Don’t expect business as usual when the state’s General Assembly convenes January 26: not with an epic power shift from left to right and a crippling $3.7 billion shortfall to contend with.

Despite the staggering budget crisis, Republicans — who own a majority in both the state House and Senate for the first time in more than a century — are expressing confidence in their ability to make meaningful progress on other issues.

Such as redrawing voting districts, which could pave the way for conservative dominance to continue for at least the next decade if reworked to the Republicans’ advantage. Or possibly increasing the number of charter schools allowed in the state above the current 100. And returning more control to the local level, where many of these new state leaders found their start in politics, and where those who did experienced firsthand the difficulty of meeting unfunded mandates from on high.

Meaningful legislation, however, simply won’t be possible without working closely with the Democrats, including Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, acknowledged newly elected state Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. The professional orthodontist and longtime Macon County commissioner defeated incumbent Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, in November’s election.

“I can partner with anybody and anyone if necessary,” Davis said. “The challenges we face are too daunting for us to presume we have all the answers.”

From the other side of the aisle, veteran lawmaker Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, places bi-partisan partnership high on his list of priorities in this new, radically different political landscape. The season, he said, for political gamesmanship is gone.

“It’s a very narrow band of issues that tend to divide us, but I think the important thing is that my job as a representative is to represent this district and do it in a way which reflects the will of this district,” said Rapp. “We’re in the governing season, so we need to work together for the good of North Carolina. This is not the political season.”

 

Nuts and bolts

Republicans rode a tide of dissatisfaction this past November, making significant gains all the way from Congress down to the most local and basic levels of government. Two boards of commissioners in the state’s westernmost counties, Jackson and Macon, both swung right for the first time in many years. In Jackson County, for example, Democrats relinquished a 16-year iron grip — in the previous election, by contrast, Republicans had been unable to win a single seat on that board.

Voters, dissatisfied with economic hardships and what many dubbed empty promises by Democratic leaders, responded to conservative assurances of fiscal responsibility, fat cutting and generalized messages of change.

Now state Republican leaders must pay the bill after winning those elections, knowing full well that high tide can as easily turn to low tide if frustrated voters decide they can’t govern any more effectively than the Democrats they swept from power. Davis said House leaders have already warned members not to introduce legislation containing new spending.

Francis De Luca, president of Civitas, a right-leaning North Carolina thinktank, said he believes that it is important to note this historic power shift extends beyond simply counting up Republicans in both chambers of the General Assembly. De Luca believes the House and Senate will prove more philosophically aligned this go-around than at any other time in recent history. Although Democrats held control of both chambers, De Luca said Democratic senators often proved more liberal than their Democratic counterparts in the House, and so the two chambers subsequently sometimes foundered when passing legislation.

“There will be more cooperation,” De Luca said flatly. “And priority No. 1 and priorities numbers 2 and 3 will be — balance the budget.”

 

Oh, that pesky shortfall

The number is so large — $3.7 billion — the outcomes can be difficult to comprehend. But here’s what those numbers, in concrete fallout for North Carolina residents, could mean. Sam Greenwood, a longtime county manager in Macon who now serves as town manager of Franklin, pointed to the following issues: possible privatization of the state-run Alcoholic Beverage Control; the looming threat of the state forcing counties and towns to take over maintenance of secondary roads; elimination of state funding that towns rely on to repair or build local streets and sidewalks (called Powell Bill money, it comes from a portion of the gas tax that’s distributed back to local jurisdictions each year).

“Essentially, we are just along for the ride,” Greenwood said.

Gov. Perdue proposed the possibility of privatizing the ABC system as one means of generating additional revenue. The idea has received some support from incoming Republicans, though not from all. Local governments have been busy lately passing resolutions opposing such a move. This amidst worries yet another local revenue stream would dry up.

North Carolina is only one of 18 control states in the nation. This means the state government regulates liquor sales, purchases, transportation, manufacture, consumption and possession, unlike in neighboring Georgia and South Carolina, where private businesses oversee most of those operations.

A report is expected this month by a Chicago-based consulting firm hired to analyze potential revenue gains of letting vendors overtake the business.

