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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.

News that Jackson County Commissioner Joe Cowan won’t run for re-election this year has set the stage for a high-profile Democratic primary showdown between two well-known Democrats, Vicki Greene and former board Chairman Stacy Buchanan.

Greene had let her intentions be clearly known months ago that she would pursue the seat. Buchanan was something of a surprise, however, when he showed up at the county election office Monday — at the same time as Greene no less — to file for the race on the opening day of candidate registration.

Complicating the race is a bid by local builder Cliff Gregg, who Monday started the petition process necessary for unaffiliated candidates in North Carolina.

To run in November, Gregg must get the signatures of 4 percent of Jackson County voters, or roughly 1,400 names.

A second Jackson commissioner’s seat is up for election this year as well, the seat held by Democrat Mark Jones, who is expected to seek re-election.

So far, no Republicans have stepped up to run for either of the two commission seats.

GOP Chair Ralph Slaughter said Monday that he is hunting for members of his party to challenge for both seats. Candidate registration began this week and runs through the end of the month.

“I’ve talked to two or three people, but I’ve not had anyone agree to file. Talking and filing are two separate things,” Slaughter said, adding that he believes there might — emphasis on might — be a GOP candidate to vie for Cowan’s seat.

He was even less optimistic about finding anyone in the GOP to challenge Jones.

“Everyone has encouraged me to run, but I’m too old,” the 72-year-old Cashiers resident said.

The absence of Republicans is somewhat surprising given their success in the 2010 election. Following 16 years of Democratic domination, Republicans Doug Cody and Charles Elders successfully won election. Chairman Jack Debnam, an unaffiliated candidate who received GOP backing and advertising support, also won against a Democrat incumbent.

Jones first ran and won election in 2006. Jones, a Democrat, defeated challenger Nathan Moss in the Democratic primary. He then beat Republican challenger Geoff Higginbotham to win his seat.

Greene, though new to active political campaigning, has been a visible figure in Jackson County and the region for years through her work as assistant director of the Southwestern Commission overseeing government initiatives in the six western counties, a position she recently retired from. Greene cited her nearly four decades of work with various local, state and federal agencies, saying she believed that her extensive experience would serve the county well.

Buchanan would like to pick back up where he left off six years ago.

“I wanted to be able to finish a lot of things that we started,” Buchanan said in explanation, such as helping work on infrastructure that would attract new businesses to Jackson County.

Buchanan resigned in the middle of a term in March 2005 after six years on the board of commissioners. Buchanan, at the time, cited his acceptance of a position as assistant head football coach and co-offensive coordinator at Smoky Mountain High School, and an inability to split time between his school and public service career. Buchanan now works for America’s Home Place, a turnkey homebuilding company.

Buchanan said he believes the county, through local and higher educational efforts, has prepared a great workforce but now more jobs must be created. He pointed to small startup companies that would support the work of larger companies based in nearby cities such as Greenville, S.C., and Spartanburg, S.C.

He emphasized on Monday that he believes Democrats on the board can work with Republicans. When Buchanan was a commissioner, Democrats ruled. That all changed in the last election when an Independent, Jack Debnam, won the chairman’s position and two Republicans took seats.

“I don’t see that there would be any problem working together,” Buchanan said of the conservative board members now in office. “I think we all have the best interests of Jackson County at heart.”

Like her rival, Greene pinpointed economic development as the primary issue in the race for commissioner, indicating water needs in the Cashiers area would be one area she’d want to work on improving. Other job creation efforts are also needed, she said.

Greene said that she does support current commissioners’ recent decision to hire outside consultants to help develop an economic plan.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Jackson County to reconvene an economic development board.

Interestingly, Buchanan was board chairman when a brouhaha erupted that ultimately resulted the county’s economic development commission being dissolved, partly due to lack of results. Just weeks before resigning, Buchanan called for a “restructuring” of that board, which had run afoul of commissioners amid questions about $1.2 million in unpaid loans and generally questionable lending practices.

Outgoing Congressman Heath Shuler hopes to pass the torch to his own chief of staff, a like-minded, conservative Democrat who is rapidly being embraced by the party establishment as a replacement for Shuler on the ballot come November.

Hayden Rogers, native of Robbinsville and longtime chief of staff to Shuler, announced his candidacy last Wednesday — one week after Shuler declared that he would not seek re-election.

“He would be an extremely strong candidate,” Shuler said, quick to offer an endorsement of Rogers. “My theory has always been I wanted to surround myself with the best and brightest.”

Shuler said Rogers is “very, very smart” and already known and well-respected by the other members of Congress, giving him a leg up when it comes to serving the district should he win.

Rogers said his decision to run comes from a desire to continue the work he and Shuler have started.

“It stemmed from much of my experience with Heath and the enjoyment and pleasure we have gotten from working for the people of Western North Carolina,” Rogers said. “That is what I would like to continue to do.”

Similar to Shuler, Rogers, who now lives in the Murphy area with his wife and daughters, played football in high school in Graham County. He grew up hunting squirrels and fishing in the mountains with his grandfather, yet went on to major in political science at Princeton, where he also played football. Prior to working for Shuler, he owned his own wholesale nursery and landscaping business.

Rogers said that like Shuler, he will work with people from across party lines and will not pout and whine if he does not get his way.

“I think we’ve got plenty who do that now,” he said.

In the primary, Rogers will face competition from Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville city councilman, who planned to run even before Shuler stepped down. After Shuler announced he was bowing out, Bothwell issued a press release proclaiming himself the “frontrunner” for the Democratic nomination.

“Apparently, Cecil Bothwell is the frontrunner. I read that he said that somewhere,” Rogers said wryly. “I will do the best I can to catch up.”

With his more conservative stance, Rogers has a better chance of pulling out a victory in November than the comparatively liberal Bothwell, according to political observers.

