The litany of Republicans from Western North Carolina running for Congress haven’t taken any cues from their counterparts on the presidential stage, where the once robust field of candidates has slowly been picked off until there was just one man left standing.

Although all eight Republican contenders for the 11th District seat have hung on to the bitter end, a few have clearly emerged as front-runners as the primary draws to a close.

Jeff Hunt, Mark Meadows and Ethan Wingfield have emerged as the Republican front-runners in the race.

“They are raising the most money. They seem to be putting together the most endorsements,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

In a recent poll of self-described Republican voters, Meadows, Wingfield and Hunt ranked top three, respectively. More than 40 percent of those surveyed were still undecided however, according to the independent poll by the Atlanta-based Rosetta Stone Communications.

It’s going to be “a tight race,” Cooper said. “It’s going to start coming down to things like name recognition.”

• Hunt is a 61-year-old Brevard resident who has served as district attorney of Henderson, Transylvania and Polk counties since 1994.

• Meadows is a 52-year-old Cashiers resident, former restaurant owner and real estate developer.

• Wingfield is a 26-year-old native of Weaverville, who started his only technology firm in 2003. He was recently a senior strategy consultant for Capital One.

Prior to the poll, Hunt and Meadows had already classified themselves as front-runners. Meadows said he feels good about his place in the race, while Hunt describes himself as the only candidate with a consistently conservative record. Hunt is the only candidate of the three who has held a political office.

Wingfield sprang onto the political scene late last year with an announcement that he had raised about $201,000 in 10 days — of that $125,000 was money he loaned himself, however, not individual contributions. Wingfield is pleased to be in the top-three field.

“Clearly, our grassroots support is surging, and we have the momentum in this race,” Wingfield said.

Something about what Wingfield is selling is catching on with voters, Cooper said.

“He is young. He is articulate. In some ways, it makes sense,” Cooper said.

On the Democratic side, Hayden Rogers has emerged as the front-runner, particularly in the money race.

 

Campaign fundraising

Meadows has the most money of the candidates. But, much of it has come from his own personal wealth. The conservative Christian advanced his campaign $250,000. He received nearly $122,700 in individual donations. Of that, $9,200 came from political committees.

“Clearly, Meadows had the money from the beginning,” Cooper said.

However, Hunt has shown he has a more diverse base of donors and contributors, raising almost $138,000 for his coffer. Of that, political committees donated $395. He also loaned himself $11,600. As a district attorney, Hunt has run for office before, possibly giving him an established donor network to more easily tap.

So far, Wingfield has raised about $133,300, with $5,000 of that from political committees. Wingfield has loaned himself $200,000.

Both Hunt and Meadows received a large portion of their donations — more than 85 percent — from inside Western North Carolina. For Wingfield, only 12 percent of the individual gifts were from inside WNC.

However, none of the Republican candidates are raising much money this primary season, compared to one of their Democratic counterparts, Hayden Rogers, who rallied a war chest of $300,000 in just three months of fundraising, all of it from donations.

Rogers has emerged as the front-runner of the three Democrats running for the seat.

The broad field has made fundraising harder for Republican candidates. People either are not giving, waiting to see who will win the primary, or have split their contributions among a couple of favorites.

“It’s been split so many ways,” Cooper said. “The really base voters don’t know who they support and don’t know who is likely to win.”

So, to bolster their standing in the lineup, candidates are racking up lists of notables to endorse their individual message.

Just last month, Hunt received the endorsement of 11 fellow district attorneys, Bruce Briggs of Madison, Mayor Jimmy Harris of Brevard and Mayor Steve Little of Marion.

Meadows saw a huge boost in recognition and support with the endorsement by Jeff Miller, a Republican candidate for Congress who went up against Shuler in 2010.

Meadows has compiled an index of at least 34 endorsements, including Sen. Jimmy Jacumin, state Rep. Carolyn Justus, state Rep. Phillip Frye, state Rep. Mitch Gillespie and Sheriff Robert Holland of Macon County.

Wingfield has not announced any endorsements thus far.

However, in the end, who a candidate’s backers, both financially and verbally, are does not automatically translate to a victory.

“Money is important. Endorsements are important,” Cooper said, but ultimately, it is votes that count.

 

Democrat field limited

The Democratic voters have a considerably easier time — with three distinct candidates to choose from. Hayden Rogers is a Blue Dog Democrat from Murphy; and Cecil Bothwell is a liberal Democrat from Asheville; and Tom Hill, a retired scientist, is a comparatively unknown candidate from Zirconia.

Of the trio, the two standouts are Rogers and Bothwell, who both have previous political experience. However, Rogers has a clear upper hand in a conservative-leaning district, where he could draw a potentially broader base of voters come November than Bothwell.

“Bothwell is an ideological brand in some ways,” Cooper said. “He is the kind of person who can get really active support from a small group of people.”

The question is: Can Bothwell get enough 11th District voters to buy into his beliefs and plans?

“He obviously has an uphill battle,” Cooper said. “I just don’t know that that is a brand that will sell well in WNC.”

Rogers was the clear winner as far as fundraising goes this quarter. The former chief of staff to Shuler for six years, he has contacts in Washington and party connections that no doubt benefited his fund raising efforts.

“Rogers has had a real advantage,” Cooper said.

In just three months, Rogers raised about $301,000 — two-thirds of which came from individuals. The remaining came from political committees.

“It’s a sign of the strength of our campaign but also shows how well our message is resonating with voters,” Rogers said in a news release.

His ability to quickly raise funds in a primary and with a relative lack of competition will give Rogers an advantage over the Republican nominee, Cooper said.

“Rogers is going to have such a head start because he is able to focus on the general,” Cooper said.

Meanwhile, Bothwell has raised a total of about $58,000 during a more than six-month period, plus a loan of $4,000. All but $900 of his war chest came from individual contributions — lots and lots of them. Bothwell had many dollar-and-cent amounts compared to Rogers’ $100-plus contributions.

“We’ve attended more than 160 events in the district over the past year,” Bothwell said in a news release. “This contest will be a real test of grassroots organizing versus the big money power brokers in Raleigh and Washington, D.C.”

Less than half of Bothwell’s and Rogers’ contributions came from people in Western North Carolina, a calculation that can be indicative of what type of support candidates are receiving from people who can actually cast a vote for them.

“It is a very important metric,” Cooper said. “It is not what you’d want to see as a candidate.”

Cooper predicted that voter turnout for the primary will be low statewide. Most states only see a 3 or 4 percent voter turnout, Cooper said, and North Carolina will be no different. Those who do vote, he said, will have distinct leans to either the left or right — a fact that could “bode well for Bothwell.”

Rogers is considered a more conservative Democrat.

And although quantity of youth voters was a popular discussion topic in 2008, Cooper said this year would likely see low turnout among the 18- to 29-year-old age bracket as well.

“The youth turnout I do not think is going to be very good,” Cooper said.

 

Meet some of the candidates

Several of the Republican congressional candidates will attend a dinner and meet-and-greet starting at 6 p.m., April 27, at Southwestern Community College’s Swain County campus with an opportunity to meet-and-greet the candidates.

Among the 11th District Congressional Candidates who have confirmed their intent to attend are Spence Campbell, Jeff Hunt, Mark Meadows, Vance Patterson and Chris Petrella. Other congressional candidates will have representatives in attendance.

Bring a covered side dish, salad or dessert. The main dish will be provided.

