Navigating the political stripes of the Haywood commissioners’ race

Three Haywood County commissioners running for re-election this year are standing on their track record of balanced leadership from the center of the political spectrum.

The three sitting commissioners on the ballot are Democrats, but they describe themselves as moderate.


“We all have a very similar philosophy. We are all in the center, that’s what it takes to continue to have good governance. We have a model of it here in Haywood County,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrells, a Democrat running for re-election.

They claim to hold the line on county spending, but not at the expense of programs and projects they say are needed to move the county forward.

“We have been a leader in Western North Carolina and I wonder iffen we didn’t get re-elected, whether that would continue,” Sorrells said of Haywood County.

The opponents claim the contrary, however. They portray the incumbents as liberal spenders who put the government ahead of the people they represent.

The sitting Democrats face an unusual bank of challengers. Four contenders hailing from three different political parties — a Democrat, two Republicans and a Libertarian — are espousing similar criticisms of the incumbents. 

SEE ALSO: Are Haywood commissioners big spenders, or doing the best they can?

They haven’t joined forces officially. The challengers aren’t running as a team, nor coordinating their campaign platforms per se.

But they have met to discuss common issues and to strategize about the election. They include Democrat Kyle Edwards, Republicans Philip Wight and Denny King, and Libertarian Wendy McKinney. (A fifth challenger, Bob McClure, has not publicly been in that mix.)

Going into the race, McKinney knew fiscal conservatives shared many of the limited government tenants of the Libertarian platform, but it’s been refreshing as a third-party candidate to be accepted into the fold.

“I am surprised at just how embracing they have been,” McKinney said. “We can work together.”

They have a fan base: a group of conservative activists and self-appointed county watchdogs who have railed against sitting commissioners in recent years.

Commissioners have been taken to task over property revaluations, a series of county building projects, debt to finance their construction, a proposed tourism tax increase — even seemingly innocuous issues like a county emergency response plan have been decried as trampling on civil liberties.

The issues touted by the county government critics have become the springboard for campaign platforms of this year’s challengers, despite their diverse party affiliations on paper.

It’s hard to tell whether the message is resonating with average residents, however.

“The fact of the matter is you have the same select few that are doing all the speaking,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, a Democrat running for re-election. “There is not a whole lot of people out there complaining. I just see a few. The ones complaining are the ones who will complain no matter what you do.”

Election Day should offer a test.

Critics of a progressive direction for the county are hoping for traction at the polls. But have voters tuned them out as background noise?

Wendy McKinney, the Libertarian candidate for commissioner, said it is too soon to tell.

“I don’t know that we have reached them yet, but that is what we are working on,” McKinney said. “That to me is a big, big question. We are targeting unaffiliated voters or people who don’t vote because they feel disenfranchised by the parties.”

McKinney attracted a crowd of 40 people to a Libertarian Party meeting last week. Among the curious was Charles Mills. Asked what issues brought him out,  he cited a YouTube video posted last year that portrayed a property value conspiracy by the county.

“I realize it is dodgy information,” Mills said, but it seemed well-researched and underscored how unfiltered social media can push messages to the masses.

John Scroggs, a stalwart Haywood Democrat, defended the sitting commissioners. The county has more professional management and leadership than it ever has, and commissioners’ sound decision-making is devoid of good old boy politics of decades past, he said.

“They are just good, solid leaders. I am very proud of Haywood County,” Scroggs said.


Filtering through the layers

Commissioner Bill Upton, a Democrat running for re-election, said voters have a clear choice at least.

“They have a different philosophy,” Upton said, when asked what he thought of his challengers’ platform. “The exact opposite really. The lines are simple.”

But voters won’t be able to dissect those lines simply by the candidates’ political party.

Kyle Edwards, a Democratic challenger, claims he is a conservative Democrat — “I am a conservative with an open mind” — but touts talking points that sound fairly Republican on the surface: gun rights, lower taxes, less regulation, breaks for businesses, supporting veterans.

“I am not for big government,” Edwards said.

His creed is similar to Republican candidate Denny King. King also lists gun rights, lower taxes, less regulation and pro-business policies in his platform.