“I am more consistent with the views of this district than probably Mr. Bothwell will be,” Rogers said, citing his affiliation as a Blue Dog Democrat like Shuler.

Rogers declined to say how much he has raised during his first week of campaigning.

“I certainly will have a well-funded campaign and a well-run campaign,” Rogers said.

The seasoned campaign veteran already has a couple of paid staff members, including Shuler’s former communication officer Andrew Whalen, and two-dozen active volunteers.

“Just getting out there. I started that now. (But), I am not starting at scratch,” he said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Shuler’s endorsement is what may take Rogers the furthest.

Shuler brought Rogers on as his campaign manager in his first bid for office in 2006 after firing his first campaign manager.

“I wanted people who weren’t yes people. I wanted people who were straight forward and honest who could make me a better candidate and better member of Congress,” Shuler said.

Shuler credits Rogers with helping pull off his win over longtime incumbent Charles Taylor six years ago, despite everyone being novices.

“Consider this: we ran against a 16-year incumbent with all the money in the world and we didn’t have one person who had ever been involved in a campaign before except one, and he had never won one,” Shuler reflected.

Rogers will face at least two other opponents during the Democratic primary. In addition to Bothwell, two lesser-known candidates have announced they will run: Heath Wynn of Caldwell County and Tom Hill of Henderson County.

Wynn was a teacher in the sociology department at Catawba Valley Community College.

The race for the Congressional seat representing Western North Carolina was flipped on its head last week when incumbent U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, announced he would not seek re-election this year — leaving no heir apparent within his party.

“It is somewhat difficult for the Democrats to find someone at this late date to run,” said Tommy Jenkins, former Democratic state senator and state representative in Macon County. “The Republican candidates, some of them, have been out there campaigning for a year.”

The Republican side of the race was already overcrowded with at least eight people declaring that they will run. But now, with Shuler out of the picture, the election is anyone’s game.

“(Shuler’s decision) changes everything,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

The Republican primary was already hotly contested, and that won’t change, according to Jeff Hunt, a Republican candidate from Brevard. But the Republican nominee will no longer have to do battle with Shuler come the general election.

SEE ALSO: As Shuler steps down to spend time with family, finding a Shuler-esque candidate to fill the void has Democrats scrambling

“It makes November a different ball game,” said Hunt.

The lack of a frontrunner for the Democratic Party could mean that the seat falls under Republican control.

“Shuler is the one Democrat in my mind who had a chance,” Cooper said. “One, he was extremely moderate. Two, he has the name recognition. Three, he had a fundraising advantage.”

Even if Shuler betroths his war chest to a candidate who is Shuler-esque in their political views, they still won’t have the name recognition that Shuler did — not given his football stardom on top of Congressman status.

While a replacement Democrat might be coming from behind in the name recognition field, so are all the Republican challengers, Shuler pointed out.

“The Republican candidates, no one has ever heard of them at all,” Shuler said.

 

11th-hour bomb

Thus far, Asheville resident Cecil Bothwell is the only Democrat to officially declare his candidacy. He was already planning to run in the Democratic Primary against Shuler. Bothwell is considerably more liberal than Shuler, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, and faces overwhelming odds in a historically conservative district.

“I don’t understand how Bothwell has much of a chance here,” Cooper said.

Despite this, with Shuler out of the running, Bothwell said he is confident that he will compete in November’s election.

“That is good news for the campaign,” he said. “I look forward to being the nominee of the Democratic Party for Congress in 11th District.”

But, a wide-open seat could draw a number of potential candidates out of the woodwork before the candidate filing period closes at the end of the month.

So far, however, Shuler’s Chief of Staff Hayden Rogers is the only Democrat to say he is considering a run for Shuler’s seat. (See related article)

Despite a relative lack of name recognition, Rogers is a conservative Democrat and could potentially garner votes from across the political spectrum similar to Shuler.

A 2010 Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters revealed an anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

The Democratic nominee — no matter who it is — will have a tough battle ahead in the November election.

“Of course the election will be difficult. It’s always difficult,” said Luke Hyde, head of the Democratic Party in the 11th District. But, “We expect to win in the fall.”

But the 11th-hour bomb dropped by Shuler hasn’t done his party any favors.

“I think he’s done a tremendous injustice to the Democrats for announcing so late,” said Ralph Slaughter, Jackson County GOP chair. “This assures (Republicans) of a victory in 2012.”

Last year, the state reshuffled the 11th District, cutting the liberal-concentrated Asheville out of the district and stirring in four Republican-leaning counties. Now, only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, compared to 43 percent prior to the redistricting.

“This Republican redistricting was masterful,” Cooper said. “It is shocking at how good a job they did to take a state that was about 50-50 Democrat Republican and draw districts that will result in a state with about three Democrats in (U.S.) Congress.”

However, the district is still home to a decent bloc of unaffiliated voters who could sway the election either way.

“You never take for granted that a Republican is going to win even if it has been redrawn,” Hunt said.

The head of the district’s Republican Party said that Shuler bowing out of the competition does not ensure a Republican victory. However, it does improve the odds.

“That fact that it is an open seat rather than an incumbent … can’t help but encourage the Republicans,” said Dave Sawyer, an attorney from Bryson City. “I think we are more optimistic about being able to do so now.”

Mark Meadows, a Republican candidate from Jackson County, agreed with Sawyer.

It would be a “great mistake” to think the election is a cinch now, Meadows said. However, “You look at it as a much easier campaign.”

One obstacle that still faces Republicans is the current size of its candidate pool.

“I think the field right now is extremely large,” Meadows said.

At least eight Republicans are currently battling for the nomination, and the party will need to narrow the field and focus on beefing up the profile of a few candidates.

 

Democratic decline

Shuler is not the only prominent Democrat from North Carolina who decided to retire this year.

Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue announced in late January that she would not seek re-election. Perdue served only one-term as governor, but it was plagued by battles with the Republican-controlled state legislature.

And, just a month prior, long-time N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, divulged that his 14-year stint in politics would come to an end this year. The nearly 76-year-old state representative decided to retire to spend more time with his grandchildren and possibly travel.

These retirements leave their vacant positions in limbo.

“It is not a good sign for the Democratic party in North Carolina,” Cooper said. The state is shifting from the “old solid democratic South” to “a state dominated by the Republican party.”

In the case of the governor’s race, there is no standout candidate or frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, whereas Pat McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, seems the natural choice for the Republican Party. McCrory made a good showing during the last gubernatorial race against Perdue.

“I would be very surprised if the Democrats pulled out a victory in the governor’s mansion in November,” Cooper said.

When Coach Boyce Dietz got a call from his former standout quarterback Heath Shuler asking him to meet for breakfast at Clyde’s Restaurant one morning several years ago, Dietz dutifully got in the car and headed toward Waynesville to hear what was on the mind of his old Swain County High football player gone-pro.

“I always told my players if you ever need to talk about anything through the years, no matter how much time has passed, to just give me a call,” Dietz said. He will never forget what came next as they dug into their biscuits and gravy at the roadside diner.

“He said, ‘Coach I’m, thinking about running for Congress,’” Dietz recounted. Needless to say, it was the first time one of his players had leveled that particular question.

Dietz offered some sage advice. Shuler’s children were just 2 and 5 at the time. Dietz warned him the toughest part of the job wouldn’t be anything that happened in Washington, but what he was missing out on back home.

Six years later, it seems Dietz was right. Shuler is throwing in the towel on his congressional career representing North Carolina’s 11th District, trading in the long trips back and forth to Washington for more time at home in Waynesville with his wife and kids, now 7 and 10.

SEE ALSO: Democrats face uphill battle to hang on to seat

“It feels like time has just flown by,” said Shuler, 40. “They are growing up, and I don’t want to miss those moments.”

Shuler said the decision came out of heart-to-heart talks with his wife, Nikol, as he contemplated whether to run for governor following the recent and equally surprising news that Gov. Beverly Perdue will step down.

The suddenness of Shuler’s announcement has sent shock waves through the Democratic Party, left in the lurch without an heir apparent who is prepped and ready to fill the void.

“I wish we’d had a little more advance notice that the Congressman wasn’t going to run,” said Brian McMahan, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party, who added that as a new father himself, he understands Shuler’s decision.

Shuler’s announcement came less than two weeks before the mandatory sign-up period for candidates to declare their intentions to run.

Shuler has gotten some backlash from Democrats who feel slighted by his 11th-hour decision. While a darling among moderates, Shuler has learned to accept the black sheep status from elements in his own party who reject him for being too conservative.

“I wasn’t Democratic enough, but now they want me back,” Shuler joked.

Mostly, however, Shuler said he has had a humbling outpouring of support from well-wishers from both parties. Shuler was one of the true middle-of-the-aisle members of Congress. In his last two years he served as the leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, an alliance of moderate Democrats in Congress.

“Republican House members have said ‘Please don’t leave, please don’t leave,’” Shuler said. “And, of course, all my Blue Dog guys.”

Rather than guilt him into staying on, however, those bidding Shuler farewell have largely enforced that his decision is the right one.

“So many have said don’t miss that time, you never get that childhood back. Those times are gone forever,” Shuler said.

Shuler has spent the past six years living a double life of sorts — flying to Washington Monday morning to do his job as a congressman and returning late Thursday night for a weekend as a family man.

Nikol’s parents live in Waynesville and serve as a support network when Shuler is out of town. But raising two kids alone for much of the week is hard work, Shuler said. He won’t forget his first solo stint with the kids one weekend when his wife had commitments of her own. He found himself wondering how in the world she did it.

“There is nothing like the two of us being together and to share the load and the work that it takes to raise kids,” Shuler said.

Spending time with family has become a cliché status often cited by people stepping down from a job.

“I think people use that as an excuse,” said Dietz, who joined Shuler’s staff as a field representative on the ground in the seven western counties. “I think it is a cop out a lot of the time, but I don’t really think it is with him. It really bothered him when we would go out the door on Monday morning and his kids would cry.

“He had a choice to make and he put his family before his job,” Dietz said.

 

Tough road to re-election

Political observers, however, question whether Shuler was simply fearful of losing this year’s election. Congressional lines were re-drawn this year by a Republican-led General Assembly, making Shuler’s district decidedly more conservative.

But Dietz doubts a fear of losing the race led to Shuler’s decision. Shuler won re-election easily in 2008 and even in 2010 — a dismal year for Democrats by all accounts but one that Shuler survived with hardly a battle scar to show for it. He beat his Republican challenger by 20,000 votes with 54 percent of the ballots.

But, there’s no question the fight to win would have been much tougher this time.

“I think he knew it was going to be a really hard campaign, and it was going to take a lot of time,” Dietz said. “He realized he was really going to be away.”

The new district lines cut Asheville out of Western North Carolina like a bite out of an apple. Asheville’s large bloc of Democratic voters were swapped out for the markedly conservative-leaning voters in Avery, Mitchell, Burke and Caldwell counties.

“I can’t believe he didn’t do the math and figure out it was going to be a lot harder,” said Chris Cooper, a political analyst and professor at Western Carolina University.

Shuler, however, says he wasn’t daunted.

“I know what my polling numbers were,” Shuler said.

Just because the new district includes more Republicans doesn’t mean they would have necessarily supported his opponent, said Shuler, who has gotten votes from a lot of Republicans in each of his previous elections.

“Graham County is a perfect example of a county that is a so-called Republican county and we won it by 66 percent of the vote,” Shuler said of the 2010 election.