828.488.2842 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Like a game of musical chairs, three Republican candidates for county commissioners are circling Haywood County and hoping they can secure one of the two places on the November election ballot.

Only two of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners seats are up for re-election this year. Two candidates from each party will advance to the general election in November.

Since three Republicans declared their candidacy, voters will have to narrow that number to two during the primary.

Among local, state and federal elections, jobs and the economy still seem to be voters’ main concern. And, the Haywood commissioners election is no different.

“We are borrowing a lot of money,” said Denny King, one of the Republican commissioner candidates. “I will not vote to raise taxes; I will not vote to go deeper into debt.”

The county has not been conservative enough with its money. For example, it should not be paying for the maintenance and upkeep on the MARC building, which is rented by elderly-focused nonprofits for $1 a year, King said. That same perk isn’t being offered to any of the other institutions that do good work in the county, he said.

“I wouldn’t expect us as a county to rent a church for $1 a year,” King said.

King also stated that he believes property owners are paying too much in taxes.

“I will support reducing the size of the burden that property owners pay,” King said.

Candidate Tracy Coward said residents are not getting enough bang for their buck when it comes to county spending. The county’s overall budget is about $65 million.

“I just don’t see where we are getting our money’s worth,” Coward said.

“In a lot of cases, they have done a good job in saving money and cutting down on expenditures, but I think there is a lot more that could be done,” Coward continued.

The current Board of Commissioners has expressed support for state legislation that would allow counties to consolidate redundant services within DSS and the health department.

Incumbent Kevin Ensley touted achievements that the board has accomplished during his current term. In particular, he noted that the board has saved money by privatizing the county landfill and maintained the tax rate despite having to make difficult job cuts.

“We have been able to make the cuts that we needed to without raising taxes,” Ensley said.

Ensley is currently the only Republican member of the five-person board.

Constituents have talked to candidates about their concerns going into this year’s election — and a main anxiety is jobs.

Coward said he can provide a “fresh set of eyes” to such concerns and will vote for what he thinks is best for the county and its people.

Young people continue to leave Haywood County because there are not enough available jobs, Coward said, and the county should work harder to help create more employment opportunities.

One way to create jobs, Ensley said, is through water and sewer projects — something he is a big proponent of. Up-to-date water and sewer systems are a must-have amenity for many businesses if they are looking at moving to a particular area. By building new and updating old systems, the county can create construction jobs and hopefully attract new businesses that will hire county residents, Ensley said.

 

Haywood Commissioner Republican primary: choose two

Tracy Coward, 55, Waynesville

Background: Coward is a maintenance technician at Continental and a former adjunct professor at Haywood Community College. Coward has never run for political office before.

Why are you running: “We need business experience on the board, but it seems like sometimes these folks have their own interests in mind. I was wanting to give the little man some representation.”

L. Kevin Ensley, 50, Waynesville

Background: Ensley has served on the Board of County Commissioners for eight years. He is surveyor by profession.

Why are you running: “I feel like I have provided some leadership in making sure we practice some budget austerity, which we have. I wanted to continue providing that leadership.”

Denny King, 52, Canton

Background: King is currently an engineer at BorgWarner in Asheville. He ran for county commissioner unsuccessfully one time before. This election season, King filed to run but later had second thoughts and tried to get his name taken off the ballot. “I really don’t want to comment on that. I am running to win.”

Why are you running: “I had a lot of encouragement to run, and many people in our county want a voice. They believe I will listen to their thoughts and concern.”

When it comes to the election season, 2012 has turned into a bellwether year for North Carolina, and Republicans are clammoring to claim state and federal seats currently held by Democrats.

Even the popular N.C. House Democrat Ray Rapp, who has enjoyed two uncontested election seasons, is now facing mounting competition for his 118th District seat. Rapp has represented Haywood and Madison counties in the N.C. House for 10 years.

“I think this is a really interesting year,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “There is so much uncertainty.”

Rapp will be pitted against one of three Republican candidates come fall.

The make-up of Rapp’s district changed only slightly when new lines were drawn following the national census, a political shuffle that occurs every 10 years to ensure that each district still has roughly the same number of residents.

Rapp’s district has lost parts of Haywood County and picked up the whole of Yancey County.

Prior to the reconfiguration, the district was 28 percent Republican, but it is now 31 percent.

The three Republican candidates hoping to take on Rapp are:

• Jesse Sigmon, 63, is retired from the Department of Revenue but works part-time at Builders Express in Mars Hill, where he currently resides. Sigmon ran unsuccessfully for state office in 1998 and again in 2000, but he said the new district make-up could be the change he needs to win.

“The numbers are more favorable to a fair election for a Republican,” Sigmon said. “I did not feel I could win in the past few elections because of the numbers.”

• Michele Presnell, 60, is a current Yancey County Commissioner and owner of Serendipity Custom Frames in Burnsville. She is also the wife of former state senator Keith Presnell. Presnell said that the district needs a change — someone who can better represent its constituents.

“This is a new district, and I feel that I can represent the people of this district in a more conservative way,” she said.

• Ben Keilman, a Canton resident and Pisgah graduate, is by far the youngest competitor at 23. He recently graduated with a political science degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he was active in College Republicans. Keilman currently works for his father at Asheville Cabinets.

In the last election two years ago, Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time in a century. And, the political tide in North Carolina continues to turn in favor of the traditionally more conservative party, Cooper said.

“More Republicans think they’ve got a shot,” he said, later adding that the once-light blue state now has a purple tint. “This is all just a path to becoming a red state.”

However, disorganization among the state Republican Party, witnessed by the outpouring of so many candidates in the primary, will benefit Democrats in the long run, Cooper said.

“The Republican’s don’t seem to have an organized party to sift through these candidates,” Cooper said. “The lack of party organization is really striking to me.”

The race for Heath Shuler’s seat in Congress is another election in which Republicans will need to narrow the field. It is even more hotly contested with eight Republicans battling for their party’s nomination.

Although the House district held by Rapp is still majority Democrat, it does not mean that the race will be a cakewalk for Rapp, however.

“I think it will be a little more difficult,” Cooper said.

Rapp agreed that the district is more competitive than it once was and said he will focus on visiting all corners of the district and meeting with constituents — something he has become known for.

“It’s too easy to get drawn into the world in Raleigh and forget your roots,” Rapp said. “Accessibility, I hope, has been a hallmark of my terms.”

Rapp said he is occasionally teased that he will show up anywhere-even a goat roping.

The crowded Republican field vying for Heath Shuler’s former seat in Congress thinned out by one this week.

Dan Eichenbaum, an eye doctor from Murphy, rode onto the political scene in Western North Carolina in 2010 with the Tea Party wave. At one-time a Libertarian, Eichenbaum preached Tea Party-brand conservatism, had a fierce independent streak and believed strongly in Constitutional liberty.

In a press release Monday, Eichenbaum said he did not have the money to run against some of the more deep-pocketed candidates in the Republican primary. Two of the candidates considered likely frontrunners, Mark Meadows of Cashiers and Ethan Wingfield of Asheville, are independently wealthy with the ability to put more of their own money into the race.

But fundraising aside, Eichenbaum likely faced a tough race regardless. Despite his Tea Party connections, he was not embraced by the Republican establishment. He had failed to win key nods early in the primary season, from local endorsements to the support of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Without that support, Eichenbaum would have had a difficult time.

“The Tea Party name provides candidates an important signal about ideology and a rallying cry for supporters, but electoral politics is about a lot more than signals — it’s also about organization,” said Chris Cooper, a political scientist and professor at Western Carolina University.

