bathroom, I can take him to the bathroom. Now let me back up. When this law was first introduced and they voted on it, they did not get any input from any of the disability organizations in North Carolina. So the way it was written, because Canie is a male, I would have to take him to a man’s bathroom. What does that do to me? 

So then they came back with technical corrections and did consult with some advocacy organizations in North Carolina and they changed it to say that I am able to take Canie into the women’s restroom. Caregivers or guardians. 

However, if it’s me that needs to go to the restroom, I’m supposed to leave him outside. There’s no way in — and I’ll make this nice — there’s no way on God’s green earth that I’m going to leave my child outside of the restroom. I want to protect all children, including and especially my own. 

SMN: You’ve been critical of your opponent’s support for Duke Energy. 

RCS: She gave Duke Energy — it was called the 2013 something reform act — she gave them 95 percent of everything they asked for. To me, what it has done is added money that us the taxpayers are having to pay to clean up their mess. 

SMN: Your opponent — or rather, her party — has a history of savvy mailings. What do you expect from her?

RCS: I expect she’s going to hit me on social issues. 

SMN: Do you think this district is conservative enough to care about that?

RCS: I have said this all along — I’m basing my campaign on facts — what she has done to education, small businesses, to the working middle class. I am not trying to scare people into voting for me, like I think she has done in the past. And I believe that the voters of this district are too smart for that. 

SMN: Classically, there are two ways to motivate people — fear and encouragement. So if she is trying to scare people into voting for her and you’re trying to encourage people to vote for you, what’s the best way to do that?

RCS: I have grown up in this community. I know what it’s like to be a working middle class mother, part of that as a single mother. So I know what it’s like to feel like you’re not being represented, to see our public education system take hit after hit after hit. I never saw myself going beyond local politics. But when I saw what was being done to public education — some of them had already taken place when I was elected in 2012 — but it just got worse and worse and worse. And when I saw that and people started asking me, different organizations started asking me, and my husband finally said, “You’ve got to do this.” 

To make a long story short, we worked everything out, and the dentist I work with has been super flexible, because the middle class of North Carolina just can’t quit their job and go to Raleigh for $13,500 a year. We as the majority, the middle class of North Carolina are not being represented by our General Assembly. 

I’m tickled that they’re wealthy and/or retired, but they’re not representative of who the majority of North Carolina is. So I’m very thankful that my life is at this point. People have made it so that I can do this. 

SMN: Just $13,500 a year, and it’s more than a full-time job. For that amount of money it is cost prohibitive for the majority of working people, so you end up with wealthy retirees and attorneys. Would you support a pay increase for legislators?

RCS: Possibly, only because I think that it should be a sacrifice for people who are in our General Assembly, but I think possibly I would because that would allow for more representation from the middle class. And the further west you live from Raleigh, the more of an investment and sacrifice it is. 

SMN: Last question, hardest question. Tell me something nice about Michelle Presnell. 

RCS: She seems sweet. I really don’t know her personally. Although I passionately disagree with her and what she has done to our great state, particularly what she has done to people like me, the working middle class, I appreciate her sacrifice and her service.

Read 5472 times Last modified on Wednesday, 19 October 2016 14:30