Dietz believes Shuler could have kept the seat as long as he wanted it — although he never would have guessed it sitting in Clyde’s Restaurant that morning six years ago.

Dietz admits he was doubtful Shuler could unseat the powerful, wealthy, longtime Congressman Charles Taylor, R-Brevard.

“I told him it would be an uphill battle. Nobody else has been able to even come close to doing this. You have never even been in politics before,” Dietz recalled saying.

Dietz’s mind was whirling with all the issues Shuler would have to brush up on, from obscure historical factoids to foreign policy.

“I was thinking how in the world can you prepare yourself for that?” Dietz said. “He proved he to be a quick learner on a lot of things.”

Still, Dietz said he was surprised when Shuler actually pulled off a victory over Taylor in 2006. And he wasn’t the only one.

“On paper, no Democrat should have won this district,” said Cooper.

Once in office, the surprises kept coming.

“Your preconception is we got us a big, dumb football player, but to anyone who had that preconceived notion, it turned out that this guy was sharp as a tack, and he really got it,” said Joe Sam Queen, a former state senator from Waynesville. “I found him to be one of the quickest studies in politics I’ve ever met.”

Shuler quickly made a name for himself and began wearing the title of congressman with confidence.

“I think he was more effective than one would expect a freshman congressman to have been,” said Mark Swanger, the chairman of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners and a Democrat. “I do think he established a higher profile than one would expect in his short tenure.”

Swanger said he is very disappointed Shuler is dropping out of Congress, a sentiment echoed time and again since the news broke last week.

“I really, really regret that he is not running again because he is good at what he does,” said Luke Hyde, an attorney in Shuler’s hometown of Bryson City and head of the Democratic Party in the 15-county congressional district.

 

Blue Dog at heart

Shuler’s ability to win and retain a seat in Congress as a Democrat from a conservative mountain district is a testament to his middle-of-the-road philosophy. He is pro-gun, pro-life and doesn’t support gay marriage. He voted against health care reform and against federal bailouts, winning the title as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.

“I think he found a voice for the people of Western North Carolina that was right down the center. I certainly respected and admired that,” said Queen. “He struck a good balance.”

Republicans aren’t exactly chirping a chorus of  “good riddance” over Shuler’s departure.

“I think Heath did a good job,” said Floyd Rogers, owner of Haywood Insurance in Waynesville and a Republican. “He tried to vote the heart and the conscious of the people in his district. It was a very difficult thing for Heath to balance. Overall, I would give him a good rating.”

For counties west of Asheville, having a congressman from their neck of the woods was a nice change in a political landscape increasingly dominated by metro population centers.

“Heath is the kind of person you could just pick up the phone and reach him or he would call you right back,” said Swanger.

From his own staff to political opponents, the sheer number of people who refer to him as “Heath” — not congressman and certainly not Mr. Shuler — is in itself a testament to his approachable persona.

“There was one thing I always thought about Heath,” Dietz said. “I thought he was a better person than he was a football player, and he was a heck of a football player.”

Unlike some athletes who think they are above their peers at school, Shuler always gave his teammates credit and went out of his way to reach out to the younger kids, Dietz said.

Shuler remembers going out to dinner with his parents after a football game his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, being constantly interrupted by people wanting his autograph. When Shuler gave a sigh under his breath, his mom looked at him and told him that one day he would look back and wish people still wanted his autograph like they used to.

He never forgot his mom’s words that night, and it helped shape the gracious and humble personality he still exhibits.

Shuler says he’ll miss the camaraderie of other congressman more than anything else about the job. He equated it to the locker room fellowship of other football players, which is precisely what he missed most after exiting his pro football career following an injury.

“As much as people want to demonize members of Congress, the truth is there are some great, quality people,” Shuler said. “As a whole we don’t poll very well, but individually, there are great guys.”

But, Shuler had disdain for what he called the gamesmanship of politics in D.C.

“I had people who wouldn’t even shake my hand in a public setting because they knew I was a Democrat. I was like, really? Really?” Shuler said. “I am glad I won’t have to put up with it any longer.”

Queen wondered whether the toxic political atmosphere is partly to blame for Shuler walking away.

“Given the tenure in Washington, I am sure it has not been fun,” Queen said.

Shuler, a devout Christian, rented a room in a D.C. house run by a religious group for congressmen. His roommates are all currently Republicans.

While Shuler is conservative as far as most Democrats go, not all Republicans were willing to embrace him as one of their own. Jeff Norris, a Republican attorney in Waynesville, hopes to see a Republican win the seat, something that will certainly be easier with Shuler out of the way.

“Hopefully the next representative will help the district and country solve some of the critical issues facing us,” Norris said, questioning whether Shuler has any tangible accomplishments from his six years in Congress.

Dietz said the national deficit weighed heavily on Shuler and indeed became one of his leading causes in Washington in recent years. During the height of the deficit talks last fall, when the so-called Super Committee was wrestling with how to trim the budget by a $1.5 trillion, Shuler amassed the “Go Big” coalition — urging the committee to instead trim the deficit by $4 trillion during the next decade. He ultimately got 150 members from both parties in the House and Senate to sign on.

“He felt so strong about the deficit and the threat to the country,” Dietz said.

 

Filling Shuler’s shoes

With news of Shuler’s departure less than a week old, no Democrats have yet emerged to run for the seat other than Cecil Bothwell, an Asheville city councilman who was already in the race and planned to challenge Shuler in the Democratic primary.

But, Bothwell’s more liberal stance than Shuler may not go over with the district’s conservative leanings, leaving Democrats in a quandary in finding a candidate they think has a shot at winning. Meanwhile, Republican challengers for Shuler’s seat announced their intentions months ago. The frontrunners have campaign staffs assembled, headquarters humming, web sites up and running and fundraising well under way.

Cooper, the political analyst and public policy professor at Western Carolina University, doesn’t give the Democrats much hope.