Eichenbaum was a close second in the Republican contest for Congress in 2010, coming in just behind the more moderate Jeff Miller. After losing in the primary, however, he burned bridges with the Republican establishment by refusing to support Miller in the general election against Democratic Congressman Heath Shuler.

This year, Eichenbaum was once again among the more conservative Republican candidates. An active Libertarian before switching his affiliation to Republican, he was considered by some in the Republican establishment too radical to win in a general election. Eichenbaum had already garnered endorsements from three Tea Party chapters in the mountains: the Asheville Tea Party, the Cherokee County Tea Party and the Blue Ridge Tea Party.

(Correction: A story in last week’s paper incorrectly stated that Dan Eichenbaum had been endorsed by the Henderson County Tea Party. Instead, he had been endorsed by the Blue Ridge Tea Party, which is also based in Hendersonville.)


Filing deadline

The filing period for the May 8 primary and the November general election ends Feb. 29.

News that Jackson County Commissioner Joe Cowan won’t run for re-election this year has set the stage for a high-profile Democratic primary showdown between two well-known Democrats, Vicki Greene and former board Chairman Stacy Buchanan.

Greene had let her intentions be clearly known months ago that she would pursue the seat. Buchanan was something of a surprise, however, when he showed up at the county election office Monday — at the same time as Greene no less — to file for the race on the opening day of candidate registration.

Complicating the race is a bid by local builder Cliff Gregg, who Monday started the petition process necessary for unaffiliated candidates in North Carolina.

To run in November, Gregg must get the signatures of 4 percent of Jackson County voters, or roughly 1,400 names.

A second Jackson commissioner’s seat is up for election this year as well, the seat held by Democrat Mark Jones, who is expected to seek re-election.

So far, no Republicans have stepped up to run for either of the two commission seats.

GOP Chair Ralph Slaughter said Monday that he is hunting for members of his party to challenge for both seats. Candidate registration began this week and runs through the end of the month.

“I’ve talked to two or three people, but I’ve not had anyone agree to file. Talking and filing are two separate things,” Slaughter said, adding that he believes there might — emphasis on might — be a GOP candidate to vie for Cowan’s seat.

He was even less optimistic about finding anyone in the GOP to challenge Jones.

“Everyone has encouraged me to run, but I’m too old,” the 72-year-old Cashiers resident said.

The absence of Republicans is somewhat surprising given their success in the 2010 election. Following 16 years of Democratic domination, Republicans Doug Cody and Charles Elders successfully won election. Chairman Jack Debnam, an unaffiliated candidate who received GOP backing and advertising support, also won against a Democrat incumbent.

Jones first ran and won election in 2006. Jones, a Democrat, defeated challenger Nathan Moss in the Democratic primary. He then beat Republican challenger Geoff Higginbotham to win his seat.

Greene, though new to active political campaigning, has been a visible figure in Jackson County and the region for years through her work as assistant director of the Southwestern Commission overseeing government initiatives in the six western counties, a position she recently retired from. Greene cited her nearly four decades of work with various local, state and federal agencies, saying she believed that her extensive experience would serve the county well.

Buchanan would like to pick back up where he left off six years ago.

“I wanted to be able to finish a lot of things that we started,” Buchanan said in explanation, such as helping work on infrastructure that would attract new businesses to Jackson County.

Buchanan resigned in the middle of a term in March 2005 after six years on the board of commissioners. Buchanan, at the time, cited his acceptance of a position as assistant head football coach and co-offensive coordinator at Smoky Mountain High School, and an inability to split time between his school and public service career. Buchanan now works for America’s Home Place, a turnkey homebuilding company.

Buchanan said he believes the county, through local and higher educational efforts, has prepared a great workforce but now more jobs must be created. He pointed to small startup companies that would support the work of larger companies based in nearby cities such as Greenville, S.C., and Spartanburg, S.C.

He emphasized on Monday that he believes Democrats on the board can work with Republicans. When Buchanan was a commissioner, Democrats ruled. That all changed in the last election when an Independent, Jack Debnam, won the chairman’s position and two Republicans took seats.

“I don’t see that there would be any problem working together,” Buchanan said of the conservative board members now in office. “I think we all have the best interests of Jackson County at heart.”

Like her rival, Greene pinpointed economic development as the primary issue in the race for commissioner, indicating water needs in the Cashiers area would be one area she’d want to work on improving. Other job creation efforts are also needed, she said.

Greene said that she does support current commissioners’ recent decision to hire outside consultants to help develop an economic plan.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Jackson County to reconvene an economic development board.

Interestingly, Buchanan was board chairman when a brouhaha erupted that ultimately resulted the county’s economic development commission being dissolved, partly due to lack of results. Just weeks before resigning, Buchanan called for a “restructuring” of that board, which had run afoul of commissioners amid questions about $1.2 million in unpaid loans and generally questionable lending practices.

Republicans seeking the 11th District congressional seat are trying to find ways before May’s primary to stand out and attract voters amid a crowded field of nine candidates.

Candidates began actively campaign toward the end of last year, traveling from county-to-county speaking and glad-handing.

“I think what you’ve got to do is you got to show up in all 17 counties so much that they don’t know that you aren’t from there,” said conservative candidate Mark Meadows from Cashiers. “You can’t ignore any county.”

Competitors also must line up endorsements from former politicians and notable district residents to distinguish themselves from the main field.

Tea party candidate Dan Eichenbaum has gathered two Tea Party endorsements — one from the Asheville Tea Party Political Action Committee and another from Cherokee County’s Tea Party. Eichenbaum is going into the race with name recognition, after running two years ago and coming in second for the Republican nomination.

However, he hasn’t recieved the support of the Republican Party establishment, at least judging by the three top-picks of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The national party support arm for GOP Congressional candidates has tapped Meadows, Jeff Hunt of Hendersonville and Ethan Wingfield of Asheville as “Young Guns,” marking them as candidates with promise within the party.

Meadows has already received several endorsements — among them perhaps the crowned-jewel endorsement of the race, that of Jeff Miller, last year’s Republican nominee who went up against Shuler and gained wide name recognition. Others include retired state Sen. Jimmy Jacimun and former Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin, among others.

While newcomer Ethan Wingfield has not announced any endorsements so far, he has been able to collect an impressive $204,019 from more than 100 contributors despite declaring his candidacy 10 days prior to the deadline for submitting end-of-the-year campaign contribution reports. Wingfield, a young, conservative, Christian businessman and entrepreneur from Buncombe County, could pose a threat, taking precious fundraising dollars away from his competitors.

Meanwhile, candidate Jeff Hunt has argued that he is the “only one who has a record — a consistently conservative record” as a district attorney for 18 years. Similar to Wingfield and Meadows, Hunt has touted himself as the conservative, Christian candidate who will fight for small businesses and cut government regulations that inhibit job growth.

“I think people will need to make a decision on who is the true compassionate conservative candidate,” Meadows said. Meadows is a former restaurant owner in Highlands and is now a real estate developer in Cashiers.

With three likeminded contenders, the primary vote could split two or three ways among mainstream Republicans. That could give Eichenbaum with his Tea Party backers a chance at victory.

During the last primary in 2010, moderate Republican Jeff Miller received 14,059 votes, and Eichenbaum received 11,949 votes — a little more than a 2,000-vote difference. However, Meadows contends that Eichenbaum has lost some of his footing since that race.

“Some of the advantage that Dan Eichenbaum had in the last election he lost because he didn’t support the nominee,” he said.