Rep. Thom Tillis, R-Cornelius, the Republican’s choice for House speaker, has said he expects the ABC privatization issue will be considered when the General Assembly convenes. He characterized such a move as possibly being in line with Republican intentions to streamline state government.

From a county government perspective, interim Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten is expecting funding for social services, health and transportation to be reduced below current levels.

“If this happens, I would guess that the county can either provide additional funding or make reductions in these budgets,” Wooten said. “I suspect the latter will be the recommendation, since I don’t anticipate significant new revenues for the upcoming year.”

One important challenge for local governments involves timing, Wooten said, as in “when we know the actual (level) of support from the state. With such a large deficit to deal with, it could be late summer before a budget is finally adopted. At the same time, with a new majority in the General Assembly, they could expedite the budget process rather than delay the inevitable.”

 

School woes

Wooten, who just retired after 30 years of overseeing Western Carolina University’s finances, anticipates cuts to the state’s K-12 system and community colleges, and to universities such as WCU.

UNC system President Tom Ross has requested campuses plan for a 15-percent budget reduction.

“Since such a large portion of the budget is related to personnel costs, a 15-percent budget reduction could result in possible reductions in force. I’m sure this would be the last resort, but … it may not be able to be avoided.”

Wooten added that he doubts there will be any new money for capital needs and probably very little repair and renovation money. These needs, he said, are accumulating and threaten to become “a real issue statewide if funds are not provided to properly maintain existing facilities.”  

And, for the third year in a row, Wooten said he has serious doubts there will be pay increases for university faculty and staff.

On a secondary-school level, local school leaders are also concerned about what might soon play out. Dan Brigman, superintendent of schools for Macon County, worries more charter schools could mean additional drastic cuts in state allocations.

“Taking away more resources from the K-12 classroom will further undermine our mission — to educate all students who walk through our doors despite their socioeconomic status, nationality or disability,” Brigman said. “I see the charter school initiative as a form of re-segregation of our nation’s educational institutions, and hope legislators will ensure alignment of all standards and accountability for schools that received public funds.”

In anticipation of cuts, Brigman said the administration of Macon County Schools has been reviewing all departments and operations for efficiency and effectiveness.

“Any further reductions in our state or local funding levels will definitely impact the classrooms, as we will see more students per class, fewer teachers to provide the basic educational services to our children and more demands placed on school-level personnel,” he said.

Many legislators, however, have said that keeping classes safe is a priority for them, budget shortfall or not.

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, a newcomer to the state political scene and, at 34, the youngest member in the General Assembly, said that he’ll be pushing for cuts to earmarks and appropriations, as well as trimming back administration costs before going anywhere near education funding.

“We need to focus first and foremost on education,” said Hise. “I think there’s tremendous amounts of savings available in all areas of administration.”

Rapp echoed those sentiments, pointing to last year’s extension of an additional one-cent sales tax in an effort to stem the tide of education funding loss. Rapp said he’s not necessarily advocating another extension — something Hise and Republican compatriots are flat against — but wouldn’t be averse to it if all other options outside education are exhausted.

“The reason we put that temporary sales tax on is that after we made all the cuts we could make and we were literally approaching the classroom door, we said ‘We can’t, in good conscience, do that,’” said Rapp. “What you’re doing is eating your seed corn. You’re eating the future, and we cannot do that.”

He went as far as saying that, in light of the budget shortfall, safeguarding education at all levels was the biggest hurdle this year’s General Assembly would face.

“I think the biggest challenge is we protect the classrooms, from early childhood through K-12 to the community colleges and universities,” he said. “We’ve got to make that a priority.”

 

Drawing the lines

“The budget is obviously the elephant in the room,” Davis said, “but the other big issue is redistricting.”

That, perhaps, is the biggest prize Republicans won — the opportunity to oversee how voting districts are drawn. Districts are redrawn every 10 years when U.S. Census results show where the populations have grown or decreased.

What exactly is on the table? State legislators determine district lines for 170 seats in the General Assembly and for North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats in Washington.

With Republicans set to take control, Perdue (who lacks veto power over redistricting) suggested now certainly would be an excellent time for the formation of an independent commission, instead of Republicans, to oversee the process.

