Every so often a dissatisfied electorate injects a third current into the country’s two-party dialogue.
It’s happening this year with the Tea Party movement, and it’s also happening spontaneously in Jackson County.
Four Jackson County residents who want to be on the ballot in November are gathering signatures to qualify as unaffiliated candidates. Two who are running for commissioner are indeed unaffiliated, according to state voter registration records.
The other two are running for sheriff, but voter registration shows them listed as a Democrat and a Republican, so the unaffiliated route may simply be a strategy to earn a spot on the November ballot.
People who don’t want to run under the banner of a particular party have to beat the bushes with a petition drive in order to get a spot on the ballot in North Carolina. Unaffiliated candidates must collect the signatures of 4 percent of the voting public by June 25. The number comes out to 1,051 signatures out of Jackson County’s total 26,295 registered voters.
Jack Debnam, a Cullowhee-based realtor, intends to challenge County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan. Ron Poor, a faculty member at Southwestern Community College, will vie for the seat of sitting Commissioner Tom Massie. And both Mary Rock of Sylva and Tim O’Brien of Cashiers want to run against Jimmy Ashe for sheriff.
The aspiring candidates are choosing an unorthodox route to the general election but have the advantage of bypassing the party primaries in May.
None of the candidates said the Tea Party movement or the national election climate prompted them to run as unaffiliated, but Poor cited some of the key principles of the country’s independent temperament –– fiscal conservatism and defense of the Constitution –– as he explained why he wants to run.
“I have not yet found a party which I can believe in,” Poor said. “I am a fiscal conservative, government at all levels is larger and more expensive and intrusive than it should be and has nearly become choked off from the everyday citizen. My goal is to see it cut back, to see it opened up, to see it operate more efficiently and at lower cost.”
Rock and O’Brien, as sheriff’s candidates, enter a race with a crowded Democratic primary that includes an entrenched incumbent in Jimmy Ashe and three others.
Rock, who is technically registered as a Democrat, said her bid as an unaffiliated candidate was partly strategic. “There’s an advantage to doing the petitions that I saw,” Rock said.
The May primary narrows down the field to just one Democrat and one Republican who then advance to the November election. But in a county where Democrats reign, Republicans often don’t have a chance come November.
“In Jackson County, we always have a Democrat as sheriff, so the primary has always decided it,” Rock said. “Only one person comes out of the May primary with a nomination.”
But Rock could beat the system by advancing straight to the November ballot.
Another advantage of circumventing the party primary is that there is no limit to the number of unaffiliated candidates on the ballot, so anyone who succeeds in gathering the proper amount of petitions makes it.
O’Brien said he is registered unaffiliated but state records show he has been registered Republican. He called himself a “fiscal conservative” who intends to de-politicize the sheriff’s office.
Debnam also said he was registered unaffiliated, so he had no choice other than to go through the petition process.
“I’m not a Tea Party person. I’m a small business owner in Jackson County, and I’m really frustrated,” Debnam said.
Jack Debnam, Cullowhee, county chairman
Debnam is the owner of Western Carolina Properties, a real estate firm with offices in Dillsboro and Cullowhee. He has never run for political office and said he was inspired to run because the Jackson County board has not represented small business well.
Ron Poor, Sylva, running against sitting Commissioner Tom Massie
Poor is a registered real estate broker who also teaches electronics and computer engineering at SCC. Poor cited his opposition to tax increases and development regulations as reasons for running.
Poor accused the current board of a “draconian knee jerk reaction” when it passed a moratorium on new subdivisions and considers the current steep slope regulations too stringent.
Mary Rock, Sylva, sheriff
The 42-year-old Sylva native has worked as a bail bondsman in Jackson County for the past 12 years. She served with the Military Police and got her basic law enforcement certification from WCU.
“Since I was a child I’ve seen a lot of things I didn’t think was the best way to run that office and I waited a long time to see if anyone would change that,” Rock said. “I decided this year that I wanted to do it myself.”
Tim O’Brien, Cashiers, sheriff
O’Brien has worked as a private investigator for the past two years. He has a degree in criminal justice administration from WCU. He served in the military police, as Highlands Police officer, a detective with the Macon County Sheriff’s Department, and an SBI agent.
“I will serve as a sheriff who will dedicate himself to the issues important to our county and not to political ambitions or re-election. I will be fiscally responsible, remembering at all times that we are spending the peoples’ money. All crimes will be properly investigated, phone calls will be returned, and funding will be used appropriately on those things for which it is intended,” O’Brien said.