Meadows said Eichenbaum and Hunt are a concern but that he will campaign to make sure neither receives the majority vote.

“We don’t see Mr. Wingfield as much a competitor as Jeff Hunt or Dr. Dan,” Meadows said. “We have been, and we will continue, to out work them.”

No matter who wins, the Republican Party will need to band together to support and promote their candidate.

The party “will be uniting behind whoever the Republican candidate is after the primary,” said Dave Sawyer, head of the 11th District’s Republican Party, adding that party leaders are already looking toward the fall competition.

“You want to lay as much groundwork as possible,” Sawyer said.

 

Meet the candidates

A Republican congressional candidate forum will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17 in Bryson City. The following candidates have committed to coming: Spence Campbell, Dan Eichenbaum, Jeff Hunt, Mark Meadows, Vance Patterson and Kenny West.

Prior to the forum, people will have a chance to mingle with the candidates and enjoy refreshments, starting at 6 p.m.

The race for the Congressional seat representing Western North Carolina was flipped on its head last week when incumbent U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, announced he would not seek re-election this year — leaving no heir apparent within his party.

“It is somewhat difficult for the Democrats to find someone at this late date to run,” said Tommy Jenkins, former Democratic state senator and state representative in Macon County. “The Republican candidates, some of them, have been out there campaigning for a year.”

The Republican side of the race was already overcrowded with at least eight people declaring that they will run. But now, with Shuler out of the picture, the election is anyone’s game.

“(Shuler’s decision) changes everything,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

The Republican primary was already hotly contested, and that won’t change, according to Jeff Hunt, a Republican candidate from Brevard. But the Republican nominee will no longer have to do battle with Shuler come the general election.

SEE ALSO: As Shuler steps down to spend time with family, finding a Shuler-esque candidate to fill the void has Democrats scrambling

“It makes November a different ball game,” said Hunt.

The lack of a frontrunner for the Democratic Party could mean that the seat falls under Republican control.

“Shuler is the one Democrat in my mind who had a chance,” Cooper said. “One, he was extremely moderate. Two, he has the name recognition. Three, he had a fundraising advantage.”

Even if Shuler betroths his war chest to a candidate who is Shuler-esque in their political views, they still won’t have the name recognition that Shuler did — not given his football stardom on top of Congressman status.

While a replacement Democrat might be coming from behind in the name recognition field, so are all the Republican challengers, Shuler pointed out.

“The Republican candidates, no one has ever heard of them at all,” Shuler said.

 

11th-hour bomb

Thus far, Asheville resident Cecil Bothwell is the only Democrat to officially declare his candidacy. He was already planning to run in the Democratic Primary against Shuler. Bothwell is considerably more liberal than Shuler, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, and faces overwhelming odds in a historically conservative district.

“I don’t understand how Bothwell has much of a chance here,” Cooper said.

Despite this, with Shuler out of the running, Bothwell said he is confident that he will compete in November’s election.

“That is good news for the campaign,” he said. “I look forward to being the nominee of the Democratic Party for Congress in 11th District.”

But, a wide-open seat could draw a number of potential candidates out of the woodwork before the candidate filing period closes at the end of the month.

So far, however, Shuler’s Chief of Staff Hayden Rogers is the only Democrat to say he is considering a run for Shuler’s seat. (See related article)

Despite a relative lack of name recognition, Rogers is a conservative Democrat and could potentially garner votes from across the political spectrum similar to Shuler.

A 2010 Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters revealed an anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

The Democratic nominee — no matter who it is — will have a tough battle ahead in the November election.

“Of course the election will be difficult. It’s always difficult,” said Luke Hyde, head of the Democratic Party in the 11th District. But, “We expect to win in the fall.”

But the 11th-hour bomb dropped by Shuler hasn’t done his party any favors.

“I think he’s done a tremendous injustice to the Democrats for announcing so late,” said Ralph Slaughter, Jackson County GOP chair. “This assures (Republicans) of a victory in 2012.”

Last year, the state reshuffled the 11th District, cutting the liberal-concentrated Asheville out of the district and stirring in four Republican-leaning counties. Now, only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, compared to 43 percent prior to the redistricting.

“This Republican redistricting was masterful,” Cooper said. “It is shocking at how good a job they did to take a state that was about 50-50 Democrat Republican and draw districts that will result in a state with about three Democrats in (U.S.) Congress.”

However, the district is still home to a decent bloc of unaffiliated voters who could sway the election either way.

“You never take for granted that a Republican is going to win even if it has been redrawn,” Hunt said.

The head of the district’s Republican Party said that Shuler bowing out of the competition does not ensure a Republican victory. However, it does improve the odds.

“That fact that it is an open seat rather than an incumbent … can’t help but encourage the Republicans,” said Dave Sawyer, an attorney from Bryson City. “I think we are more optimistic about being able to do so now.”

Mark Meadows, a Republican candidate from Jackson County, agreed with Sawyer.

It would be a “great mistake” to think the election is a cinch now, Meadows said. However, “You look at it as a much easier campaign.”

One obstacle that still faces Republicans is the current size of its candidate pool.

“I think the field right now is extremely large,” Meadows said.

At least eight Republicans are currently battling for the nomination, and the party will need to narrow the field and focus on beefing up the profile of a few candidates.

 

Democratic decline

Shuler is not the only prominent Democrat from North Carolina who decided to retire this year.

Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue announced in late January that she would not seek re-election. Perdue served only one-term as governor, but it was plagued by battles with the Republican-controlled state legislature.

And, just a month prior, long-time N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, divulged that his 14-year stint in politics would come to an end this year. The nearly 76-year-old state representative decided to retire to spend more time with his grandchildren and possibly travel.

These retirements leave their vacant positions in limbo.

“It is not a good sign for the Democratic party in North Carolina,” Cooper said. The state is shifting from the “old solid democratic South” to “a state dominated by the Republican party.”

In the case of the governor’s race, there is no standout candidate or frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, whereas Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, seems the natural choice for the Republican Party. McCrory made a good showing during the last gubernatorial race against Perdue.

“I would be very surprised if the Democrats pulled out a victory in the governor’s mansion in November,” Cooper said.

When Coach Boyce Dietz got a call from his former standout quarterback Heath Shuler asking him to meet for breakfast at Clyde’s Restaurant one morning several years ago, Dietz dutifully got in the car and headed toward Waynesville to hear what was on the mind of his old Swain County High football player gone-pro.

“I always told my players if you ever need to talk about anything through the years, no matter how much time has passed, to just give me a call,” Dietz said. He will never forget what came next as they dug into their biscuits and gravy at the roadside diner.

“He said, ‘Coach I’m, thinking about running for Congress,’” Dietz recounted. Needless to say, it was the first time one of his players had leveled that particular question.

Dietz offered some sage advice. Shuler’s children were just 2 and 5 at the time. Dietz warned him the toughest part of the job wouldn’t be anything that happened in Washington, but what he was missing out on back home.

Six years later, it seems Dietz was right. Shuler is throwing in the towel on his congressional career representing North Carolina’s 11th District, trading in the long trips back and forth to Washington for more time at home in Waynesville with his wife and kids, now 7 and 10.

SEE ALSO: Democrats face uphill battle to hang on to seat

“It feels like time has just flown by,” said Shuler, 40. “They are growing up, and I don’t want to miss those moments.”

Shuler said the decision came out of heart-to-heart talks with his wife, Nikol, as he contemplated whether to run for governor following the recent and equally surprising news that Gov. Beverly Perdue will step down.

