How high on the totem pole? Each with two years of experience under their belts, Presnell and Queen vie for NC Senate

When Joe Sam Queen arrived at a reception hosted by the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce earlier this year, the greeters working the door plucked a red carnation from a vase of water, snipped the stem, pinned it to his jacket lapel and sent him inside.


The greeters soon realized their faux pas. They had just bedecked Queen with the signature carnation reserved for elected officials. The problem: Queen wasn’t an elected official anymore. He had lost his seat in the state Senate two years earlier. Queen’s opponent would up show up any minute. Luckily, there were extra carnations.

Although Sen. Keith Presnell, R-Burnsville, beat Queen in 2004, many in Haywood County still think of Queen as their state senator. During a press conference at Haywood Community College last fall, an emcee who pointed out important people in the audience introduced Presnell, promptly followed by Queen. In the annual Folkmoot festival parade in Waynesville this summer, Queen rode in the line-up with elected officials, even though he wasn’t one.

Presnell is continually dogged by this form of equal play that elevates Queen to the same status as a sitting senator. Polls conducted by Queen’s campaign show that “Joe Sam Queen” is a more familiar name with voters than “Keith Presnell” — an odd reversal of the advantage incumbents typically claim.

Queen faults Presnell for failing to deliver for Western North Carolina the past two years, and says the region has suffered as a result.

“He is a good enough fella, but he doesn’t have a clue what they do at the legislature,” Queen said. “He’s been down there two years and hasn’t figured it out yet. That’s why he was rated one of the least effective senators. He doesn’t do anything.”

In response, Presnell said he did not want to “lambash” his opponent.

“People can look at our records. I think people need to look at that,” Presnell said.


Comparing the records

So this week, we did just that. Both Presnell and Queen have spent two years in Raleigh — Queen in 2003 and 2004, Presnell in 2005 and 2006 — making for a relatively apples to apples comparison. Interviews with local leaders in the region — both Democrat and Republican — and a review of Presnell’s and Queen’s legislative record show that Queen has been more effective at both bringing home money for the region and getting policies passed to benefit the mountains.

During Presnell’s tenure, he failed to get a single bill passed that he sponsored.

“Where is the vision? Where is the initiative?” Queen asked. “If you don’t set some traps, you don’t catch any rabbits. If you don’t plow and sow, you can’t expect a harvest.”

Some say Queen has done more for the region during the past two years than Presnell did — even though Queen wasn’t the one in office.

When the international Folkmoot festival sought a state grant last year, they didn’t go to Presnell. They went to Queen, who despite being out of office helped secure a $100,000 earmark in the state budget. The Penland School of Crafts — from Presnell’s own neck of the woods in Mitchell County — also sought Queen’s help in its quest for money. Queen had gotten Penland a $400,000 grant to promote Appalachian arts and crafts while still in office, but it was $100,000 shy of the $500,000 Penland officials wanted. So they went back to Queen last year to help get the rest.

Presnell, on the other hand, failed to deliver special interest money for the region during his two years in office. But Presnell pointed to one area where he beat Queen: voting.

“He missed 112 votes in two years,” Presnell said of Queen. “I didn’t take a walk on any bills. I was there to do the job people sent me to do.”

Queen missed 10 percent of the more than 1,000 votes during his two years in office. But Queen questioned whether being in the chamber for every vote, many of which are procedural, is truly a bragging point.

“The only distinction Presnell has was he was there for 100 percent of the votes?” Queen asked.

Queen said Presnell was often asleep at wheel, like with the slated closure of the minimum-security prison in Waynesville. Small prisons cost more to run than big prisons, so nearly every year the proposal is floated to close the small Haywood prison. Legislators from here have to fight to keep the prison open and preserve the jobs of people who work there.

Presnell didn’t put up a fight, however. In fact, he didn’t realize it was happening. Haywood County leaders had to turn to other state representatives to help keep the prison open.

“He doesn’t follow things,” said Queen. “We don’t get our fair share with this kind of representation.”

Presnell dodged the question when asked whether any bills he sponsored were passed.

“I would have to look those up,” Presnell said.

Presnell was at a disadvantage, however. One was the record volume of bills introduced during his term.

“Many did not make it out of committee,” Presnell said.

Plus, Democrats control the state Senate, so it was easier for Queen to break into the established pecking order than it was for Presnell.


Bringing it home

Nonetheless, when Queen was in office, he brought home the bacon. He got $20 million to preserve 4,000-acres on Lake James as a state park. And when Queen noticed state legislators from down East cooking up a plan to build a cancer research center in Chapel Hill and a heart and stroke research center in Greenville, Queen felt something was amiss — namely a comparable health care initiative in the mountains.

Queen rallied mountain legislators to demand a $105 million Health and Aging Research Center for Western North Carolina be included as well.

“That was a legacy project,” Queen said. “That is the first time ever Western North Carolina has been included in a major investment in medicine. We will have hundreds of research fellows in Western North Carolina doing post-doc work around aging and wellness issues.”

