Three Republican candidates are attempting to set themselves apart in the hope of winning the May primary and going head-to-head with N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp for his seat in the state House.
After three uncontested elections, Rapp will now face opposition from one of three Republican candidates in the November election. The popular Democrat has represented the 118th District — covering Madison and Yancey counties as well as the Canton, Clyde and Maggie Valley areas in Haywood County — for 10 years.
All three Republican candidates subscribe to the main party lines in a few respects: pro-life, anti-gay marriage and cutting down state regulations on businesses. However, each has different degrees of experience and has one or two distinct issues that they are passionate about.
• Michele Presnell, 60, has served as Yancey County Commissioner for two years and owns Serendipity Custom Frames in Burnsville. She is also the wife of former state senator Keith Presnell and mother of three grown children.
Because of her time as a commissioner and the knowledge she gained about state government as a state senator’s wife, Presnell said she is most qualified candidate.
“I think I am the only one who can beat him (Rapp),” Presnell said.
A key goal of Presnell is to pass legislation, requiring residents to present some form of identification when voting. The measure will cut down on voter fraud in the state, Presnell said. Rapp voted against a bill that would have compelled voters to bring identification to the polls.
Presnell also spoke in favor of Amendment One, which would insert a clause in the state constitution banning same-sex marriage and civil unions. There is already a state law against gay marriage in North Carolina, but Presnell said it is not enough, and the constitution must be changed.
“The problem is: you get a judge out here who is very liberal, and he can decide that he doesn’t like that, and he can change it,” Presnell said. “If we change our constitution, that makes all the difference in the world right there.”
• Jesse Sigmon, 63, is a retired field officer with the Department of Revenue and now works part-time at Builders Express in Mars Hill, where he currently resides. He and his wife have five children. Sigmon ran unsuccessfully for state office in 1998 and again in 2000.
Because of his experience enforcing tax regulations with the Department of Revenue, Sigmon said he is passionate about maintaining the state’s current tax levels. Increased taxes are turning the U.S. into a welfare state and “eroding our work ethic,” Sigmon said.
Sigmon listed his time in the construction business, working with small business and his knowledge of state tax regulations as key items that set him apart from his competition
“I know the tax code like I know my grandchild’s face,” he said.
Sigmon said Presnell’s limited experience as a county commissioner and Ben Keilman’s youth give him a leg up in the race.
During a Haywood County Republican Party event last week, Sigmon emphasized that the country was built on Judeo-Christian principles — something that state and federal leaders need to remember when making decisions.
“We’re a Christian nation, always have been, but our founding fathers recognized that we had to have religious tolerance for all religions, but we can’t swap ours for Mohamed,” Sigmon said. “Nations who don’t maintain a cultural heritage do not survive … ours is Judeo-Christian religion. Everybody else we tolerate.”
“You don’t think like Asians or Orientals or Mohamed. You think like a Western Civilization person, don’t you? All your friends do and we accept the other religions,” Sigmon said, echoing a theme that has become a standard talking point for him on the campaign trail.
• Ben Keilman, 23, is a Canton resident and Pisgah graduate. He recently graduated with a political science degree from the UNC- Chapel Hill, where he was active in College Republicans. Keilman currently works for his father at Asheville Cabinets.
Although he is the least experienced of the three candidates, Keilman said he is not the least qualified and should not be counted out because of his age.
“Teddy Roosevelt, if you recall, was 23 years old when he got elected to the Michigan state House of Representatives. He was actually the most active member, writing more bills — more conservative bills — than any other,” Keilman said.
Legislation that Keilman would like to work on if elected would allow North Carolinians to opt out of “Obamacare” and No Child Left Behind. States have the right to challenge such mandates, he said.
“The constitution is supposed to restrain the federal government through separation of powers and through the doctrine of enumerated rights,” Keilman said.
Rather than focus on his lack of professional political experience, Keilman commented that he has no experience as a corporation crony and is too young to be in the pocket of big business. And, when people talk about making the world better for their children, Keilman pointed out that he is one of those kids.
“If you want someone who is going to make sure that the (future) is good for your children, vote for me because I have to live with it for the next 70 or 80 years. This is my life,” he said.
Keilman said he is the most committed to the race and is out among the communities talking with constituents — two factors that he said would also help in the general election against Rapp.