The suddenness of Shuler’s announcement has sent shock waves through the Democratic Party, left in the lurch without an heir apparent who is prepped and ready to fill the void.

“I wish we’d had a little more advance notice that the Congressman wasn’t going to run,” said Brian McMahan, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, who added that as a new father himself, he understands Shuler’s decision.

Shuler’s announcement came less than two weeks before the mandatory sign-up period for candidates to declare their intentions to run.

Shuler has gotten some backlash from Democrats who feel slighted by his 11th-hour decision. While a darling among moderates, Shuler has learned to accept the black sheep status from elements in his own party who reject him for being too conservative.

“I wasn’t Democratic enough, but now they want me back,” Shuler joked.

Mostly, however, Shuler said he has had a humbling outpouring of support from well-wishers from both parties. Shuler was one of the true middle-of-the-aisle members of Congress. In his last two years he served as the leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, an alliance of moderate Democrats in Congress.

“Republican House members have said ‘Please don’t leave, please don’t leave,’” Shuler said. “And, of course, all my Blue Dog guys.”

Rather than guilt him into staying on, however, those bidding Shuler farewell have largely enforced that his decision is the right one.

“So many have said don’t miss that time, you never get that childhood back. Those times are gone forever,” Shuler said.

Shuler has spent the past six years living a double life of sorts — flying to Washington Monday morning to do his job as a congressman and returning late Thursday night for a weekend as a family man.

Nikol’s parents live in Waynesville and serve as a support network when Shuler is out of town. But raising two kids alone for much of the week is hard work, Shuler said. He won’t forget his first solo stint with the kids one weekend when his wife had commitments of her own. He found himself wondering how in the world she did it.

“There is nothing like the two of us being together and to share the load and the work that it takes to raise kids,” Shuler said.

Spending time with family has become a cliché status often cited by people stepping down from a job.

“I think people use that as an excuse,” said Dietz, who joined Shuler’s staff as a field representative on the ground in the seven western counties. “I think it is a cop out a lot of the time, but I don’t really think it is with him. It really bothered him when we would go out the door on Monday morning and his kids would cry.

“He had a choice to make and he put his family before his job,” Dietz said.

 

Tough road to re-election

Political observers, however, question whether Shuler was simply fearful of losing this year’s election. Congressional lines were re-drawn this year by a Republican-led General Assembly, making Shuler’s district decidedly more conservative.

But Dietz doubts a fear of losing the race led to Shuler’s decision. Shuler won re-election easily in 2008 and even in 2010 — a dismal year for Democrats by all accounts but one that Shuler survived with hardly a battle scar to show for it. He beat his Republican challenger by 20,000 votes with 54 percent of the ballots.

But, there’s no question the fight to win would have been much tougher this time.

“I think he knew it was going to be a really hard campaign, and it was going to take a lot of time,” Dietz said. “He realized he was really going to be away.”

The new district lines cut Asheville out of Western North Carolina like a bite out of an apple. Asheville’s large bloc of Democratic voters were swapped out for the markedly conservative-leaning voters in Avery, Mitchell, Burke and Caldwell counties.

“I can’t believe he didn’t do the math and figure out it was going to be a lot harder,” said Chris Cooper, a political analyst and professor at Western Carolina University.

Shuler, however, says he wasn’t daunted.

“I know what my polling numbers were,” Shuler said.

Just because the new district includes more Republicans doesn’t mean they would have necessarily supported his opponent, said Shuler, who has gotten votes from a lot of Republicans in each of his previous elections.

“Graham County is a perfect example of a county that is a so-called Republican county and we won it by 66 percent of the vote,” Shuler said of the 2010 election.

Dietz believes Shuler could have kept the seat as long as he wanted it — although he never would have guessed it sitting in Clyde’s Restaurant that morning six years ago.

Dietz admits he was doubtful Shuler could unseat the powerful, wealthy, longtime Congressman Charles Taylor, R-Brevard.

“I told him it would be an uphill battle. Nobody else has been able to even come close to doing this. You have never even been in politics before,” Dietz recalled saying.

Dietz’s mind was whirling with all the issues Shuler would have to brush up on, from obscure historical factoids to foreign policy.

“I was thinking how in the world can you prepare yourself for that?” Dietz said. “He proved he to be a quick learner on a lot of things.”

Still, Dietz said he was surprised when Shuler actually pulled off a victory over Taylor in 2006. And he wasn’t the only one.

“On paper, no Democrat should have won this district,” said Cooper.

Once in office, the surprises kept coming.

“Your preconception is we got us a big, dumb football player, but to anyone who had that preconceived notion, it turned out that this guy was sharp as a tack, and he really got it,” said Joe Sam Queen, a former state senator from Waynesville. “I found him to be one of the quickest studies in politics I’ve ever met.”

Shuler quickly made a name for himself and began wearing the title of congressman with confidence.

“I think he was more effective than one would expect a freshman congressman to have been,” said Mark Swanger, the chairman of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners and a Democrat. “I do think he established a higher profile than one would expect in his short tenure.”

Swanger said he is very disappointed Shuler is dropping out of Congress, a sentiment echoed time and again since the news broke last week.

“I really, really regret that he is not running again because he is good at what he does,” said Luke Hyde, an attorney in Shuler’s hometown of Bryson City and head of the Democratic Party in the 15-county congressional district.

 

Blue Dog at heart

Shuler’s ability to win and retain a seat in Congress as a Democrat from a conservative mountain district is a testament to his middle-of-the-road philosophy. He is pro-gun, pro-life and doesn’t support gay marriage. He voted against health care reform and against federal bailouts, winning the title as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.

“I think he found a voice for the people of Western North Carolina that was right down the center. I certainly respected and admired that,” said Queen. “He struck a good balance.”

Republicans aren’t exactly chirping a chorus of  “good riddance” over Shuler’s departure.

“I think Heath did a good job,” said Floyd Rogers, owner of Haywood Insurance in Waynesville and a Republican. “He tried to vote the heart and the conscious of the people in his district. It was a very difficult thing for Heath to balance. Overall, I would give him a good rating.”

For counties west of Asheville, having a congressman from their neck of the woods was a nice change in a political landscape increasingly dominated by metro population centers.

“Heath is the kind of person you could just pick up the phone and reach him or he would call you right back,” said Swanger.

From his own staff to political opponents, the sheer number of people who refer to him as “Heath” — not congressman and certainly not Mr. Shuler — is in itself a testament to his approachable persona.

“There was one thing I always thought about Heath,” Dietz said. “I thought he was a better person than he was a football player, and he was a heck of a football player.”

Unlike some athletes who think they are above their peers at school, Shuler always gave his teammates credit and went out of his way to reach out to the younger kids, Dietz said.

Shuler remembers going out to dinner with his parents after a football game his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, being constantly interrupted by people wanting his autograph. When Shuler gave a sigh under his breath, his mom looked at him and told him that one day he would look back and wish people still wanted his autograph like they used to.

He never forgot his mom’s words that night, and it helped shape the gracious and humble personality he still exhibits.

Shuler says he’ll miss the camaraderie of other congressman more than anything else about the job. He equated it to the locker room fellowship of other football players, which is precisely what he missed most after exiting his pro football career following an injury.

“As much as people want to demonize members of Congress, the truth is there are some great, quality people,” Shuler said. “As a whole we don’t poll very well, but individually, there are great guys.”