Queen said Presnell’s failure to win money for the region is even more dismal given the $1.8 billion budget surplus the state saw this year. Compare that to Queen’s tenure when the state faced $1 billion budget shortfalls.

“Presnell is down there in a surplus year and didn’t do a darn thing. The contrast couldn’t be starker,” Queen said. “The difference is I brought something home. He brought nothing home.”

Presnell took credit for voting for millions of dollars in flood recovery for the mountains following the devastation of hurricanes Frances and Ivan. But most towns give Queen credit for securing the funding. Queen was still in office when the floods hits in September of 2004. He was made co-chair of a flood relief committee in charge of surveying damage and writing a flood relief bill.

“His efforts on that committee fighting for Western North Carolina has helped Clyde in many ways,” said Joy Garland, town manager of that severely hit town.

In the meantime, however, Queen lost the election. But he continued to serve as co-chair of the state flood relief committee and continued to lobby for the money, giving slide shows in Raleigh.

“It was key they understand how serious this was for my part of the state,” Queen said. “They were skeptical we had the needs we were claiming. I had to get their support and convince them.”

When the General Assembly convened in February for the first time following the floods, Queen was no longer in office. Presnell was the sitting senator and takes credit for voting “yes.”

“It wasn’t until I was there that I pushed a green button to send money for the flood,” Presnell said. “It was one of our very first votes.”

But Dean Hicks, a commissioner from Yancey County, said that Queen, not Presnell, deserves credit for the state flood relief.

“The legwork was already done,” said Hicks, a Democrat. “Joe Sam worked really hard I know for a fact.”


Presnell votes

The majority of Presnell’s accomplishments this election are things he voted for, but not necessarily worked for. Presnell was one of only six Senate Republicans to vote for the state budget, which was primarily written by the Democrats who control the legislature. According to Queen, the Republican leaders in Raleigh told Presnell it was OK to break party lines and vote for the budget this year since Presnell faced a tight race and needed talking points. Like this one:

“I am proud to report that I voted to cap the gas tax in North Carolina,” Presnell said. “When you are able to cap the gas tax, there was a cut, not enough, but a cut in the sales tax and in the income tax, that one vote for the budget would have given $200 million back to families to help on their feed and help businesses create jobs. By that bill, the vote to cut the sales tax and income tax, that frees that money back. It would have been $200 million.”

Presnell touted his “yes” vote for the budget as helping raise teachers’ pay by 8 percent. His “yes” vote for the budget also led to a cap on counties’ share of Medicaid payments. North Carolina is one of the few states where counties are asked to chip in on Medicaid. The burden has been a long-standing problem for poorer counties.

Both Andrew Webb, commissioner chairman of McDowell County, and John Renfro, the former commissioner chairman in Yancey County, gave Presnell kudos for working to cap the county share of Medicaid.

But Presnell had little real input in the effort other than simply voting yes on budget day. Sen. William Purcell from Laurinburg, who has led efforts to help counties over-burdened by Medicaid, said he doesn’t remember Presnell ever working on the issue.

“I don’t remember him saying anything about it, and I was at all the committee meetings,” Purcell said. “I don’t remember him taking a leadership position or being out in front pushing this issue.”

Presnell also touted efforts to protect private property rights, but again it appears Presnell did little more than vote “yes” when it came up for a vote.

“After the U.S. Supreme Court said the taking of property for private use was acceptable, my colleagues and I acted to stop that practice in North Carolina,” Presnell read from his list of talking points during an interview.

When asked to elaborate, he couldn’t remember much about it. At first he said it was embedded as a measure in the budget.

“That was in the budget ...Wait ... I have to look at that again ... Actually that might have been Snow’s bill,” Presnell said as he flipped through his notes. “No, it was what’s his name ... Democrat from Madison County...Bruce Goforth’s bill in the House. I voted for that.”

So did everyone else in the Senate. It was a unanimous vote. And Goforth is from Buncombe, not Madison.

Another item on Presnell’s list of accomplishments was health care.

“I worked diligently with doctors and patients to craft medical malpractice reform,” Presnell read from his list of talking points. “This measure will reduce the cost of health insurance and put more money back in your pockets.”

But again, the details of this effort escaped him when asked to elaborate.

“I’m not sure. I can’t get into the details right now. Let me get more on that,” Presnell said.

The details of Presnell’s own bills — ones that he sponsored — sometimes escaped him as well. During a trip to Raleigh in the final weeks of the state legislative session in June, The Smoky Mountain News asked senators and representatives from this region what they hoped to get done before the session ended for the year. Each of them rattled off a list they were lobbying for up until the last minute, except Presnell, who couldn’t think of any at first. He then cited a bill he wrote to get money for Haywood Community College. Except he couldn’t remember what it was for.

“That is for ... let’s see, I’ll just get it for you,” Presnell said, rifling through a binder on his desk, but couldn’t find the bill.

“Rhonda will have to get it for you,” he said referring to his assistant.