“I am the one with the organization. I am the one with the ideas and the planning,” Keilman said. “I have the energy to actually get on the ground with my boots.”
Haywood County voters in Canton, Clyde, Bethel, Cruso, Fines Creek and Crabtree vote in this race. Most voters in the Ivy Hills precinct do, too, but part of Ivy Hills lies in another House district so your best bet is to call the Haywood County Board of Elections and ask them to check your address. As a rule of thumb, Maggie Valley proper and Jonathan Creek are in this House district but the Dellwood area is not.
You also vote in this race if you live anywhere in Madison or Yancey counties.
When it comes to the election season, 2012 has turned into a bellwether year for North Carolina, and Republicans are clammoring to claim state and federal seats currently held by Democrats.
Even the popular N.C. House Democrat Ray Rapp, who has enjoyed two uncontested election seasons, is now facing mounting competition for his 118th District seat. Rapp has represented Haywood and Madison counties in the N.C. House for 10 years.
“I think this is a really interesting year,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “There is so much uncertainty.”
Rapp will be pitted against one of three Republican candidates come fall.
The make-up of Rapp’s district changed only slightly when new lines were drawn following the national census, a political shuffle that occurs every 10 years to ensure that each district still has roughly the same number of residents.
Rapp’s district has lost parts of Haywood County and picked up the whole of Yancey County.
Prior to the reconfiguration, the district was 28 percent Republican, but it is now 31 percent.
The three Republican candidates hoping to take on Rapp are:
• Jesse Sigmon, 63, is retired from the Department of Revenue but works part-time at Builders Express in Mars Hill, where he currently resides. Sigmon ran unsuccessfully for state office in 1998 and again in 2000, but he said the new district make-up could be the change he needs to win.
“The numbers are more favorable to a fair election for a Republican,” Sigmon said. “I did not feel I could win in the past few elections because of the numbers.”
• Michele Presnell, 60, is a current Yancey County Commissioner and owner of Serendipity Custom Frames in Burnsville. She is also the wife of former state senator Keith Presnell. Presnell said that the district needs a change — someone who can better represent its constituents.
“This is a new district, and I feel that I can represent the people of this district in a more conservative way,” she said.
• Ben Keilman, a Canton resident and Pisgah graduate, is by far the youngest competitor at 23. He recently graduated with a political science degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he was active in College Republicans. Keilman currently works for his father at Asheville Cabinets.
In the last election two years ago, Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time in a century. And, the political tide in North Carolina continues to turn in favor of the traditionally more conservative party, Cooper said.
“More Republicans think they’ve got a shot,” he said, later adding that the once-light blue state now has a purple tint. “This is all just a path to becoming a red state.”
However, disorganization among the state Republican Party, witnessed by the outpouring of so many candidates in the primary, will benefit Democrats in the long run, Cooper said.
“The Republican’s don’t seem to have an organized party to sift through these candidates,” Cooper said. “The lack of party organization is really striking to me.”
The race for Heath Shuler’s seat in Congress is another election in which Republicans will need to narrow the field. It is even more hotly contested with eight Republicans battling for their party’s nomination.
Although the House district held by Rapp is still majority Democrat, it does not mean that the race will be a cakewalk for Rapp, however.
“I think it will be a little more difficult,” Cooper said.
Rapp agreed that the district is more competitive than it once was and said he will focus on visiting all corners of the district and meeting with constituents — something he has become known for.
“It’s too easy to get drawn into the world in Raleigh and forget your roots,” Rapp said. “Accessibility, I hope, has been a hallmark of my terms.”
Rapp said he is occasionally teased that he will show up anywhere-even a goat roping.
Governor Bev Perdue is expected to sign a bill passed by the legislature that will ban cyber sweepstakes starting Dec. 1 this year.
Sweepstakes operators in Canton, Maggie Valley, Franklin and other towns who have paid $2,500 or more for a business license fee won’t receive a refund — even though the ban goes into effect midway through the fiscal year.
“A business license is annual,” said Canton Town Manager Al Matthews. “If a business closes after operating for a few months, there is no refund.”
Gas stations, laundromats and other businesses with sweepstakes terminals often house them in exchange for a cut of revenue from the machine owners.
Internet sweepstakes is a form of computer gambling that took advantage of a loophole in the General Assembly’s 2006 and 2008 bans on video poker.