“It is going to be darn near impossible,” Cooper said. “Ideologically, I can’t imagine anyone who is going to line up with the district the way Shuler did.”

But, there may be one. Hayden Rogers, Shuler’s chief of staff, is contemplating a run.

Rogers grew in the small town of Robbinsville and like Shuler played football in high school, but on an opposing team. Hardly rivals now, however, Rogers is Shuler’s closest advisor and political strategist, commuting back and forth to D.C. from his home in Murphy.

Rogers can walk both walks. He grew hunting squirrels and fishing in the mountains with his grandfather, yet went on to major in political science at Princeton, where he also played football.

“He would be an extremely strong candidate,” Shuler said.

Shuler’s endorsement of his own chief of staff has led some to speculate as to whether he intentionally timed the announcement of his decision not to run at this late stage in order to give Rogers a leg up. While any other Democrat would have to scramble to get a campaign rolling, Rogers would arguably have an easier time of it as Shuler’s anointed replacement, potentially inheriting a good share of Shuler’s half-million dollar war chest and many of his campaign workers.

Shuler said there was no plan to hand the seat to Rogers. In fact, Shuler didn’t know Rogers might be interested until after he made the announcement last Thursday.

Rogers approached him later that evening and asked “What would you think if I ran in your spot?” Shuler recounted.

If stepping down indeed was part of a grand plan, it was a well-kept secret indeed.

“I was totally shocked to learn Heath Shuler wasn’t going to run. I’ve not talked to anyone who knew it was coming,” said Jean Ellen Forrister, active party Democrat in Jackson County.

From Democratic insiders to Shuler’s own staff, the announcement came as a surprise.

Dietz says he didn’t know Shuler was planning to step down until he called an all-staff video conference last Thursday.

“None of us definitely knew, but we all had a bad feeling about it,” Dietz said of those hours leading up to the conference call. “It depresses me to think about not being able to do this anymore.”

Shuler pointed out he isn’t quitting tomorrow. He still has another 11 months to go — 11 more months to hit his favorite DC restaurant, Oceanaire, an upscale seafood restaurant popular in political circles. And 11 more months to represent the people of the 11th District.

In spite of Scott McLeod’s assertion that “it would be hard to argue otherwise” in his column (“Vote on NCAE dues a slap in the face to teachers,” The Smoky Mountain News, Jan 11 edition), I am going to give it a try.

I am not an apologist for the N.C. House of Representatives, but their leadership determines their agenda, not the governor. The legislature was called back into session to consider the veto override of S9, No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty. The Senate overrode the veto in a 31-19 partisan vote. The House did not have the votes but instead referred it to the House Committee on Judiciary for future consideration.  

Speaker Thom Tillis has been very candid from the start in telling members that the governor’s vetoes could be considered at any time when the legislature is in session. Consequently, since they were in session they brought up the governor's veto of S727, “No Dues Checkoff for School Employees.” The Senate overrode the veto on July 13, 2011. The House overrode the veto in the early morning hours of Jan. 5. Two Democratic House members were absent due to illness and one Republican member is deployed in Afghanistan. The speaker had the votes to override two other vetoes but chose not to do so at that time.

There has been much misinformation put forward about S727. It is not an assault on teachers or education, merely an end to the practice of the state being the dues collection agency for the NCAE. The citizens of North Carolina should not be forced to bear the cost for collecting NCAE dues. That should be the responsibility of the NCAE. I am sure the teachers that choose to be NCAE members can find an alternative to the automatic dues checkoff, e.g., electronic funds transfer from their personal checking account.

Considering the NCAE is a thinly veiled lobbying group for Democrats, it should be no surprise that it does not have many sympathizers in the Republican ranks. More than 98 percent of the NCAE campaign donations go to Democrats.

During my 10 year service as a Macon County commissioner, I voted for every capital facilities improvement in Macon County Schools since 1997, investments of more than $50 million. For the first time in more than 35 years there will be no mobile classrooms at the start of the 2012-13 school year. That is a record I’m proud of and a testimony to the value Macon citizens place on their public schools. In spite of that record, the NCAE chose to spend thousands of dollars on mailers that contained misleading information and/or outright lies about my record. So, is the NCAE for education or is the NCAE for the Democrat Party? My personal experience makes me wonder.

I have met no person in the Legislature who is interested in an “orchestrated evisceration of the state’s public schools,” as was stated in the column. I have met many who are interested in improving public education so that students are better prepared to compete in a global economy. Our results are not adequate at this time and it will take more than money to improve them.

Your readers should be reminded that H200, the bipartisan budget passed for this biennium, cut K-12 education budget 0.5 percent more than the governor's recommended budget. Hardly the draconian cuts described by some. That does not include the $60 to $100 million the governor wanted to pass on to local governments for school bus purchases. Ask your county commissioners what they thought of that idea. The legislature worked diligently to craft a budget so that our state was fiscally sound. We have begun that journey but there is still much work to do.  

The present legislature inherited a $2.5 billion deficit, a $2.6 billion debt to the federal government for unemployment compensation, $7 billion in tax supported debt, a $2.8 billion underfunded state employee retirement system, a $40 million underfunded consolidated judicial retirement system, a $40 million underfunded National Guard retirement system, and a $32.8 billion unfunded liability for retiree health insurance benefits. The legislature would prefer to dedicate more to education programs that work and reward good teachers with merit pay, but those efforts will not reach full fruition until we have our fiscal house in order.

We do agree that teachers should not be held accountable for society’s ills. We cannot continue to dump our problems at the schoolhouse door and expect our teachers, our educational system, to make it all better. To use Mr. McLeod’s own words, “Student achievement still has ground to make up with counterparts around the nation. Many counties have put together quality programs that send students on to college prepared for what lies ahead, but others are lacking.”  