Not only was that suggestion unlikely to be followed for obvious reasons, De Luca maintained there simply isn’t enough time for such a commission to be formed and meet mandated deadlines.

“There are both legal and logistical reasons that couldn’t be done,” the conservative thinktank leader said.

De Luca said he believes the process will be fair — bear in mind, he pointed out, that the Democratically controlled U.S. Justice Department has to give any plan developed by state leaders the thumbs up.

Rapp said that he’d be in favor of a commission, too, which is unsurprising, given the tiny voice his party will be given in the process. However, Rapp said Republicans should be reminded that it’s their party that’s been clamoring for such a commission for nigh upon a decade, and that now’s their chance to make those dreams come true.

“They’re in power now, and they have an opportunity to enact and establish the very commission they’ve been calling for for a decade, and I think, truly, the ball is in their court,” said Rapp.

Hise isn’t exactly calling for an independent commission, but he is in favor of “fair” redistricting, which, by his definition, includes more whole counties, less chopping of communities.

“We want the provision of whole counties, that’s something that’s very important to drawing district lines,” said Hise. “I don’t think you’ve seen anything near that historically. I think we can focus on keeping communities together as a whole.”

They’ll have to wait until mid-February, however, when more complete census numbers are released, to see which districts will get the axe and which won’t.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, did not return several phone calls to comment on this story.

 

Staff writer Colby Dunn contributed to this report.

Commissioners’ appointment of a man to the Macon County Planning Board who has openly opposed that very concept has sparked outrage and an outpouring of support for the board’s beleaguered members.

The showdown for now is in Macon County, a conservative mountain community with a history of attracting newcomers whose ideologies are on the political fringes. But the questions raised are identical to those also being hotly debated in other mountain counties: Is land planning important? Will this region set meaningful restrictions on development? If so, when?

“Folks, we’re looking at two choices,” Lewis Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board and a professional golf course developer, told a standing-room only crowd last week.

More than 100 people turned out for a special called meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

“The vision that you can already see on our mountainsides, a vision that will bring short-term profit to a few,” Penland said. “Or, a vision built on our local sensibilities that works hand in hand with developers, property owners, environmentalists, long-term families and newcomers to create a strong stable economy that honors rather than destroys our way of life.”

ALSO READ: New Macon commission chair selected

 

What happened

The stage was set for this debate on the future of land development in Macon County after three county commissioners voted Jimmy Goodman, a member of the Tea Party and a founder of the party chapter Freedom Works, onto the planning board late last month after the November election.

Republicans Jim Davis, Brian McClellan and Democrat Bob Simpson joined forces against Democrats Beale and Bobby Kuppers. Beale and Kuppers were not informed beforehand the game was afoot. Nor was the planning board consulted.

“What happened … has not been business as usual in this county,” said Beale, who openly acknowledged he was deeply wounded by what happened.

“This is Macon County, North Carolina, and we don’t treat people this way,” Kuppers said, and then added, “the process stunk.”

With the majority vote, Goodman replaced Al Slagle, a widely regarded native son and scion of a many-generation mountain family in Macon County. Slagle was up for routine reappointment.

Slagle was chairman of the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee, a group tasked with studying mountainside development in the wake of natural and manmade landslides in the county. The worst occurred in 2004, when five people in Macon County died in the Peeks Creek community. Their homes were in the path of a natural debris flow. This tragedy helped convince commissioners to ask the planning board (which formed the steep-slope subcommittee) to consider where and how houses are built in Macon County.

This decision — to simply study steep-slope development — triggered widespread opposition, fueled by a slowing economy in which builders and developers couldn’t find work.

Helping lead this anti-planning movement was Goodman, a former member of the planning board. Who, Commissioner Beale revealed, had not been reappointed because other planning board members asked that he not be. Because, they said, Goodman deliberately obstructed their work and ability to function as a board.

 

Explaining the vote

The decision three years ago not to place Goodman back on the planning board was wrong, Simpson said.

“I was part of it, and I’ve regretted it ever since,” Simpson said during the special called meeting, adding that Goodman’s views on planning are representative of a large segment of Macon County’s population, “and they cannot be ignored.”