Campaigning on Republican talking points in a primary decided by Democratic voters could be tough, but Edwards said he hopes to appeal to unaffiliated voters. They can vote in the primary of whichever party they please.

He is pinning hopes on unaffiliated voters turning out in the primary and requesting the Democratic ballot, and then voting for him over the incumbents. The strategy isn’t that far-fetched if voter turnout among loyal Democrats is low in this off-year election.

The disparity among Democratic contenders is a sign of the muddy world of politics today. Political lines are blurred, with conservative Democrats acting like Republicans, and liberal Republicans acting like Democrats.

“I always tell people there is a left side and right side. I said I could be a moderate Republican as well as a conservative Democrat,” Sorrells said.

That’s particularly true on the fiscal side, Sorrells said. In fact, there’s little difference between him and Commissioner Kevin Ensley, the lone Republican on the county board, when it comes to budget votes.

“Kevin Ensley and I get along great,” Sorrells said.

But conservative Republicans offer another explanation for why Ensley and Sorrells look so much alike. It’s not that Sorrells is such a conservative Democrat. Rather, Ensley is a liberal Republican.

The more conservative faction of the local Republican Party has suggested censuring Ensley for not acting like what they think a Republican should act like.

That dynamic isn’t isolated to the Haywood commissioner board.

“The liberal Republicans and the majority Democrats have walked along in lock step for a number of years,” said Matt Wise, a member of the Libertarian Party in Haywood County.

As a Libertarian, Wise has a more objective view of the internal push-and-pull within the two main parties. The political and ideological spectrum under either banner is huge. 

But it’s particularly acute among Republicans these days, with the right-wing and progressive Republicans vying for the direction of the party. Will the progressive side ultimately get shouldered out and told to go join the Democrats, or will the far-right get shoved over into Libertarian domain?

“That remains to be seen. They have to hash that out. It’s the same thing going on all across the country,” Wise said.

There’s a key difference between those far-right Republicans and Libertarians, however. 

They’re both fiscal conservatives. But they diverge on the social issues like abortion or gay marriage. That’s what led Paul Heathman, Jr., to check out his first Libertarian meeting last week in Haywood County.

“Our generation is socially liberal but fiscally conservative,” said Heathman, a mortgage lender in Haywood who hails from the under-40 set.

As parties splinter around the edges, the incumbents in the Haywood commissioner race have staked out the safe zone as centrists.

“I think we probably are more together than we have ever been, all working for a common cause, which is making Haywood County better for our citizens,” Upton said. 

The growing ranks of unaffiliated voters show just how broad the center is growing. Unaffiliated voters have grown from 17.3 percent of registered voters in Haywood County in 2004 to 26.6 percent today.

Moderates are increasingly shunning either party, forming a voting bloc of their own that can bend left or right, depending on the candidates and issues in any given race.

“The center is who elects people. It is where these people in the middle go,” Sorrells said, tilting his hands back and forth like a clock’s pendulum.



Meet the candidates: pick three

Three of the five seats on the Haywood County board of commissioners are up for election this year.

A field of five Democratic candidates — the three incumbents and two challengers —  will be narrowed down to three in the primary election.

There are two Republicans and one Libertarian running, but they automatically advance to the general election in November without a primary.


Kirk Kirkpatrick, 45 • Waynesville

Kirkpatrick has a solo law firm in Waynesville and does a mix of criminal and civil cases, as well as real estate law.

Kirkpatrick has been a county commissioner for 12 years and consistently wins re-election as the top vote getter.

Kirkpatrick defended a suite of county building projects over the past decade as necessary and a smart move for the future. They included a new courthouse, a new jail and sheriff’s office, a new office for the department of social services and health department, a senior resource center, a landfill expansion, a new community college building and an adult day care. 

“Basically I feel like I have been a contractor for the past 10 years,” Kirkpatrick lamented. “But it had to be done and somebody had to do it and hopefully we did it at the least expensive point in time.”

PLATFORM: “I really like my county. I like the people in the county. I enjoy doing what I do. I want to have good open government. I want to see our county prosper.”