The video gaming industry has adamantly fought against the two bans, filing challenges against the state in court and conjuring up new ways to get around the law.
Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, has long been a strong advocate against video gambling. Rapp said while he hopes this round will be the last against the gaming industry, he’s not overly optimistic.
“I’m not naïve enough to know this will be the end,” said Rapp.
The N.C. Council on Problem Gambling reported that every Gamblers Anonymous Group in the state has increased in size by 75 to 100 percent in the first half of 2009 when sweepstakes games emerged. About 88 percent of new calls to the nonprofit indicated that Internet sweepstakes was the source of addiction.
Ira Dove, director of Haywood County’s Department of Social Services, confirmed that more residents are suffering from gambling addiction than before.
“The cost for them, their families and U.S. taxpayers is severe,” said Dove.
In the N.C. House, the statewide ban passed 86-27 following three hours of back and forth on July 8. State senators had put their foot down more decisively with a 47-1 vote against sweepstakes earlier.
The chief argument centered on whether sweepstakes should be banned outright or whether the state should begin regulating and taxing the industry during a severe revenue shortfall. According to one estimate, regulating video gaming could bring $500 million a year to the state.
The economic argument failed to win Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, who called the ban the single most important legislative action taken by the Senate this year.
“This industry is predatory,” said Queen. “We’re strong in our resolution to stop this scourge on North Carolina.”
Rapp emphasized that the industry was highly exploitative of citizens who could least afford to lose their paychecks.
Police Chief Bill Hollingsed of Waynesville said he has come across gambling addicts who have spent entire paychecks on gambling and those who have opened up fraudulent bank accounts in order to keep playing.
Hollingsed said ever since sweepstakes arrived on the scene, it’s been a confusing issue to tackle for officers who are charged with enforcing the video gambling ban.
“This provides the clear direction we’ve been looking for for several years,” Hollingsed said
Business owners that attempt to secretly house the machines face a misdemeanor on the first offense and a felony on the second.
“We’re serious about it,” said Rapp.
N.C. senators voted 47-1 to ban the video gambling machines that have evolved to circumvent a statewide ban. Court battles waged by the gaming industry had previously stalled new legislation to outlaw video sweepstakes.
The ban proposed in the House would go into effect Dec. 1. Towns like Maggie Valley, Franklin, Canton and Hendersonville would no longer be able to charge the $2,500 or more annual licensing fees on the newly illegal businesses.
Rapp, D-Mars Hill — who has been a major opponent of video gambling all along — looks forward to finally voting against sweepstakes in the House.
“It’s spreading like a contagion, and it’s got to be stopped,” said Rapp. “This puts an exclamation point on the fact that it’s an illegal activity.”
Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, wholeheartedly supported a total ban on sweepstakes machines when it came to a vote in the Senate.
“These parlors are nothing more than unregulated casinos operating outside the law,” said Queen. “I listened to all sides, but stand firmly with the sheriffs and police chiefs across the state who asked us to tighten the law because of the increase in crime and high social costs that come with these illicit operations.”
Rapp cited a desperate woman in Marshall who robbed a Wachovia Bank after running up debt at two video sweepstakes places.
Rapp also pointed out that the machines are predominantly found in poor neighborhoods. According to a survey conducted in Florida, the majority of people who play earn less than $30,000 a year or are retirees.
But the gaming industry — which previously denied that internet sweepstakes were at all related to video gambling — argues now that regulation is the key. It would protect customers and create accountability for businesses.
“[Taxation] would provide more than $500 million a year in revenue according to recent figures released by the N.C. Lottery,” said William Thevaos, president of the Entertainment Group of North Carolina. “Lawmakers know there’s a pot of money there if they would just regulate it and tax it.”
Rapp has hardly been won over by the argument.
“If an activity’s wrong, you don’t do it,” said Rapp, adding that most people would not advocate making other illegal activities permissible simply to generate revenue.
Rapp said out of frustration, he has sometimes considered resorting to what his attorneys term the “nuclear option” — banning sweepstakes of all kinds.
“Every time we try to do this surgically, and sit there with our lawyers, it’s a challenge,” said Rapp. “[But] cooler heads prevailed.”
When back-to-back tropical storms hit the mountains with heavy rains in 2004, the saturated soils triggered more than 140 landslides. Some were small, others big, but all pointed to how vulnerable some mountain slopes are to the forces of nature — namely gravity.