But, Shuler had disdain for what he called the gamesmanship of politics in D.C.

“I had people who wouldn’t even shake my hand in a public setting because they knew I was a Democrat. I was like, really? Really?” Shuler said. “I am glad I won’t have to put up with it any longer.”

Queen wondered whether the toxic political atmosphere is partly to blame for Shuler walking away.

“Given the tenure in Washington, I am sure it has not been fun,” Queen said.

Shuler, a devout Christian, rented a room in a D.C. house run by a religious group for congressmen. His roommates are all currently Republicans.

While Shuler is conservative as far as most Democrats go, not all Republicans were willing to embrace him as one of their own. Jeff Norris, a Republican attorney in Waynesville, hopes to see a Republican win the seat, something that will certainly be easier with Shuler out of the way.

“Hopefully the next representative will help the district and country solve some of the critical issues facing us,” Norris said, questioning whether Shuler has any tangible accomplishments from his six years in Congress.

Dietz said the national deficit weighed heavily on Shuler and indeed became one of his leading causes in Washington in recent years. During the height of the deficit talks last fall, when the so-called Super Committee was wrestling with how to trim the budget by a $1.5 trillion, Shuler amassed the “Go Big” coalition — urging the committee to instead trim the deficit by $4 trillion during the next decade. He ultimately got 150 members from both parties in the House and Senate to sign on.

“He felt so strong about the deficit and the threat to the country,” Dietz said.

 

Filling Shuler’s shoes

With news of Shuler’s departure less than a week old, no Democrats have yet emerged to run for the seat other than Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville city councilman who was already in the race and planned to challenge Shuler in the Democratic primary.

But, Bothwell’s more liberal stance than Shuler may not go over with the district’s conservative leanings, leaving Democrats in a quandary in finding a candidate they think has a shot at winning. Meanwhile, Republican challengers for Shuler’s seat announced their intentions months ago. The frontrunners have campaign staffs assembled, headquarters humming, web sites up and running and fundraising well under way.

Cooper, the political analyst and public policy professor at Western Carolina University, doesn’t give the Democrats much hope.

“It is going to be darn near impossible,” Cooper said. “Ideologically, I can’t imagine anyone who is going to line up with the district the way Shuler did.”

But, there may be one. Hayden Rogers, Shuler’s chief of staff, is contemplating a run.

Rogers grew in the small town of Robbinsville and like Shuler played football in high school, but on an opposing team. Hardly rivals now, however, Rogers is Shuler’s closest advisor and political strategist, commuting back and forth to D.C. from his home in Murphy.

Rogers can walk both walks. He grew hunting squirrels and fishing in the mountains with his grandfather, yet went on to major in political science at Princeton, where he also played football.

“He would be an extremely strong candidate,” Shuler said.

Shuler’s endorsement of his own chief of staff has led some to speculate as to whether he intentionally timed the announcement of his decision not to run at this late stage in order to give Rogers a leg up. While any other Democrat would have to scramble to get a campaign rolling, Rogers would arguably have an easier time of it as Shuler’s anointed replacement, potentially inheriting a good share of Shuler’s half-million dollar war chest and many of his campaign workers.

Shuler said there was no plan to hand the seat to Rogers. In fact, Shuler didn’t know Rogers might be interested until after he made the announcement last Thursday.

Rogers approached him later that evening and asked “What would you think if I ran in your spot?” Shuler recounted.

If stepping down indeed was part of a grand plan, it was a well-kept secret indeed.

“I was totally shocked to learn Heath Shuler wasn’t going to run. I’ve not talked to anyone who knew it was coming,” said Jean Ellen Forrister, active party Democrat in Jackson County.

From Democratic insiders to Shuler’s own staff, the announcement came as a surprise.

Dietz says he didn’t know Shuler was planning to step down until he called an all-staff video conference last Thursday.

“None of us definitely knew, but we all had a bad feeling about it,” Dietz said of those hours leading up to the conference call. “It depresses me to think about not being able to do this anymore.”

Shuler pointed out he isn’t quitting tomorrow. He still has another 11 months to go — 11 more months to hit his favorite DC restaurant, Oceanaire, an upscale seafood restaurant popular in political circles. And 11 more months to represent the people of the 11th District.

Republican lawmakers have pulled the plug on the state’s landslide mapping unit, terminating a controversial project to assess which slopes in the mountains are landslide prone.

A team of five state geologists working on the maps are being laid-off this week, saving the state $355,000 a year.

“They are very disappointed as we all are. We felt this was important work from the perspective of public safety that had a lot of value, and we are disappointed we couldn’t complete it,” said Rick Wooten, a senior state geologist and landslide expert based in Asheville.

When the team was created in 2005, their mission was to map landslide hazards in every mountain county. The team only finished four counties: Macon, Buncombe, Henderson and Watauga.

The unit was working on Jackson County when it halted in its tracks.

“I thought it was an added benefit and I was glad we were at the front end of it,” said Tom Massie, an advocate for landslide mapping in Jackson County who serves on the Mountain Resources Commission. “Anyone getting ready to buy a piece of property or build a home would know whether it was a suitable site. Now they are going to have to proceed at their own risk.”

Haywood County was next in line, but won’t being seeing its landslide maps either.

“I feel like we will be losing a valuable tool in the planning process for the land that is left to develop in Haywood County,” said Marc Pruett, an erosion control officer in Haywood County.

Landslide mapping has proven controversial, however. Critics fear the stigma of being in landslide hazard zones would make property hard to sell or develop.

“Certainly some of the legislators have been very open in their statements that they viewed these maps as a backdoor to regulation and were not the least bit sorry to see these maps go away,” said DJ Gerken, and Asheville-based attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

That begs the question as to whether it was truly budget concerns and cost-savings that prompted lawmakers to target the landslide mapping. Indeed, environmental policies and funding have taken a big hit under the Republican controlled legislature. (See related story in Outdoors section.)

Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion, said landslide mapping was killed to save money — not because of an ideological stance.

“We had to make cuts throughout government this year and one of the areas that I didn’t feel like was a ‘have-to’ thing was the landslide mapping program,” Gillespie said.

But, Gillespie makes no bones about it: the state shouldn’t meddle in steep slope regulations. And Gillespie indeed feared the landslide maps would become ammunition to push through slope construction laws at the state level.

“That’s what they were doing it for,” Gillespie said of the landslide maps.

Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, said he fielded a call from emergency responders in Haywood County — where several homes have been hit by landslides in the past decade — asking him not to cut the program. The landslide team was always one of the first on the scene when slides struck.

“Our role was to help out the emergency managers figure out what happened. Is it safe to work around here? Is there still unstable material up here? If there is, where might it go? Do we need to evacuate people? When is it safe to go back?” Wooten said.

If the state had plenty of money, Davis can’t say what the fate of the landslide mapping unit would have been.

“To be perfectly candid, I don’t know. That is a different conversation. Since we didn’t have the money we didn’t get to that conversation,” said Davis.

 

Good riddance

Not everyone is sad to see landslide maps fall by the wayside. Lamar Sprinkle, a surveyor in Macon County and a member of the planning board, said he feels like Macon is penalized as one of the four counties to have completed maps.

“As a property owner I would think if my property lay in one of these zones, it would devalue my property,” Sprinkle said.

Sprinkle said a prospective buyer from out of state would likely be turned off from property that falls in landslide zone, without knowing exactly what that meant.

“If I went down to the coast and there was some kind of red flag throwed up to me that I didn’t totally understand, I probably wouldn’t buy that piece of property,” Sprinkle said.