Mike Sorrells, 57 • Jonathan Creek

Sorrells is the owner of a gas station, community general store, auto repair and tire service and café in his home community of Jonathan Creek.

He served on the school board for six years and has been a county commissioner for four years.

Sorrells touts the county’s economic development record over the past four years. The county extended property tax breaks to two existing manufacturers — Sonoco Plastics and Conmet — as an incentive for expanding their operations and adding jobs.

The county landed a $2.1 million state grant and will put in $700,000 in county money to help Evergreen paper mill with a $50 million coal-to-natural gas conversion in order to meet air pollution standards.

The county played a supporting role for Haywood Regional Medical Center, amid its financial uncertainty. And the county re-envisioned its economic development arm as a joint venture with the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.

PLATFORM: “I have common sense. You have to look at whether something is a good, wise decision and you move forward.”


Bill Upton, 69 • Canton

Upton spent 35 years in public education, as an assistant principal and principal of Pisgah High School, principal of Meadowbrook Elementary and eventually superintendent.

He’s been a county commissioner for eight years and is proud of the course the county is on.

Upton said he is a supporter of education and children. His career in the school system taught him how to work with people, be it parents, teachers or students.

“You can’t prejudge a kid’s actions, you have to listen to both sides and make a fair decision,” Upton said.

He said the current board has been forward-thinking and balanced.

PLATFORM: “I have managed a large budget with responsibility and integrity, and I haven’t been afraid to make tough decisions. I have worked to find the best solutions to our county’s needs while being open to the will and voice of our citizens.”


Kyle Edwards, 74 • Maggie Valley

Edwards has been a contractor since 1970 and specializes in grading, excavation and heavy equipment jobs. He grew up dirt-poor but went on to become a self-made business man. 

“I started with one backhoe,” he said, a far cry from the expansive machinery yard outside his living room window today.

He is the owner of the Stompin’ Ground, a clogging and entertainment venue in Maggie Valley, which he built to showcase the natural talents of his two children, who were both champion cloggers.

Edwards also runs a 100-site commercial campground in Maggie Valley, which he built in the early 2000s. He was a Maggie Valley alderman in the 1970s and 1980s.

PLATFORM: Lower taxes, smaller government, less regulation, private property rights, gun rights, business friendly, pro-veteran and pro-seniors.


Bob McClure, 67 • Crabtree

McClure prides himself on being in Haywood County’s workforce for 50 years, mostly in manufacturing. He worked at Unagusta Furniture Factory, then Dayco for three decades, and the short-lived Dana Corporation.

Twice, the factory he worked at closed and he was laid off. He soon found a new job with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office, where he’s worked as a jailer and now a court bailiff.

“I had to keep going. I have never been a quitter. Even when those plants shut down I was out the next day looking for a job. I feel as a person you are just as strong as you want to be,” McClure said.

McClure said he would put his energy as a commissioner into recruiting industry and jobs, ideally small manufacturing.

“As part of the commissioner team we should be out trying to find jobs,” McClure said.

McClure said he doesn’t know how much the current board does on this front, nor how he would go about it himself or what the prospects of being successful are, but he would try. 

“I just know as commissioner, if I am elected as commissioner, I would be more hands on trying to get jobs,” McClure said. “Don’t set on their laurels and expect something to happen. Try to make something happen in the job force.”

PLATFORM: “I feel like what I am doing is for everybody in Haywood County because I feel like the decisions that is made by the commissioners affect all the people in Haywood County, and they deserve to know what is going on in Haywood County and have a voice in what is going on.”

But some opponents believe the sitting commissioners are agents of the government instead of a voice for the people.

“My main objective is to give people a voice of what they want to happen in Haywood County,” said Bob McClure, a challenger on the Democratic ticket. “We need to get more people involved in the meetings, when they go to the meetings, and get more feedback of what the majority of people want, not just a select few.”

Kirkpatrick said he tries to be cognizant of that.

“I have to take a good look at myself and not think that I have all the answers to things and to continue to listen to people. You have to tell yourself all the time to make sure to listen to people,” Kirkpatrick said.

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