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.