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Wednesday, 12 April 2006 00:00

Local PAC exerts influence

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For the first time in Haywood County, a group of residents has formed a political action committee with the goal of influencing the county commissioners race.

The political action committee, called the Good Governance Legion, is less concerned with the candidates they are supporting than they are the candidates they hope to defeat, namely County Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger.

The race has boiled down in some ways to a tug of war between two camps of movers and shakers over who will preside in coming years. Swanger’s critics claim he is hijacking the established power structure in the county simply because he wants to run things. Swanger’s supporters claim he brings needed perspective to the once heir-apparent circle of leaders.

The political action committee is backing a mixed bag of commissioner candidates in the Democratic primary. Three of the five candidates will make it past the primary. In one camp are Swanger and Bill Upton, the former Haywood County schools superintendent and a friend of Swanger’s. That leaves little choice over which three candidates the committee will support — Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick for re-election, political newcomer Skeeter Curtis, and Bill Noland, a former county commission chairman who lost in the primary two years ago.

“We don’t have any problem supporting those candidates,” said Bill Bird, chairman of the Good Governance Legion. “We are very happy some stepped up to the plate and ran.”

Bird said their only goal was finding independent candidates who wouldn’t fall into Swanger’s camp if elected.

“We just want people to make a decision independently and not be pressured behind the scenes,” Bird said. “I think that’s the purpose of those three candidates.”

There are only three Republican candidates for commissioner. All three will advance to November’s general election. Bird said Republican candidates will be in the cards for the committee’s endorsement in the general election.

“Come the general election, we will be supporting some Republicans as well,” Byrd said. “Right now the focus is on the primary.”

None of the three candidates endorsed by the Good Governance Legion were quick to claim affiliation with the group. In fact, none of them did.

“I’m not going to tie myself into a camp,” Curtis said.

Curtis said he met with the Good Governance Legion and discussed his candidacy prior to registering to run. They didn’t influence Curtis to run, but he’s certainly not turning down their endorsement, he said.

“I will seek anyone’s endorsement and appreciate any vote I get, and I told the legion group that, but I didn’t want to accept any of their money as part of my campaign,” Curtis said. “I wanted to run my own campaign for all the people of Haywood County, not any special interest group or special person. Their issues are their issues. My issues are part of my campaign.”

Noland said the same thing.

“They aren’t framing my campaign,” Noland said. “They aren’t telling me what to say. Whatever that political committee is doing, that’s their thing. If they want to vote for me, fine.”

While the offensive strategy of the Good Governance Legion is shaping the election’s tone so far, the candidates denied presumed political ties to each other by virtue of the endorsements.

“There are three seats up there and I am running for one of them,” Noland said.

Swanger and Upton also rejected the notion they are running as a team.

“I kind of look at it as five of us running for three seats and we each have to look after ourselves,” Upton said. “All I’m going to say is vote for Bill Upton. I’m not going to say vote for this candidate and don’t vote for this one.”

Bird alleges Upton is in Swanger’s camp based on their past roles in the Haywood County school system. When Swanger was elected chairman of the school board, the superintendent at the time promptly resigned. Upton was promoted to the post thanks to Swanger’s support. But Upton said that didn’t matter.

“I know he hired me as superintendent, but I have to be my own man now,” Upton said. “Mark (Swanger) is running his race and I am running my race.”

The political action committee was spurred to action following the forced resignation of long-time County Manager Jack Horton in a 3 to 2 vote in January. (see related article.)

Bird said the firing of Horton was their “galvanizing force.”

“The talk has been around for years, but that was the turning point,” Bird said.

Swanger said the political action committee is largely comprised of Horton’s personal friends.

“This group is obviously upset their personal friend who is in Rotary Club with them and church with several of them is gone, and they are upset about that,” Swanger said. “You have to be able to separate job performance from other social interactions.”

Several members of the political action committee attend the same church as Horton, namely the First Baptist Church of Waynesville. Kirkpatrick also goes to the First Baptist Church. Also on the church roster is Jay Hinson, the former county economic development director, another person Bird blames Swanger for ousting.

But Bird said the political action committee isn’t comprised solely of Waynesville First Baptist Church members, himself included.

“That’s not the case,” Bird said. Bird said the biggest connection the group has is through the Waynesville Rotary Club.

Kirkpatrick said he did not support keeping Horton as county manager merely because of a personal affiliation through the church.

“There is no way it had anything to do with a personal friendship with Jack Horton,” Kirkpatrick said. “My relationship with Jack Horton was minimal prior to becoming a county commissioner. Since his resignation, I’ve probably spoken to him twice.”

While the names of the political action committee aren’t being made public, a few have written letters to the editor or identified their affiliation through campaign contributions filed with the Haywood County election board.

Known members include: Don Eudy, Bill Bird, Eugene Harpe, Peggy Melville, Jay Hinson and Ron Leatherwood.

Swanger said the attacks by the political action committee have in turn spurred his supporters.

In a recent Charlotte Observer article profiling Swanger’s open government initiatives, Bird criticized Swanger’s policies and accused him of micromanaging the county. Swanger replied that he had made enemies by “taking on the good old boy culture.”

Bird read the article on-line and took issue with Swanger’s response.

“That’s interesting, given none of us in the core group have been involved in politics before with the exception of Ron Leatherwood,” Bird said. “We are just citizens of Haywood County. Maybe all the citizens of Haywood County are good old boys.”

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