“I righted a wrong and I’ll stand by that,” Simpson said.

Republicans Davis and McClellan did express regrets over how the Goodman matter was handled. But there were no regrets in evidence over their appointment of an anti-planning advocate to the planning board — they said the planning board and steep-slope subcommittee, which includes real estate agents, developers and more traditional planning advocates — lacks diversity.

“I am not against planning,” McClellan said. “I am for planning. I am for diversity of thought.”

Davis echoed those sentiments. He, McClellan and Simpson each personally apologized to Slagle, rationalizing aloud that they had not really voted against him per se, but rather for the aforementioned diversity of thought. Slagle, who was offered the opportunity to speak in front of commissioners, declined.

 

The future of planning in Macon

Simpson was voted off the board of commissioners during the last election.

Davis is moving on to the state senate, with moderate Republican Kevin Corbin scheduled to take his place starting in January. Only McClellan, of the three who voted for Goodman, will remain on the county’s board of commissioners with Beale and Kuppers.

Republican Ron Haven, who has expressed strong reservations about placing controls on growth and flat-out opposed regulating steep-slope development, rounds out the board.

The new commission board has agreed to consider expanding the planning board so that Slagle can be placed back on it (see accompanying article). But Goodman — who has remained silent during this fight over his appointment — remains on the planning board, too.

Despite Republican commissioners’ apologies for how things were handled and assurances they support planning and the planning board as a whole, there is a real possibility many of the current members might yet resign their posts.

“Yes, we are still a board,” member Susan Ervin wrote in an email. “Some of us initially wanted to quit, but have been prevailed upon to hang in there. We will see how this settles out; it could still go completely down the tubes, depending on what happens with additional appointments if they enlarge the board.”

 

 

Cast of characters

• Al Slagle — Former chairman of the planning board’s steep-slope subcommittee. Not reappointed to planning board.

• Jimmy Goodman — Appointed to planning board in Al Slagle’s place. Ran unsuccessfully for state Senate against Macon commissioner and fellow Republican Jim Davis. Founder of a Tea Party chapter in Macon County called “Freedom Works.”

• Lewis Penland — Chairman of the Macon County Planning Board. Owns a company that specializes in building golf courses.

• Ronnie Beale — Democrat. Former chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, reelected to a four-year term. An owner and operator of a construction company, and a strong proponent of land planning.

• Bobby Kuppers — Democrat. Two years are remaining on his four-year commission term. Is now the vice chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

• Jim Davis — Republican. Ousted state Sen. John Snow and won election to the General Assembly. His two-year term as a county commissioner will be filled by Kevin Corbin, a moderate Republican and a long-time member of the Macon County School Board.

• Brian McClellan — Republican. Reelected to another four-year term. New chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

• Ron Haven — Republican. Newly elected to the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Opposed studying the possible regulation of steep-slope development.

• Bob Simpson — Democrat. Lost a bid for reelection to the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

Incumbent Joe Sam Queen (D-Waynesville) lost his state Senate seat to fresh-faced Republican challenger Ralph Hise, making Hise the youngest North Carolina senator and adding another member to the now-Republican majority in that chamber.

This is just the latest in a series of tough battles fought by Queen over the last few elections for the 47th Senate District. His fortunes at the polls have risen and fallen with the tides of national sentiment – he lost his seat in the Bush-bonanza of 2004, but swooped in to reclaim it in 2006 when Bush’s ratings – and, by extension, his party’s – plummeted, and held it easily in 2008, riding the Democratic wave led by now-President Obama.

Queen himself attributes this loss, the second of his Senate career, to the national backlash against incumbents as well as the wealth of attack ads lobbed at him by his opponent and outside groups unaffiliated with Hise.

“It was a unique kind of race, as anyone knows that followed it,” said Queen. “There’s been a million dollars of negative advertising, which is twice as much as you would expect, even in a high profile race like I usually have.

“It’s hard to withstand a million dollars of negative advertising and still keep your public persona.”

Meanwhile, winner Hise attributes his win to the feeling among voters that their interests and needs aren’t being properly represented in Raleigh.

