Pat Smathers is what you might call a born politician.
His first campaign was pitching Terry Sanford’s 1960 run for governor and John F. Kennedy’s bid for the White House. He was posted on a busy corner in downtown Canton by his politically active father, bedecked in a vest adorned with campaign buttons and matching straw hat.
“I was 6 years old,” recalls Smathers. “They had me standing out, handing out campaign literature, I guess because who’s going to be mean to a kid? That’s the first time I really understood politics.”
Today, Smathers is a lawyer, with an office on Main Street in downtown Canton, and on the waxing end of his 12-year tenure as the town’s mayor.
He has seen the small mill town through epic floods of 2004, a buy-out of the paper mill, the town’s centerpiece and largest employer, and more recently, an economy trending decidedly downward.
He’s leaving office to tend to his law practice, which he now shares with his son, and devote some time to the renovation of the long-vacant Imperial Hotel, a downtown icon whose restoration he’s bankrolling.
Though his political life may have started at the tender age of 6, his career in politics got off the ground in the mid-1980s when he won the post of chairman in the Haywood County Democratic Party.
After that, he held various party offices and following an unsuccessful bid for state senate in the ‘90s, he started his stint as mayor in 1999. He also ran as the Democratic candidate for the lieutenant governor position in 2008, which he lost.
He didn’t really intend to be the mayor, or indeed stay the mayor for more than a decade, says Smathers. But he really loves the town. He just couldn’t say “no.”
Sitting in his office, it’s easy to see that Smathers is truly proud of Canton, and he knows how to work that angle. He’s a seventh-generation Haywood Countian on both sides, and he’s got the black-and-white family photo hanging above a leather couch in his office to prove it.
The glad-handing required of any politician came easily to Smathers, and from the beginning he saw himself as a salesman, with Canton as his product.
“The role of the mayor is really principal spokesman for the town and the promoter for the town,” says Smathers, who looks the part of a quintessential Southern lawyer, complete with summer seersucker suit.
He’s spent the last 32 years as a lawyer, salesman of a point of view, and it has helped him in his role as town promoter.
One of his main jobs, as he saw it, was going to a lot of meetings. State meetings, regional meetings, local meetings, economic development meetings — if there’s a meeting, Canton should be there.
“You need to know what’s out there. You need to know what’s going to be happening five years from now. If they’re talking about plans for economic development or things that may be happening, you need to be there to say, ‘Hey look, what about putting that in Canton?’” says Smathers. In other words, it’s his job to be perpetually on the hard sell.
And that he was, which didn’t always make him popular. He’s quick to say that he came to the job with an agenda for changing the town, and that didn’t always sit well with some.
Some of his projects, such as better power poles in town, came to fruition.
“We could’ve won a contest for the ugliest power poles in the state. They were horrible,” he says with disdain.
Others, like a major visitor’s center on Champion Drive or a leg of the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, did not. When the county was embroiled in a debate on where to build a new courthouse, batting it from one site to another, Smathers didn’t pass up the chance to suggest “why not Canton?” — even if it would mean designating Canton as the county seat instead of Waynesville.
His prowess at politicking, however, did come in handy during one of the town’s darkest times: the floods that inundated it in 2004.
Thirty-six hours of rain from Tropical Storm Frances slammed the town, leaving it largely underwater. Nine days later, Tropical Storm Ivan brought another deluge. The mill closed, the sewage plant failed and wastewater flowed into the Pigeon River and through town. Every downtown building was filled with a layer of destructive water. Town facilities alone, says Smathers, sustained $10 million in damage.
“I was terribly concerned,” he says, remembering that time. “A lot of people — probably most of the people in Canton — don’t realize what a perilous situation we were in. We could’ve been a ghost town.”
Of his long mayoral career, he pinpoints that catastrophe as the nadir.
“That was probably the most difficult time, I think, for me as mayor was that period of time during the floods,” says Smathers. “I go back and look at it and try to figure out how I got through all that. It was hard. I was just being pulled every which way. I must have been running on adrenaline 24 hours a day.”
Not only were the floods an unmitigated disaster, but he was also studying for his master’s in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College and mourning the death of his mother.
Still, though, his propensity for promotion won through. He saw the flood as a tragedy, yes, but also as a way to get a lot for Canton that it would never otherwise get.
When politicians in Raleigh called on him to pitch Canton’s need to the state and the nation, he saw his moment.
“I went down there and I stated the cause,” he says, and he brought home a lot of money not only to fix the millions of dollars in damage sustained by the town and its businesses, but fix other infrastructure problems and set the stage for Canton to emerge from disaster into a new era of economic development.
Smathers has a way of speaking in talking points, directing the conversation to highlight his favored themes and not letting the topic drift until he’s hit his key premises. He starts a lot of sentences with, “well, number one….” It’s a practiced rhetorical technique that has no doubt served him in the courtroom and behind the mayor’s desk in times of crisis.
Longtime Waynesville Mayor Henry Foy offered his town’s support when its neighbor disappeared underwater.
“He was mayor of Canton during its most critical times, the most critical situations that I can remember in my lifetime,” says Foy. “He had the flood and he had the restructuring of Champion (paper mill). Those were very critical issues for Canton and I think he did an outstanding job.”
Smathers himself attributes much of Canton’s success in recovery and growth to the town board, town manager and state representatives. And he hasn’t always gotten along with the aldermen, having seen three very disparate sets of elected leaders pass through town hall over the last 12 years.
“I think over the years, we’ve had some very frank discussions on the board about various issues,” says Smathers. “But you can’t take things personal. Nobody is going to agree with me all the time, and I’m not going to agree with everybody else all the time.”
To those who lament Canton’s decline since its mill heyday, Smathers aggressively pitches a more optimistic view. It has long been one of his goals to get young people to come here and come back after college or job training. And, he claims, it’s happening.
“Yes, we’ve lost a lot of businesses, but look, Canton is growing. People don’t realize just the changes that have occurred. Not everything has been successful, there’s been some things we’ve tried that have not worked out. We started on a very active self-improvement plan, and we did some things just to show people, well, you can change.”
Charles Rathbone owns Sign World WNC, one of the businesses that’s popped up since Smathers took office.
“Pat Smathers has always shown that he had Canton in his heart,” says Rathbone. “And you know, a lot of times a lot of the ideas that he had were not well-accepted by the different board members, but he was always looking to improve the image of downtown Canton.”
Smathers has struggled to bring back the once bustling town, where downtown was flush with grocers, dime shops, hat and shoe stores, watch repairmen: all the trappings of healthy, small-town America. Finding a new downtown economy has been his goal, and the number of filled storefronts these days shows success in that direction.
Reflecting on the last three terms, his major regret, says Smathers, is that he didn’t write more sympathy cards when long-time community members died.
The community — its history and tradition particularly — do genuinely seem to be in Smathers’ heart, pumping through his blood.
He’s vacating the mayor’s chair, yes. And his office will now just be the seat of Pat Smathers, lawyer.
In the November election, his name won’t be on the ballot. Mike Ray, a former town alderman who served with Smathers is running unopposed and will take up the mayoral torch.
But, says Smathers, don’t be fooled. He’s not going anywhere, and he hopes to still be involved in public life, just from the other side.
“It has been very rewarding to be the mayor, it’s an honor. If you take a small town like Canton, especially for someone like me who grew up here, the people in this community know me, they know the good and they know the bad,” says Smathers, by way of goodbye to his constituents. “Everybody has warts. And if the people that know you best are going to let you serve for 12 years, it’s an honor.”