Work it

Queen got his first lesson in pushing a bill through the legislature when he began drumming up support for a bill to create a specialty license plate for the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation had been asking for the specialty license plate for five years but was not successful.

“It looked to me like surely I could get a license plate done,” Queen said.

But it proved harder than he thought. There were undercurrents to get rid of all the specialty plates, including the Friends of the Smokies tag. The DMV had gotten fed up with the proliferation of specialty license plates.

“I made the case that I can’t sell my assets — the Smokies, the elk, the Parkway, the Appalachian Trail — on a First in Flight license plate,” Queen said. “I wanted my region to have its specialty plates.”

Ultimately, Queen got all 50 senators to sign the bill as co-sponsors.

Houck Medford, the executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and a Waynesville native, called Queen an “exceptionally talented legislator.”

“His determination and diligence in securing passage of the license tag bill for the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail is a perfect example. He had every senator in North Carolina to sign on to the bill before it reached the floor for a vote, an almost unheard of occurrence,” Medford said.


County leadersstuck largely to party lines when asked to comment on the role either Queen or Presnell played during their respective tenures. Dean Hicks, a Democratic commissioner from Presnell’s home of Yancey County, said he preferred working with Queen.

“To be quite honest, I felt Joe Sam was more effective,” Hicks said.

Queen secured a $100,000 economic development earmark for Yancey County during his term. When Presnell was in office, Yancey County sought money for a senior center. It didn’t seem like Presnell tried as hard, Hicks said.

“There was no follow through. There was no push to get it,” Hicks said.

Apparently the $100,000 economic development grant didn’t impress John Renfo, however, who was also serving on the Yancey County board of commissioners at that time.

“Sen. Queen was receptive to what we had to say, but I don’t think we got too many results,” said Renfo, a Republican.

Back in the Democratic corner, Mark Swanger, the chairman of the Haywood County commissioners, sided with Queen.

“I found Joe Sam to be far more energetic in searching for solutions to county problems. Joe Sam tried to find a way to say yes,” Swanger said. “I have not found that to be the case with Keith Presnell. I did not see his skill sets as conducive to fashioning legislation successfully.”

Kevin Ensley, also a Haywood County commissioner, wasn’t quite as hard on Presnell. Ensley, a Republican like Presnell, said he shares the same ideology as Presnell on issues like abortion and gay marriage. But Ensley agreed Queen worked harder.

“With Joe Sam Queen, I think he would bring more money to this area,” Ensley said.

Haywood County commissioners became somewhat disgruntled with Presnell when he refused to introduce a bill that would have raised money for a Haywood Community College expansion through a half-cent sales tax.

“I’m not introducing bills that raise taxes,” Presnell said.

The commissioners didn’t want Presnell to enact the tax, however. They wanted to put it to a countywide vote and let the people decide whether to raise a half-cent sales tax. But the county needed the state’s permission to hold the vote.

“I am a little concerned with his ideology being so rigid it would not even allow the citizens of Haywood County to make their own decision regarding a half-cent sales tax for the community college,” Swanger said of Presnell.

Instead, Presnell introduced a bill to give Haywood Community College $1.8 million in state funds for a new building.

“I would rather do appropriations to meet the needs of our community college,” Presnell said.

Only he didn’t get the appropriation, and the college didn’t get the money it wants, and now county commissioners have to decide whether to fund the college expansion through property taxes. Queen said he would have gotten the county its half-cent sales tax vote.

“That was what they really wanted, and he didn’t do it,” Queen said. “Instead he throws in this bogus bill as a smoke screen for incompetence.”

Back in the Republican corner, Andrew Webb, the county commissioner chairman in McDowell County, said Presnell was a hard worker and often stopped to chat when passing through on his way to and from Raleigh. Webb said Presnell worked with McDowell County to promote economic development. He could not name any specific measures Presnell assisted with other than showing up for the dedication of a new boat factory and showing up again when a U.S. Senator toured the plant. Meanwhile, Queen claims that he helped secure a state economic development grant to land the boat factory. But Webb disagreed.

“He was not even in office when Cobia Boats was recruited,” Webb said.

It is somewhat expected for a county commissioner to support the state candidate from their own party, so it is unclear how much can be gained from this tit-for-tat support.

“Three weeks before an election you aren’t going to find too many people jumping over party lines,” Renfro said.

But there’s an unusual twist in Avery County, where the Republican school board chairman is supporting Queen.

“It is nothing personal against Mr. Presnell, but I feel like Mr. Queen gets things done,” said Peck Taylor of Avery County. “I feel like Mr. Queen is willing to get down in the trenches for you and try. He doesn’t give up very easily.”

Queen said he lost two years ago after being targeted by the state Republican Party, which pumped money into Presnell’s campaign.

“I was the most effective freshmen senator that had come down the pike in a while,” Queen said. Their only hope to unseat Queen before he became too powerful was after his first term in 2004.

That claim was met with a guffaw by Bill Peaslee, chief of staff for the state Republican Party.

“Joe Sam Queen has an exaggerated opinion of his own abilities,” Peaslee said.

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