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Wednesday, 01 November 2006 00:00

Mixed allegiances make Haywood race especially difficult to call

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The scene at Haywood County commissioner meetings today is quite different from that four years ago. In the year prior to that election, there were so many disgruntled spectators at commissioner meetings that people lined up in the hallway trying to get a seat. The top complaint was the $18 million justice center, nicknamed the “Taj Mahal of Justice” for its price tag and perceived extravagance.

 

But the justice center was considered a microcosm of larger problems. The majority on the board was seen as unreceptive to public sentiment.

“People felt like they didn’t listen,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who won a seat on the board during the period of unrest four years ago. “I think we have policies in place now that help the public see what we’re doing and why we are doing it. They might disagree with our decisions, but not how we arrive at our decisions.”

Ensley attributes their new modus operandi to the record low number of candidates this year — only eight compared to 17 four years ago. Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, who was elected the same time as Ensley, agreed things have toned down quite a bit.

“I think before people were not satisfied with the job the commissioners were doing. Not that they were doing a bad job, but that was the perception,” said Kirkpatrick.

Every commissioner serving on that controversial board who vied for re-election lost, including Commissioner Mary Ann Enloe. She wasn’t on the justice center bandwagon and voted against nearly everything the majority did, but still lost her bid for re-election in the fallout. She ran again in 2004, however, and won her seat back.

Now, Carlyle Ferguson is trying to do the same thing. He, too, served on the controversial board and when his term was up in 2004, he, too, was voted off, albeit narrowly. Now he hopes to get back on. Ferguson was dubbed the swing vote on the controversial board, a position he says he didn’t care for.

“I was right in the middle every way I went,” Ferguson said. “Which ever way I went was the way the whole vote went. It was like nobody else’s vote counted but mine. I would lay awake at night and think what could I do to get out of this. I guess the reason I was the split vote all the time is I tried to get along with both sides.”

Ferguson said things “calmed down” his last two years on the board following the landmark election year in 2002, which brought three new faces to the board. One of those new faces was Commissioner Mark Swanger, who instigated a series of reforms — airing meetings on television, developing protocol for meetings and minutes, and generally advocating openness.

But Swanger went from the top vote getter in the 2002 election to not even making it past the primary election this year — he lost by just 300 votes. His downfall is largely attributed to two initiatives that were unpopular among some voters: an overhaul of the Economic Development Commission and the firing of County Manager Jack Horton.

These shake-ups made some enemies, and Swanger was accused of being a micromanager. A well-orchestrated campaign by an anti-Swanger political action committee contributed to his defeat in May.

The other two commissioners who came to power four years ago — Kirkpatrick and Ensley — are still in the race.

The same group that opposed Swanger is now opposing Ensley and backing Kirkpatrick. But the group seems to lack the momentum they had in the primary.

For starters, voter turnout is expected to be high thanks to the frenzy over the Charles Taylor-Heath Shuler congressional race. The group’s success in defeating Swanger in the primary is credited in part to a successful get-out-the-vote effort among their own camp in the face of low voter turnout overall. The group’s impact this election could be watered down by a larger voter turnout.

Furthermore, the candidates seem to be bucking the allegiances the political action committee is trying to impose.

Whose camp?

When Kirkpatrick and Ensley were both elected in 2002, it was from opposite camps. Kirkpatrick was for the justice center, Ensley was against it. But the two have gotten along OK and have some things in common.

They are younger than the other commissioners and both have kids involved in sports. Their careers both involve the development sector: Ensley is a surveyor and Kirkpatrick is an attorney who handles a lot of real estate business.

They have had a few disagreements, but mostly minor. The first was shortly after the 2002 election. Ensley joined Swanger in pushing for an overhaul of the Economic Development Commission, citing the existing model as ineffective. Kirkpatrick was initially skeptical of the overhaul. But he recently said the new economic development commission is better than the old one after all.

“I feel like they are doing a good job,” Kirkpatrick said. Kirkpatrick credited Mark Clasby, the new economic development director, as “the key to the change.”

“You are only as good as the director you have in place, and Mark Clasby has done an excellent job,” Kirkpatrick said. Kirkpatrick voted for the overhaul, with the caveat that he wanted to serve on the economic development board to see whether the new model was working better. Kirkpatrick served on the board for a year, then gave his seat to Ensley saying he was satisfied with the new model. Kirkpatrick said the economic development commission is on the “right track.”

Kirkpatrick’s support of the new economic development commission could come as a surprise to the political action committee backing him — one of the PAC’s leaders is the former executive director of the old Economic Development Commission.

The former director, Jay Hinson, recently sent out a mass email calling for a letter to the editor campaign supporting Kirkpatrick and bashing Ensley. The first to turn in such a letter was the former secretary of the old Economic Development Commission.

Kirkpatrick and Ensley have voted in opposite camps on only one major policy issue — whether to get rid of the former county manager Jack Horton. That was the top issue that irked the anti-Swanger political action committee.

Horton was the litmus test the political action committee used when picking which candidates to support. The group is using paid advertisements and letters to the editor to actively support the candidates who did not support getting rid of Horton — Kirkpatrick, Ferguson and Skeeter Curtis. The campaign encourages people to vote against Ensley and ignores Bill Upton, who is perceived to be in Swanger’s camp since he was hired as school superintendent during the time Swanger was school board chairman.

But the camps simply aren’t holding up, starting with Kirkpatrick’s support of the new Economic Development Commission.

Ferguson has bucked the political action committee, too. He won’t criticize Ensley, as they are both Republicans. And he said complimentary things about Swanger.

“Mark (Swanger) was dominate, but he kept people together. We worked real well together,” said Ferguson, who served on the board with Swanger from 2002 to 2004. “Mark came on there with a pretty big list of what he wanted to do, and as far as I know he got them all done.”

The allegiances aren’t holding up in the Canton area either. Some voters are supporting both Curtis and Upton — who are both from the Canton area.

The political action committee’s choices also aren’t going over with the die-hard Democrats — those old-school party voters who pulled the lever for the straight ticket all their life and aren’t going to change now.

Others, however, will likely cross party lines for the first time this year to vote according to the camps defined by the political action committee.

All these mixed allegiances should make for an interesting Election Day. Some may simply like barbeque and vote for Skeeter thanks to the name recognition of his son’s BBQ restaurant, also called Skeeter’s. Others may have liked Upton as principal and vote for him because of that. Farmers, who as a group opposed the justice center and helped vote Ferguson out two years ago, may forgive him this time and put the former dairy farmer back on the board.

The only sure thing in this Haywood County election is that even the most savvy political observers are having a hard time deciding who will come out on top.

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