Sprinkle said he doesn’t understand how the maps were arrived at and is hesitant to take them at face value. He said the maps are a knee-jerk reaction to the Peek’s Creek tragedy. While a tragedy indeed, Sprinkle believes it was a random act of God. He sees landslide mapping as an arbitrary and fruitless endeavor that will do little to actually predict where a slide might hit in the future.

“There are some things we don’t have any control over,” Sprinkle said.

In wind storms, trees have fallen on homes, one even killing a couple inside.

“You don’t go passing an ordinance to make everybody cut the trees around their house,” Sprinkle said.

Ron Winecoff of ReMax Elite Realty in Franklin said Macon would be better off without the maps. He, too, fears it could devalue property.

Winecoff said Realtors in Macon have been confused over whether they are obligated to tell prospective buyers when property falls in the landslide hazard zone. Do the same rules apply as lead paint or asbestos? For now, the answer is no, supposedly.

“The state board of Realtors has told us we do not have to disclose it and so we don’t disclose it, but I don’t know whether that is right or not,” Winecoff said. “If you are aware of it, any item that effects the property adversely needs to be disclosed. Technically probably we should be disclosing those maps because they do exist.”

Critics of landslide mapping fear that property undeserving of such a label would be blacklisted and become impossible to sell.

More often that not, however, the landslide mapping would help people figure out where on a lot to put a house. Landslides follow predictable paths down the mountains, and building outside that path is usually all that is needed, say experts.

The path of a landslide is about 60 feet wide — about 30 feet to each side of the natural drainage course.

Gerken pointed to the Peek’s Creek disaster in Macon County, where 15 homes were destroyed in 2005. Those built closer to the drainage were flattened while those 10 yards to the side survived intact.

That’s why Pruett sees the landslide maps as a planning tool.

“If you had a chance to buy a piece of property and you knew where there might be a hazardous spot, wouldn’t you want to move your house 50 feet away from it? How could that not be helpful?” Pruett said.

There is, no doubt, some property in the mountains simply too steep, too unstable and too prone to landslides to build on — as unfortunate as that may be for the person who owns it and would like to sell it, Pruett said.

“Sometimes you just have to look a bear in the face and say it is a bear,” Pruett said.

But the landslide maps shouldn’t be blamed for pointing out the obvious.

While the homebuilders and real estate groups have actively lobbied against the landslide maps at the state level, not all developers are against them.

Ben Bergen, a builder in Jackson County and board member on the local Homebuilders Association, thinks the maps would have been a good tool.

“We would have liked to see it through to completion,” said Bergen, owner of the green building firm Legacy. “North Carolina is a buyer beware state in terms of property. I agree it is up to the buyer to inform themselves, but I thought it was going to very useful as a builder.”

At the very least, the maps would alert people to buy supplemental landslide insurance, Massie said. Regular homeowners insurance doesn’t cover landslides. Homeowners are out of luck — whether a home is totally flattened or the foundation destabilized due to shifting soil. They can’t sell their home, nor will insurance compensate them. Meanwhile, they have to keep paying the mortgage on a house they can’t live in. Often, bankruptcy and foreclosure become the only option.

The state has taken pity on some landslide victims and bailed them out. The state spent $3.2 million to buy out damaged areas of the Peek’s Creek slide in macon County.

Meanwhile, fixing a landslide in Maggie Valley cost the state and federal government a combined $1.4 million.

Gerken said the cost of landslide mapping would pay for itself by avoiding such disasters.

“It is an extremely affordable investment to avoid those costs,” Gerken said.

Gerken equated it to floodplain mapping, a long-standing practice that curtails building in flood-prone areas.

“Not because they happen every year, but it doesn’t make sense to build structures in an area that will likely get hit every hundred years,” Gerken said.

The maps aren’t exactly sweeping indictments of every steep mountainside. In Macon County, 11 percent of the county falls in the high landslide hazard zone. In Buncombe, its 10 percent, and just 6 percent in Henderson. Watauga comes in higher with 20 percent.

 

How to map a landslide

Unlike lightning, landslides nearly always strike in the same place twice. Mapping old slides is the single biggest indicator of where future slides will occur.

Many of the homes destroyed in slides over the past decade were built on top of old landslide deposits — something that landslide mapping could have warned people about, Wooten said.

“Some landslide deposits go back hundreds of thousands of years. They are usually quite large because they are an accumulation of many landslides that occur over geologic time,” Wooten said.

Wooten’s team has entered 3,000 old landslides in the state’s database so far. There are thousands more out there.

The mapping falls short of being able to predict the next slide, however.

“People say, ‘Well, where is it going to happen next time,’” Wooten said. “Eventually over geologic time it is going to reoccur.”

Geologists rely most heavily, however, on aerial photography over several decades to find evidence of slides, which remain visible for years.

In Jackson County, aerial photography from the early 1950s still revealed slides dating back to 1940, a fateful year when 13 inches of rain fell in 24 hours, triggering thousands of slides across the region.

Robbie Shelton, Jackson County’s erosion officer, was one of the team’s go-to consultants. He often acted as a guide, helping the team scout their way up mountainsides using locally known dirt roads and cart paths to reach an old slide.

After tagging along on the ground reconnaissance missions, Shelton knows what to look for and can hopefully warn builders and developers even though the county won’t have a complete map.

“I feel like I have a little better handle on it, having been out with Rick and his team, to be able to say, ‘This might not be the best place for you to think about building and you might want to consult a geotech,’” Shelton said.

The landslide unit has been working frantically to get the Jackson County maps to a good stopping point, and enter all the data they have so far into the database.

Wooten said he will drop off whatever GIS files they have done with Jackson County sometime next week, and then formally shut the books on the project.

While interesting, the half-finished map of where old landslides occurred is only somewhat helpful. The most important step — translating the location of old slides to identify low, moderate and high hazard zones — hasn’t been done.

While Wooten will remain employed as a state geologist and landslide expert, he won’t be finishing up the maps on his own.

“The message from the legislature was they do not want the mapping done,” Wooten said.

 

Putting the maps to work

So far, no county has banned building outright in high hazard landslide zones. What’s more likely is that landslide hazard zones will pinpoint where to impose regulations.

But of the four counties that were mapped, only Buncombe has actually done anything with them. In Henderson and Watauga, the landslide maps have found a cozy home on the shelf with no sign of being taken down anytime soon.

In Macon County, planners hope the landslide map will be incorporated into a new steep slope ordinance currently in the works. If passed by county commissioners, Macon will join just half a dozen WNC counties with slope ordinances — ranks that also include Haywood, Jackson and Buncombe.

Macon’s ordinance sets out a few simple parameters, like limiting the height and steepness of cut-and-fill slopes. On the steepest slopes, builders would have to consult an engineer.

And that’s where the landslide maps come in. Areas that fall in moderate to high landslide hazard zones would also require engineers to build on.

Wooten said that is a reasonable application for the landslide maps.

“If you were looking for a place to buy and the maps were available, you could see areas where there is a high landslide potential that would give you the information to seek additional help from geologists or engineers,” Wooten said.

But Sprinkle, who sits on the Macon planning board, doesn’t think the landslide maps have a place in the county’s ordinance, questioning their accuracy. And now that the landslide mapping team is dismantled, who can they call if they find an error in the maps, Sprinkle asked.

“There are lot of pitfalls in having maps with nobody to look after them,” Sprinkle said.