“We’ve heard an anger across the district that people are upset with their government and representation since we started this campaign,” he said, noting that his own frustration with the way government is run prompted his bid for the seat in the first place.

While 60-year-old Queen has served intermittently since 2002, 34-year-old Hise comes to the assembly from his position as mayor of Spruce Pine, carrying with him minimal legislative experience.

He said his priorities in Raleigh will be to “return us to some fiscal discipline” while seeking out new opportunities for jobs in the district.

Hise took just under 56 percent of the vote, winning McDowell, Yancey, Mitchell and Avery counties. Queen surpassed him Haywood, his home county, and neighboring Madison County.

Although he is out for this legislative term, Queen has made comebacks before, and wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a return to the campaign trail on the next election cycle.

“I am 60 years old and I’ve still got a lot ahead of me,” Queen said, “but whether it’s in politics or business or what, I’m not certain.

“I like public service and I will look at the future appropriately as it develops, but I certainly have enjoyed getting to do the things I’ve been able to do for my region.”

Hise said he is excited about the win, after what he called a “hard, tough fight,” but takes a cautious attitude towards the role of the new Republican majorities in both state chambers, warning that he and fellow Republicans must be careful to keep promises lest they find the tables turned on them when voters hit the polls again.

“If we don’t return representation to our government,” Hise said, “this will be a two-year opportunity.”

 

47th Senate District

Ralp Hise Jr. (R)    31,098

Joe Sam Queen (D)    24,531

A hard-hitting campaign, coupled with a surging Republican tide helped Jim Davis claim the state’s 50th District Senate seat on Tuesday.

Davis, a Macon County resident, beat incumbent state Sen. John Snow, a Cherokee County Democrat. If unofficial election night results stand, then Davis helped give Republicans control of the state Senate for the first time in more than a century . Republicans also took control of the N.C. House.

Davis late Tuesday night described himself as excited, elated and exhausted. The Franklin orthodontist said he intends to continue his dental practice.

Davis will now also resign his seat as a Macon County commissioner, with two years left to his term. He said his understanding is that the county’s Republican Executive Committee, via a subcommittee, will select his replacement.

Davis ran on an economic platform that promises a new policy of frugality. He blamed out-of-control taxing and spending by Democrats for North Carolina’s economic problems. He also said the state has created a climate that is unfavorable for businesses, squelching job creation.

Jim Blaine, head of North Carolina’s Senate Republican Caucus, told The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago that he believed mountain voters would help overturn Democratic control of the state because of a desire to receive a more equitable distribution of tax dollars when compared with amounts received in the eastern portion of the state.

Snow is a retired District Court judge and prosecutor who had served three terms in the state Senate.

 

50th Senate District

Jim Davis (R)    30,838

John Snow (D)    30,634

State Senate races here in the mountains could determine whether a historic shift occurs in North Carolina’s overall political landscape.

Many experts are predicting that voters in North Carolina might punish Democrats and incumbents for the shaky economy. Republicans have not controlled the state Senate in more than a century. That could change in a matter of days as Republicans need to pick up just six seats to gain a majority. Nine seats are needed for Republicans to gain control of the state House.

“This is shaping up to be a very rough year for Democrats, just as it was a rough year for Republicans in 2008,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

For the state Senate, two of the mostly closely contested races are here in the mountains between incumbent and Democrat Joe Sam Queen and Republican challenger Ralph Hise for District 47, and incumbent and Democrat John Snow and Republican challenger Jim Davis for District 50.

A statewide poll by Public Policy Polling earlier this month found 50 percent of likely voters would support Republicans, 42 percent would support Democrats, and just 8 percent of voters remained undecided.

More specifically, some polls are indicating leads for Republicans in both District 47 and District 50. N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, a statewide research and education group serving business and industry, noted Queen fell narrowly behind Hise, the mayor of Spruce Pine, in two polls in June. One taken in mid-September had Hise 10-percentage points in the lead.

“Sen. Queen has proven himself a tenacious politician, but is facing a substantial headwind this year that could return the seat to Republican hands,” John Ruskin, executive director of the foundation, said in a recent news release.

A poll Oct. 8 showed Snow trailing Davis by 16 percentage points.