We need to invest in finding out what works and need to stop doing what clearly does not. As we move forward to provide our students with the very best we can offer, we must infuse integrity into our stewardship of funds for education so that those same students will not be shackled with state and nationally imposed debt they will not live long enough to repay. That, sir, is a burden they do not deserve and one against which I will continue to hold my guard.

(Sen. Davis, a Republican, lives in Franklin. His 50th District, after the recent redistricting, covers all of Haywood, Jackson, Swain, Macon, Clay, Cherokee and Graham counties. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Two well-known Democrat senators from the mountains who lost in 2010 and hoped to reclaim their seats this year faced a conundrum.

Joe Sam Queen of Waynesville and John Snow of Murphy both wanted to run for the Senate again, hoping to take back the seats they lost to Republican challengers two years ago. But they found themselves at a stalemate after suddenly landing in the same political district when new legislative lines were re-drawn following the Census.

Queen’s home turf of Haywood County — once part of a jumbled legislative district that reached as far north to Mitchell and as far east to McDowell County — was grouped into a new district neatly comprised of the seven western counties. It put Queen and Snow in competition in their bid for office.

The upshot: only one of them would ultimately have their name on the ballot come November. Their choice: former political allies would have to run against each other in the May primary or one of them would have to gracefully concede.

As the clock ticked toward the opening day of candidate registration in February, no easy resolution was on the horizon.

“I think we are both electable,” Queen said as recently as last week. “I am not going to run against John and he is not going to run against me. We will evaluate which one of us should run.”

But the two political allies found an easy out after all. The unexpected and sudden news that Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, would retire after 14 years in the legislature presented a solution.

Queen called it a “game changer.”

Rather than make a bid for the Senate, he would instead run for Haire’s old House seat.

“If (Snow) really has the fire in his belly and wants to do it, I will support him and run for Phil’s seat,” Queen said. “It is an attractive choice. It is serendipitous. It keeps experienced legislators in the game with the opportunity to serve.”

The Democratic Party is likely relieved by the development. At a regional meeting of the Democratic Party leaders from 12 counties last week, Brian McMahan from Jackson County cautioned against wasting political energy and money in a primaries against their own.

“Let’s harness our energy,” said McMahan, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Jackson County. “We don’t need to worry about primaries. Nov. 6 is Election Day. That’s where we need to make a difference.”

Queen said the party needn’t have worried.

“I assure you we were going to work it out because that’s what kind of guys we are,” Queen said. “I certainly would not have run against him.”

In the end, had it not been for the Haire “game changer,” it appears Queen would have had to be the one to acquiesce regardless. Snow said that he was committed to run for the Senate regardless of what Queen decided, however.

“To be real honest with you, I was willing to go through a primary if I had to,” Snow said. “I think it is obvious I would be the stronger candidate.”

Snow believes he has better name recognition in the seven western counties than Queen would have had. As a judge, Snow presided over court in those same seven counties for 30 years, plus served for six years in the legislature representing those counties already.

Queen, 61, pointed out that he is nine years younger than Snow. He believed he likely had more years of political service ahead of him — and in Raleigh, tenure can be everything.

“The biggest difference between John and I was our age. Who is going to claim this seat for a decade?” Queen asked last week.

Snow, meanwhile, pointed to his record as a more socially and fiscally conservative Democrat, a leaning that squares with voters in the seven western counties.

“Anybody that looks at my record can see I am probably one of the more conservative Democrats in the Senate,” Snow said.

Just as Rep. Heath Shuler is one of the more conservative Democrats in Congress, Snow said.

“That is a reflection of the people we represent,” Snow said.

Queen’s decision clears the path for Snow to emerge as the Democratic candidate in a November rematch against Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, who squeezed out a narrow victory over Snow by just 161 votes two years ago.

Queen, however, will face a primary election against long-time judge Danny Davis of Waynesville, who has also announced plans to run for the seat formerly held by Haire.

Snow said that he would back Davis in the primary race as he and Davis both served on the judicial bench together for years and are personal friends.

Republicans aren’t the only ones who will have a reason to head to the polls in the May primary.

While Republican voters sort out who their presidential nominee will be, Democrats have a race of their own to narrow down, although with a much-more homegrown flare.

Two well-known Waynesville men are vying for the seat soon to be vacated by long-time N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva. Joe Sam Queen, an architect by trade, and Danny Davis, a former District Court judge, both formally announced their candidacies this week.

The 119th House district includes all of Jackson and Swain counties, as well as Waynesville, Lake Junaluska and part of Maggie Valley in Haywood County.

The political rumor mill has been churning in the two weeks since Haire announced he would retire. But so far, only Davis and Queen have committed. No other candidates have emerged.

When it comes to politicking, Queen has plenty of experience. He served six years in the state Senate and has five elections under his belt, each of them hard-fought races. He is looking forward to what he calls “on-the-ground retail politics,” which puts him in touch with the people of the mountains.

“I like to give stump speeches and shake people’s hands and ask them for their vote,” Queen said. “I like to have some barbeques and square dances and the whole nine yards.”

Queen’s former sprawling Senate district extended as far north as Mitchell County and as far east as McDowell, making a horseshoe around Buncombe County. He became a seasoned road warrior in such a vast district. He also had to raise lots of money to campaign across so many counties, spending around $600,000 or $700,000 each race.

Queen estimates spending only a fraction of that in the House race.

“I don’t think this will be a high-dollar campaign,” Queen said.

While Davis is new to politics, he says there is no better experience than his 27 years as a District Court judge in the seven western counties.

“It is like a front row seat to the picture window of society,” Davis said of his judgeship. “I see how drugs affect families. I see what happens when they lose their job, and they start drinking, and we have to take their kids. I see what happens when they don’t have enough money to pay their bills or child support even though they are working two or three jobs.”