 

What’s next

While landslide mapping is gone for now, future lawmakers could start it back up. But a team will have to be re-assembled and the learning curve repeated.

“We paid to develop a lot of expertise in landslide mapping that we are now throwing to the wind,” Gerken said.

Landslide mapping gained traction following two back-to-back tropical storms that dumped a massive amount of rain on the mountains in 2005, triggering dozens of landslides. The most tragic was Peek’s Creek in Macon County, where five people, including a child, were killed and 15 homes destroyed.

“That was probably the event that got the attention of legislators,” Wooten said.

Gerken said the loss of life is inevitable without a more cautionary approach to siting homes.

“This short-term political decision simply cannot hold because we are going to see the consequences again,” Gerken said. “These kinds of events are part of mountain geology, and they will happen again. It is only a matter of time.”

 

 

See the maps online

To see Macon County’s landslide map, go to www.geology.enr.state.nc.us/Landslide_Info/MaconCounty.html. A partial map for Jackson will eventually be posted with a link at wfs.enr.state.nc.us/fist/.

All is fair in love and war, but apparently not in politics.

Former state Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, is suing his opponent in the last election for violating state campaign finance laws.

The suit claims Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine – who beat Queen in November – misled voters about who paid for a series of television commercials. In a tag line at end of the commercials, Hise said that he paid for the ad, when in fact the state Republican Party did.

If true, it is a violation of the state law known as “Stand By Your Ad,” which requires whoever pays for a political ad to identify themselves. By falsely stating Hise paid for the ad when he didn’t, the commercials got a price discount only available to candidates and potentially curried more favor with voters, according to the suit.

“He’s got to play by the rules and be fair. If he doesn’t, then we have no recourse but to file a lawsuit,” Queen said.

Hise is one of 10 Republican state Senate candidates accused of the same misstep, and one of three being sued for it. Hise said the suit has no merit, however, as did his attorney.

“We deny the allegations of the complaint. We think the lawsuit has no foundation in fact or law,” said Thomas Farr, a Raleigh attorney representing Hise and the other Republicans targeted by the same suit. “We are confident the Republican senators will be vindicated.”

The N.C. Republican Party is also named in the suit, and likewise rejected the accusation.

“We believe this is a frivolous complaint and deny the allegations,” said Mark Braden, spokesperson for the state Republican Party. “We are confident that the N.C. Republican Party and Sen. Hise will prevail.”

The N.C. Republican Party bought $1.4 million worth of television commercials for 10 Senate candidates across the state, all of whom won their seats. Hise got more than most, with $277,000 in commercials advocating him over Queen.

When buying the ads, the Republican Party used an advertising agency called American Media and Advocacy, based in Virginia. The agency arranged for the commercials to air on various TV stations, but when doing so, misrepresented who was paying for the ads, according to the suit.

American Media told the TV stations the ads were being purchased by candidates themselves, rather than by the Republican Party.

“That is not a trivial matter. That is a fundamental violation of the campaign finance law,” said Frank Queen, a Waynesville attorney representing Joe Sam Queen.

N.C. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, is among those that ran commercials saying he paid for them when in fact he didn’t, according to the suit. Davis defeated former state Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, but Snow has not joined in the suit.

 

Stand By Your Ad

Democrats took a beating in the election last fall, losing control of both the N.C. Senate and House for the first time in over a century.

Despite how it might look, the lawsuits are not a case of Democrats being sore losers, according to John Wallace, a Raleigh attorney representing all three Democrats who chose to file suits.

When North Carolina created the Stand By Your Ad provision in 1999, it was only the second state in the country to make such a law.

The law was inspired by the rise in ugly attack ads. It forced those running ads to clearly identify themselves “so voters can hold the sponsor of the ad accountable,” Wallace said.

The popularity of Stand By Your Ad grew, and a version of it eventually became federal law in 2002.

“I think it is possible it keeps people honest,” said Chris Cooper, political science professor at Western Carolina University. “It doesn’t allow you to shoot at the opponent and not say who you are.”

Voters often view ads run by the candidate more favorably than ads backed by the party.

“In many markets, it is advantageous to the candidate to purchase purportedly in his own name,” the suit states.

A study of the Stand By Your Ad law by Brigham Young University showed voters put more stock in ads that were endorsed by the candidate himself. Ads endorsed by the candidate instead of a political party may curry more favor among independent voters, according to Cooper.

Cooper pointed to Congressman Heath Shuler, D-N.C., as a prime example. In his conservative leaning district, an ad paid for by the Democratic Party is the last thing Shuler would want, Cooper said. In fact, he bent over backwards to distance himself from the national party.

If Hise wanted to take credit for the ads, the Republican Party should have first donated the money to Hise, and then allowed Hise in turn to buy his own commercials. But for whatever reason, the party chose to control the ad buys.

“There are circumstances in which parities may determine that it is safer, better or faster not to contribute money to candidates,” Wallace said.

In some cases, the party may want control the ad in order to control the message, according to Cooper. Or, the party may think it can do a better job than the candidate.

“You have decades of experience at the state party level so the candidate might prefer that, too,” Cooper said.

If the party had donated the money to Hise and let him buy his own ads, the donation would have showed up on Hise’s campaign finance reports.

 

Tracking the money

Donations received through September are reported on a candidate’s third quarter fundraising report. During October, a candidate must report any contribution over $1,000 within 48 hours. The disclosure alerts other candidates what kind of spending their opponent has at his disposal.

“Anybody can see the money coming in and out,” Frank Queen said.

But since the money for the TV commercials didn’t come to Hise first, it didn’t show up in his fundraising reports. While the spending was indeed reported by the N.C. Republican Party, it is harder to track outside spending on a candidate’s behalf, known as soft money, as opposed to hard money spent by the candidate himself, Frank Queen said.

Since Queen monitored Hise’s fundraising reports, when a plethora of commercials began showing up in the final weeks of the campaign, he realized that Hise didn’t have the money to be paying for the ads himself.

Queen sent Hise a warning letter, which Hise received through certified mail on Oct. 29, asking him to stop running the commercials with the false tag line bearing Hise’s name.

In the letter, Queen told Hise he was “misleading the voters of the district in which you are running for office.”

“Furthermore, this misrepresentation of who is paying for the advertisement is in direct violation of the Stand By Your Ad laws, which require the group or candidate paying for each ad to specifically identify themselves and to take responsibility for the content of those advertisements,” the letter stated.

But the ads continued to run through Election Day.

Candidates are entitled to cheaper television advertising rates than third parties buying an ad on the candidate’s behalf. By law, candidates buying political ads are entitled to the lowest rate tier that a station offers.

The ads were 20 to 50 percent cheaper under the lower rate tier than it could have had the commercials been bought by its own name rather than Hise’s, the suit claims.

“By falsely representing that it was paid for by the candidate’s committee, they qualified for and indeed paid the lowest rate that was available, lower than they would have otherwise,” Frank Queen said.

While complaints have been filed with the N.C. Board of Elections, the state statute spells out an interesting recourse for violations: the other candidate is instructed to file a civil lawsuit. Thus the suit being filed by Queen is the only mechanism of enforcing the law, Frank Queen said.

What does Queen stands to gain? He won’t get his seat back, but if victorious Hise would be required under state statute to pay Queen an amount equal to the cost of the ads that carried the false tag line, as well as attorney fees Queen incurs in waging the suit.

Hise and the N.C. Republican Party will file a response to the suit in early April, Farr said.


The Smoky Mountain News Intern DeeAnna Haney contributed to this article.

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