“If this district goes Republican, the entire portion of North Carolina’s Senate district map west of Charlotte, with the exception of a single senate seat in Buncombe County, could turn red,” Ruskin said.

Jim Blaine, head of North Carolina’s Senate Republican Caucus, credited the surge in the polls to the two GOP candidates’ hard work. He also cited a desires by mountain voters to receive an equitable distribution of state tax dollars when compared with the amounts received by those in the eastern portion of the state.

Not so fast, responded Andrew Whalen, head of North Carolina’s Democratic Party, who is deeply familiar with Western North Carolina and its voting patterns from two successful stints as U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler’s campaign manager and, most recently, as the congressman’s communications director.

“Early voting numbers show Democrats are leading out west, in ballots returned,” Whalen said. “I’m confident that Sen. Snow and Sen. Queen are going to be reelected.”

With more unaffiliated candidates running for office this year, political party leaders are torn over whether to open their doors to those who won’t declare party affiliation as either  Democrat or Republican.

In Jackson County, three unaffiliated candidates will be on the ballot this fall: one for sheriff, one for county commissioner chairman and one for District Court judge. The Jackson County Democratic Party has barred them from attending candidate meet-and-greets hosted by the party.

“It is not right for the Democratic Party to support a Republican or unaffiliated candidate when there is a Democratic candidate on the ballot,” said Kirk Stephens, chair of the Jackson County Democratic Party. “The role of the party organization is to support and elect Democratic candidates, so why would we stray from that?”

Kris Earwood, a candidate running for District Court judge, said she was disappointed to be barred from the meet-and-greet. Judge races are nonpartisan — meaning that even though candidates might subscribe to one party or the other when it comes to their voter registration, party affiliation isn’t listed on the ballot as it is with most races.

Stephens said some of the other candidates running for judge have been active in the party, and that it would be unfair to give those with no affiliation or involvement in the party equal access to the Democratic voter base.

Stephens said opening the doors to other candidates would actually violate the party’s national bylaws, which stipulate that party leaders can be removed for supporting a candidate of another political party.

But that hasn’t stopped party leaders in other counties. Earwood has attended both Democratic and Republican party events in other places.

“Most of them have looked at independents not as an opposing party,” Earwood said. “I have been allowed to come to things for the simple reason that both parties are realizing they are going to have to deal with the independents.”

Earwood’s opponent for the seat, David Sutton, is a registered Democrat but he has been allowed to attend meet-and-greets hosted by Republican Party in Haywood, Jackson and Macon counties — since the race is technically nonpartisan. He was barred from attending the annual convention of the Republican Party in Swain and Macon, however.

As a Democrat, Sutton has actively tapped the organized party structure to connect with voters.

“It is important to the extent that it makes networking easier,” Sutton said. “It has definitely been helpful.”

Earwood said that she was warned by politicos that her lack of party affiliation would hurt her in the race, especially when it came to campaigning.

“I was told that an independent could not win in Western North Carolina,” Earwood said. “Across the board, people told me I needed to change my party affiliation, and I felt like that was disingenuous.”

Earwood said she doesn’t think the average voter cares. In fact, the number of voters registered as unaffiliated is growing by leaps and bounds, so it may even be an asset.

“It has upset me at times when I’ve been treated ungraciously because of my independent status. But for a judicial race it should be based on the person and their career rather than what their party affiliation is,” Earwood said.

Earwood said party affiliation doesn’t factor into the job of District Court judge — witnessed by the state designating judge races as nonpartisan.

“We don’t do any policy,” Earwood said.

But Stephens said it does matter.

“Being a Democrat is not a check box on paper. It is a lifestyle. It is a philosophical way of approaching and viewing your surroundings and your community,” Stephens said. “It is important for us as a party that we have judges that represent our values.”

While party affiliation likely doesn’t affect a judge’s outlook on a speeding ticket, District Court judges also decide critical family issues such as child custody and parental rights where philosophy matters, he said.

Sutton agrees with Earwood that your party isn’t important as a District Court judge. But that doesn’t mean voters don’t care.

“People definitely want to know,” Sutton said.

Without a party label, voters are left guessing, Stephens said.