As a judge, Davis couldn’t make position statements or voice concerns over the issues that he felt affected the people of Western North Carolina. Now, he will finally be able to speak out, and his ideas for improving the lives of people and fixing the inner workings of government are voluminous enough for a dissertation, he said.

“I can finally say this is what we need to do and how we need to help these folks,” Davis said.

Davis said he had already been thinking about running when Haire retired.

Davis contends that he is better known in the district than Queen, since he served not only in Haywood but also Jackson and Swain as a judge for so many years.

Queen disagrees, saying he is equally well known outside Haywood.

“I am a homegrown mountain fellow,” Queen said. “I have as strong a name recognition as any politician in the west. I have the polling data to show it.”

Besides, the district is his “own backyard,” compared to the sprawling Senate district he had to work.

Queen, 61, and Davis, 58, both played up their ties to the region. Both men come from a long Haywood County lineage. The Davis and Queen names are both established and prominent Haywood families

 

Any other takers?

For now, Davis and Queen seem to have the primary race to themselves. Many initially looked to Troy Burns from Bryson City as a possible candidate, as he ran against Haire 10 years ago. But, Burns said this week he has decided not to run. Burns said both Davis and Queen called him over the past few days to find out where he stood on a possible candidacy.

“It is a mutual thing out of respect,” Burns said of his decision not to run.

From Jackson County, the chairman of the county Democratic Party Brian McMahan was also bandied about as a possible candidate, but McMahan said he won’t be running. He has a one-year-old and doesn’t want to spend the time away from home.

The primary between Queen and Davis could prove a tougher battle than the general election in November.

Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1 in the district. So on paper at least, whoever wins the Democratic primary could have an advantage over their Republican opponent in November.

“It is a solid Democratic seat,” Queen said.

Davis, however, isn’t so sure.

“I don’t think they are going to concede this seat,” Davis said of Republicans. “In this day in time, I don’t think it can be politics as usual. I think you are going to have to work very hard to retain the Democratic votes you have.”

Only one Republican has formerly announced his candidacy. Mike Clampitt of Bryson City stepped up to run within hours of Haire’s announcement.

N.C. Rep. Phil Haire’s decision not to run for re-election after 14 years in office opens the door for a possible free-for-all of both Democratic and Republican candidates seeking the suddenly available House seat.

Tuesday’s news spread like an out-of-control wildfire through Western North Carolina’s political grapevine. Top leaders in both parties will clearly be paying close attention to this now vacant seat — a seat Haire had easily secured year after year for the Democratic Party but could now be in flux.

“This is not a good sign for Democrats,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. Incumbent Democrats tend to hold on. But when their seats come open, then those seats are much more likely to go Republican.”

Taking control of Haire’s seat won’t be easy, however. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district — which is made up of Waynesville and Lake Junaluska in Haywood County, Jackson County and Swain County.

But a possible pile-on by Democrat candidates could weakend their position going in to the general election in the fall, Cooper said.

“If they have too many eggs in a basket, they will shoot themselves in the foot. The best thing for the Democratic Party is to figure out who the best candidate really is,” Cooper said.

Any Democrat with state political aspirations might figure this could be their one shot at holding office. Haire had proved immovable from the seat until he opted to step down.

For his part, Haire said there’s not an “heir” apparent.

“I am not going to speculate because I am sure there are going to be several people in the primary,” the state representative said, adding that he won’t endorse anyone.

“I am not going out on that limb,” Haire said.

Haire plans to wait and see who wins the primary, then support that candidate in the general election. The Democrat’s primary winner had better be a strong candidate and be girded for a fight, Haire said.

“Since it is a vacant seat, the Republicans will make a shot at it,” Haire said. “I guarantee you Republicans will make a good strong effort to take it.”

It could be the GOP’s one shot, too. For Republican Party leaders, the news that a veteran incumbent Democrat would be retiring came as a belated, but happily received, Christmas present.

Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party, was clearly pleased with GOP prospects of seizing the district. During the last election, Haire had to fight off an unexpectedly strong attempt by Sylva Republican candidate Dodie Allen, giving Republicans added hope this time around.

Allen, a Sylva auctioneer, ran a grassroots campaign. She narrowly beat Haire in Haywood County and ended up garnering 44 percent of the vote district-wide.

One Republican candidate immediately emerged Tuesday following Haire’s announcement. Mike Clampitt of Bryson City said he’d run for the now-vacant seat.

“I believe that North Carolina is at a crossroads, and that we must bring conservative common-sense leadership to the state,” Clampitt said in a news release issued Tuesday.

But one veteran Republican struck a cautionary note on the prospect of wresting Haire’s vacated seat away from the Democrats.

“It is a good strong Democratic district,” said N.C. Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, who has served with Haire in Raleigh for more than a decade. West said bluntly that he doesn’t see Republicans being able to capture Haire’s seat given the district’s leanings.

In the Democratic field, one name being circulated is former Judge Danny Davis of Waynesville. Davis said that he’d barely had a chance to process the news Tuesday that Haire wouldn’t run before his phone started ringing from people wanting to know if he would.

“I am interested in it. I am not ready to commit just yet, but I am always interested in serving,” Davis said, adding that “Phil has done a great job and I hate to see him go.”

Davis said he had contemplated running for Haire’s seat whenever Haire retired — he just didn’t think it would be this soon.

N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, is probably one of the most observant watchers of the rapidly unfolding political changes in the far-western counties. Rapp’s legislative district borders Haire’s to the north. As neighboring representatives Rapp and Haire often worked together. This is a political necessity for getting anything accomplished for this slice of the state. After all, there are more state representatives from the Charlotte area alone than in all of WNC, from Murphy to Boone.

Rapp hopes that the winner of Haire’s vacated seat will be a go-to partner in the legislature, and for this reason, he isn’t about to support one candidate over another just yet.

