Radical changes in age, sex, party affiliation and even state of origin will occur in a town that prides itself on its century-old mill and quaint, traditional neighborhoods.
In what was probably the least surprising surprise of the sign-up season, Canton Alderman Zeb Smathers was the first — and only — candidate to stand for mayor.
Long seen as heir apparent to outgoing Canton Mayor Mike Ray, the 34-year-old Democrat and attorney Smathers has shown himself to be a thoughtful, capable problem solver and there are few in town — if any — who have the local government experience he has, so neither his candidacy nor his lack of an opponent came as a shock.
Just because he’s unopposed, however, doesn’t mean this one’s in the books for Smathers; Canton’s not above displaying an odd inclination for the write-in vote in mayoral contests.
In 2009, Smathers’ father Pat ran unopposed for mayor and garnered 448 votes in the process; there were, however, an astonishing 90 write-in votes against him.
Smathers shouldn’t have a problem on Election Day, but in an election that will probably draw fewer than 600 voters, anything’s possible — but not probable.
In running for mayor, Smathers’ aldermanic seat becomes vacant; Canton Alderwoman Carole Edwards likewise declined to seek another term on the town board, meaning the Smathers administration will see two new members joining Gail Mull and Dr. Ralph Hamlett.
San Antonio, Texas, Native Kristina Smith was the first to sign up for one of those seats; the 33-year-old handles email marketing for the Biltmore Company and helped with Canton’s recent rebranding effort. She thinks Canton is headed in the right direction and said July 7 that she wants to be part of that “continuing progressive change.”
Next came Carl Cortright, a 34-year-old data architect for Mission Health; the Owego, New York native said when he filed for office July 7 that he didn’t disagree with most of what the current board has done, but would focus on transparency and communication.
Brent Holland filed shortly after Smith and Cortright; Holland, a respiratory therapist for Mission, has roots in Haywood County that date back to the 1700s. He says despite some parts of town reveling in Canton’s recent economic development successes, other parts of town still aren’t moving in the right direction.
The final candidate, James Markey, shares much in common with the others; he’s a music teacher at Erwin Middle School in Buncombe County, he’s 38 years old, he’s from Myrtle Beach and he’s a first-time candidate.
“I wanted to help out,” Markey said. “There are some really great things happening in town.”
There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of differences amongst the four, at least politically; all agree that the town is moving in a positive direction, and none have criticized Mayor Ray’s administration.
There are, however, some finer distinctions that will determine who appeals most to voters.
Although Canton’s election is nonpartisan, the current board is composed of four registered Democrats and a Democratic mayor. With Smathers moving up and Edwards moving on, two Democrats remain, but they may not remain a majority.
Cortright is registered as unaffiliated and said he tends to vote purple. The unaffiliated Markey is somewhat of a mixed bag as well.
“My parents were Reagan Republicans,” he said, explaining that while he has identified as a conservative for much of his life, he considers himself a left-leaning centrist. “I tend to vote more Democrat, especially in state elections.”
Were Cortright and Markey to prevail the board could possibly see an occasional stalemate, with Democratic Mayor Smathers casting a tie-breaking vote. Smith and Holland are registered Democrats.
Board gender demographics are fairly even currently and could remain so with the election of Smith, who would in essence replace Edwards and join Mull as one of two Canton alderwomen.
Regardless of the aldermanic race outcomes, board age demographics will see a dramatic shift. Smathers will replace a mayor nearly twice his age; Edwards is in her 60s and will be replaced by someone aged 33 to 43, and Smathers’ aldermanic seat will also be occupied by someone in that age bracket.
Geographically, the unaffiliated Cortright is an oddity — he lives in Beaverdam 3, which is a far less Democratic precinct than Beaverdam 5/6, from whence all other candidates hail. Both precincts are, however, about the same size, and with Holland, Markey and Smith all working their own blocks, things could get tight for them quick.
Cortright also holds an edge in ballot order — he’ll be first, followed alphabetically by Holland, Markey and Smith.
Regardless, all four will likely have to reckon with a win number in the neighborhood of 300 votes; like 2017, in 2015 there were two open seats and four candidates of which Mull and Hamlett prevailed with 273 and 257 votes, respectively, out of a total of 928 cast.