“It doesn’t make it impossible to know what that person believes, but it does make it more difficult,” Stephens said. “Democrats like to say we have a big tent and we try to be inclusive. There are a lot of different kinds of people involved in the Democrat Party but the thing we have in common is we are all Democrats. There has to be a boundary somewhere.”

GOP contenders

There are six Republicans vying for a shot to run against Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, this year.

The six Republican candidates share similar platforms on all the salient talking points: they are against the health care bill that passed, they want smaller government, they want to reduce debt and they all pledge to “get the country back on the right track.”

But they have vastly different backgrounds. And despite sharing the standard Republican agenda, there are differences that set them apart, with some further right than others.

 

Jeff Miller, 55, small business owner

Miller runs a dry-cleaning business with 24 employees that was started by his parents. He is married and has a 17-year-old son.

Miller founded Honor Air, a program that charters airplanes to bring groups of WWII veterans to Washington, D.C., at no cost to see the WWII monument before they die. His plan was initially to reach all the veterans in Henderson County. But the project took off and by the end of the first year of the project, he had flown 800 veterans to D.C. Last year, the Honor Air network under Miller’s supervision flew 18,000 veterans to D.C. from 35 states.

Why did you decide to run?

“I had never talked about it, never thought about it, but I had a lot of people asking me to do it.”

Those people happened to be what Miller called “bookend generations” that each meant the world to him — his 17-year-old son and WWII veterans who he works closely with through Honor Air flights. They convinced Miller he was the type of common sense leader people were looking for.

What do you hope to accomplish?

“The number one thing we have to do is drive down the national debt. I like to call it beginning the deconstruction of big government.”

What separates you from other candidates?

“I understand the pains and challenges of running a business. I know what it’s like to sign the front of a payroll check and have to back it up. I think right now if there is anything the country needs it is people who have had to balance a budget.”

Miller is more moderate that some candidates.

“I am not a far right-winger. I think both parties have a piece of this mess we are in.”

He avoids bashing the President or the Democratic Party, and he admits there are “some good things” in the health care bill.

www.jeffmiller2010.com

 

Greg Newman, 48, attorney in Hendersonville

Newman is a partner in his firm and practices every type of law, from criminal to civil. He also served as a prosecutor in the 1990s. He served as mayor of Hendersonville for four years. He is married and has three kids ranging from 9 to 20 years old.

Why did you decide to run?

“I saw the fear and worry people were starting to experience. There are a lot of people beginning to think the government is too large, and our kids and grandkids are going to have an enormous tax burden on them. It is that lack of confidence that motivated me to want to get into this thing.”

What do you hope to accomplish?

“I want to restore people’s confidence in our future. We have to make some very bold actions about what we choose to fund in this government.”

What separates you from other candidates?

“I want to be honest with people about what it is going to take to get our fiscal house in order.”

On that note, Newman suggests axing the federal departments of Education, Energy and Homeland Security, considering them a duplication of existing departments or failing to provide any vital services.

“I am the only one who has been bold enough to state specifically what I intended to cut.”

 

Dan Eichenbaum, 67, ophthalmologist in Murphy

Eichenbaum has been a leader in the Tea Party movement and the 9/12 Project in the mountains. Eichenbaum was formerly registered as a Libertarian and ran for county commissioner in Cherokee County in 2002 on the Libertarian ticket. He said he became a Libertarian out of frustration at the direction of the Republican Party at one stage but was “never a big ‘L’ libertarian.”

Why did you decide to run?

Eichenbaum is fed up with government interference in his life and business.

“It got to the point where for the past year or so I have been screaming at my television set and yelling at my satellite radio in my truck.” He even found himself giving political speeches in the shower.

Last spring, he went to the Tea Party in Atlanta on tax day with a homemade sign with a single word: Liberty.

“We get there and there are 20,000 people. I was inspired and empowered.”

He came home and started a chapter of the 9/12 Project that grew from half a dozen to 600 members by the end of the summer. He inadvertently became the leader of a movement, and was ultimately convinced to run by those around him.

What do you hope to accomplish?

“I’ve had a platform from day one: limited government, individual freedom, personal responsibility, fiscal restraint and free market economy. Those are my five tools and my tool belt is the Constitution of the United States.”