“There are a number of qualified people who could step up and do a fine job of serving in the WNC legislature and I look forward to working with whomever the district chooses for its eventual representative,” Rapp said.

Despite his limited name recognition and his significantly smaller war chest, Cecil Bothwell is confident he can outrun U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler during next May’s primary race for the 11th Congressional District’s Democratic nomination.

“I would not be doing it if I did not intend to win,” said Bothwell, a city councilman and former newspaper reporter in Asheville.

Bothwell and Shuler are at opposite ends of the Democratic spectrum, with Bothwell in the liberal corner and Shuler in the more conservative camp. Should Bothwell make it past the primary, however, he is not concerned about how his liberal leanings or Asheville ties will play with the region’s rural and historically conservative mountain voters.

“I think I am more likely to win in November than he is,” Bothwell said.

In past elections, Shuler, D-Waynesville, has demonstrated an ability to curry favor with voters from both political parties.

A 2010 Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute poll of almost 600 registered Jackson County voters revealed an astonishing anomaly in Shuler’s supporter base: Republicans gave him just as high an approval rating as Democrats.

Shuler said Bothwell would be unlikely to pick up the necessary independent or conservative voters in a general election.

“They won’t get any support from the other side on any issue they have,” Shuler said.

Bothwell originally planned to run as an independent but found the requirements to get his name on the ballot overwhelming.

“When I began to explore the possibility, it turned out I would need to collect something close to 20,000 verified signatures,” Bothwell said.

Bothwell added it would be “very, very difficult to win” with three candidates vying for the position.

Bothwell decided to run against Shuler in March after the three-term congressman voted against key bills in the national Democratic agenda: namely health care reform and the federal stimulus bill.

“I decided somebody had to run against him,” Bothwell said.

 

Uphill battle

Name recognition could be Bothwell’s biggest challenge if he hopes to defeat Shuler, said Chris Cooper, a political science professor from Western Carolina University.

“I think that is a major reason why incumbents win,” Cooper said.

As a former editor at the Mountain Xpress and member of the Asheville City Council, Bothwell is known in Buncombe County. However, it is unknown how many voters outside of Asheville recognize Bothwell as compared to Shuler — an incumbent and revered football hero.

Last election, however, a relatively unknown candidate from Asheville pulled down nearly 40 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and carried Buncombe County, the most liberal county in the region.

Shuler’s conservative stance helps him during the general election but drags down his primary numbers. Democratic voters punished Shuler during the last primary for not being liberal enough.

The fact that a “newcomer to politics” received such as large percent of the votes “indicates widespread dissatisfaction” among 11th District Democrats, Bothwell said.

But, the same dip in poll numbers did not hold true in the general election.

Shuler handily won re-election by more than 20,000 votes in 2010 against Republican Jeff Miller of Hendersonville.

“We went through the most difficult election in history for Democrats, and we still won by 10 percent,” Shuler said. “We feel very good.”

But, the primary race could also force Shuler, who has received flack for his not-always-party-line voting record, to prove he is a Democrat by taking a leftist standpoint, Cooper said.

And, that could come back to bite him in the general election.

“In some ways, the best thing for the Republican Party is for Cecil Bothwell to do well,” Cooper said.

While Bothwell has already started his campaign for the Democratic nomination, Shuler said he does not expect to spend much time or money running a primary race.

“Campaign mode does not kick in til August,” Shuler said.

Until then, Shuler said he will continue to do what he was elected to do — work.

“You still have to focus on the job at hand,” Shuler said. “Being placed on the budget committee … takes priority over fundraising.”

Shuler said he thinks the new district make-up gives him an advantage over the more liberal Bothwell now that Asheville, a traditionally liberal sect of voters, has been cut out.

Shuler said the district has “a Blue Dog type make-up,” referring  to the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democrats in Washington that Shuler heads.

 

Asheville booted out

Come Election Day, Bothwell won’t be able to vote for himself.

Although he is still legally allowed to run for its congressional seat, Bothwell no longer lives in the district he hopes to represent.

Every 10 years, the lines for Congressional districts are redrawn following the national census, to ensure that each district has roughly the same number of voters.

The re-organization of the 11th District added several Republican-leaning counties and carved out Asheville’s liberal voters.

Now, the district is 38 percent registered Republicans and only 36 percent of voters in the district are registered Democrats, a possibly election-making difference when compared to the 43 percent who were registered Democrats before the re-organization. That means the general election could be decided by the 26 percent of unaffiliated voters that making up the remaining portion.

Meanwhile, Asheville was shunted into the 10th Congressional district, which is already a Republican stronghold and could absorb Asheville’s Democratic voting bloc without tipping the scales.

Bothwell chose not to run in the 10th District, which reaches from the foothills to the outskirts of Charlotte, because he does not agree with how the state’s congressional districts were redrawn. State law does not require a candidate to live in the Congressional district he represents.

“The fact that the headstrong Republican idiots in Raleigh have temporarily tried to move Asheville into the Piedmont is laughable,” Bothwell said.

Bothwell still considers himself a resident of the 11th Congressional District even though the maps say otherwise. He hopes it won’t be the case for long.

“I will do all I can to speed the redrawing of district maps to reflect reality. In the meantime, I aim to represent my people, the people of the western counties, in Washington,” Bothwell said.

Whoever wins the Democratic primary will face one of at least eight Republican candidates that have joined the race. The Republican candidate will face slightly better odds this election as a result of the re-organization of the congressional district.

Page 4 of 6

The Naturalist's Corner

Back Then with George Ellison

  • One of the Smokies’ finest poets
    One of the Smokies’ finest poets Editor’s note: This Back Then column by George Ellison first appeared in the Feb. 15, 2012, edition of The Smoky Mountain News. Olive Tilford Dargan is fairly well known in literary circles as the author of From My Highest Hill (1941), a delightful collection of autobiographical…
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