What separates you from other candidates?

Eichenbaum said he is more knowledgeable than all the other candidates and has won straw polls at every Republican debate he has been in, which he credits to his ability to define a problem and pose a solution that will work.

“I can speak to those points on any issue anyone will ever ask me about. I am starting to hear my own words come back to me now from some of these other candidates.”

Eichenbaum is sick and tired of top down politics in Washington and RINOS, Republicans In Name Only.


Ed Krause, 63, attorney in Marion

Krause is married and has five grown children and an adopted teenager still at home. He has written three novels set in a fictitious small town in the rural Southern Appalachians. He is a fan of model railroads.

Why did you decide to run?

“I am concerned and upset about the bad economic situation and the government’s inability to solve the problem.”

What do you hope to accomplish?

“We have to pay back the debt. We are mortgaging our children and grandchildren.”

What separates you from other candidates?

“We are all the same. There are only minor differences between us all. I stress that I am a problem solver. I am not a flashy person or eloquent person but I can get the job done.”

 

Kenny West, 52, insurance salesman in Hayesville

West is a representative for Liberty National Life Insurance company focused on businesses accounts and works strictly on commission. He is the eighth ranking salesperson out of 6,800 insurance reps, even though he has only been on the job three years. Before that, he was a regional director with a large company overseing 160 employee that published church directories around the Southeast.

Why did you decide to run?

“When I looked at things going on and the choices being made, I told my wife, ‘This is not the America Kenny West knows.’ I think we forgot about our founding fathers and the principles they stood for when they fought and died for our country.”

West invited over his pastor and friends over to pray and talk about whether West should run while sharing a bucket of chicken wings in his basement one evening.

What do you hope to accomplish?

“I submit to you there is a lack of character in Congress. If we don’t put God and character back in this county, it is over for my children.”

What separates you from other candidates?

West has made his belief in God, his family values and strong Christian principles a central part of his campaign message. He is surprised how absent God is in the other candidates’ platforms.

“I have already been called a theocrat by one of them. Am I a zealot? No, but I am a Christian. All blessings come from God.”

West, a Baptist, represents strong family values. He’s been married just once, never smoked or drank, and doesn’t cheat.

 

James Howard, 72, Franklin

Howard grew up in New York as one of 11 children. He retired to Franklin from Florida in 2002. In Florida, he was a commercial helicopter pilot, but also worked in law enforcement for a stint and owned a real estate title company.

When asked his age, Howard refused, saying it wasn’t an issue in the campaign. “That is the problem with reporters,” he said, and then insisted he was 39. His real age was obtained from his registration information at the board of elections, however.

Why did you decide to run?

Howard filed a class action lawsuit against Congress in 2009 following the passage of the stimulus bill. He filed it without a lawyer, “on behalf of himself and the American taxpayer,” according to the suit.

He claims Congress was “derelict in their duties” and “conspired collectively to undermine the people who hired them with their vote.”

In a nut shell, that’s why he decided to run.

“I am not going to stand by and watch our great country destroy itself under the present leadership of the current Congress,” Howard said. “I am going to give it more than a college try.”

What do you hope to accomplish?

He pledges to always put the interests of those who elected him first.

“They hire me, they elect me, I serve them when I get to Washington.”

What separates you from other candidates?

None of the others have the right experience in the “trenches” of the Republican Party. Howard cited his work as the executive director of the Broward County Republican Party in Florida.

Howard said even if one of the other candidates gets elected, they won’t know what to do when they get to D.C.

“That person will be buried for two years and won’t be able to take his hands out of his pockets. It’s a fraternity up there,” Howard said.

When CNN chose John Armor’s web blog as the political site of the day several years ago, coining him an “intellectual redneck” in the process, Armor accepted the tagline proudly.

From his home in Highlands, Armor posts satire columns on the Internet by an invented character, “The (More er Less) Honorable Billybob Congressman” from Western North Carolina. It’s one of many outlets for Armor’s political commentary and humor that floods the journals and digital newsletters of numerous national think tanks, an unwieldy profession that pits Armor as a watchdog of the liberal media one day and a Supreme Court analyst the next.

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