Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy and state Rep. Patsy Keever are both making the case that they're the party's strongest candidate, with each touting experiences and views that they say will serve them best in a fall campaign — and in Congress. (Rutherfordton resident Timothy Murphy is also on the Democratic primary ballot, but has comparatively less campaign money and political experience.)
Neither Bellamy nor Keever is a stranger to hard-fought primaries: Then-Asheville City Council member Bellamy picked off incumbent Mayor Charles Worley in the 2005 primary to win her current position; Keever defeated Statehouse incumbent Bruce Goforth in the 2010 primary to win hers. (Keever also won the 11th District congressional primary in 2004 but went on to lose the general election against Republican Rep. Charles Taylor.)
But to outflank each other and earn a spot on the November ballot, each faces a big challenge this year: consolidating support here in the mountains where they're known best, while reaching out to Democrats in a geographically and culturally diverse area that stretches southeast all the way to Gaston County.
And the winner must then prepare for what's likely to be a tough general-election fight with powerful GOP incumbent Patrick McHenry in an area that historically has leaned Republican.
Early successBellamy won the city's top job at the age of 33, becoming the youngest mayor in North Carolina and the first African American to ever serve in the local post. She currently works as the executive director for the ARC of Buncombe County, a nonprofit that helps people with developmental disabilities. She previously served as the marketing and development manager for Mountain Housing Opportunities, a nonprofit that helps lower-income people buy homes in Buncombe County.
All of that, Bellamy argues, gives her "broader experience" than Keever.
"I have more experience on diverse issues. I can point to the number of jobs I have helped create, the positive partnerships I've helped create," she says. For example, she "was part of the discussion" with Linamar and New Belgium executives that resulted in plans to build production facilities here and eventually create about 550 local jobs that pay higher-than-average wages.
Bellamy also ticks off a long list of other economic efforts she's most proud of engaging in as mayor, including changing the city's Unified Development Ordinance to "make it more business-friendly," lobbying for the N.C. film-incentive program "to help more movies come be filmed" in the state, and channeling federal stimulus and N.C. Community Development Initiative dollars to local programs.
But Bellamy’s years in office haven't been immune from criticism — especially in regard to certain equality issues.
Her opposition to same-sex partner benefits for city employees and to an "equality" resolution, which created a domestic-partnership registry and established an anti-bullying ordinance, outraged many local progressives.
Most recently, she rankled some when campaign business caused her to miss City Council's April 10 vote on a resolution to officially oppose Amendment One. However, she says she supports her fellow Council members in their unanimous opposition.
"I still continue to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman. However, this amendment is far-reaching. We already have on the books a definition of marriage, and it already addresses this issue," she says.
In contrast, Keever goes further than just opposing the amendment, casting the issue of same-sex marriage as a civil-rights issue.
"What people choose to do with their religious rights, their religious rituals, is one thing, but marriage is a contract with the state, and everybody should have the same right to that contract," she argues.
Like Bellamy, Keever asserts that her range of experience sets her apart.
"I think I've had much more experience than Terry has. I think I can relate to a wider variety of people," she said in January when she announced her candidacy.
Keever served 12 years on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, and she considers her efforts to spearhead junk-car and sign ordinances, improve composting and litter-pickup services and create an economic-development partnership with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce among her biggest accomplishments.
Since 2010, Keever has served in the General Assembly, where, she says, her ability to distinguish herself has been hampered by an overreaching GOP majority.
"The Republican leadership has done everything in its power to strip us of any say so in anything," she says. They also stripped her of her Statehouse seat, drawing her residence out of the district she currently represents and leading her to decide to run for Congress.
But she's taken pride in casting votes against GOP-backed bills like the Women's Right to Know Act, which she calls "atrocious" and "a complete intrusion into a woman's right to have control over her body."
The freshman legislator also earned accolades from the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, which ranked her among the most "green" members of the legislature.
But like her chief primary opponent, some of Keever's positions have created controversy — particularly her decision last year to cast the lone vote in the Statehouse against a bill that banned people on the sex-offender registry from being able to work as emergency-service providers. At the time, the Buncombe County Republican Party pounced on the issue, releasing a statement calling it evidence of poor judgment and a "sick mindset.”
Keever stands behind the move, despite anticipating that it might be used to attack her as the campaign continues.
"I'm sure it will be brought up against me in the race,” she says. The vote, she adds, was a statement of protest. “It was a vote to say we really need to look at the sex-offender registry," she says, and she consulted with district attorneys and other experts before concluding it was the correct course. "My feeling is you have to do the right thing, and if you're concerned about being re-elected and that's your biggest concern, than you should be out of office.”
The most fulfilling part of serving in the General Assembly has been constituent service, Keever says, noting that it would also be a key duty she would look forward to as a member of Congress.
But it’s her 25 years of experience teaching in the Buncombe County school system that Keever says has done more to shape how she would serve in Washington than anything else.
"When you're a teacher, you teach every one of your students — you don't choose who you have," she says. "I've always felt it was the same thing as a representative. Whether I was a county commissioner, or in the Statehouse, or if I'm in Congress, it's about your relationships with people."
National stage, local problemsIf elected, both Bellamy and Keever say they'll focus on issues that voters say are important to the region.
Bellamy is particularly interested in working on committees related to housing and transportation, "because those are big issues impacting the district, issues that deal with infrastructure."
Polk County is in need of funding to improve its water and sewage system, Rutherford County is dealing with a housing crisis, and highway upgrades are needed in Cleveland County, she reports. And much of the district is plagued with closed manufacturing plants that need remediation money to clean them up and attract new businesses, she adds.
"My goal is to make sure they're getting the resources they need at the federal level that they deserve, that have been neglected," Bellamy says. However, she cautions, "There's not a silver bullet that's going to solve all our ills."
For her part, Keever says that she agrees on the need for more federal spending on infrastructure improvements, noting that she strongly supported the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and President Barack Obama's $447 billion jobs bill that Congress denied last year.
"The federal stimulus has made a huge difference. It's kept our schools going. I would love to see us do more stimulus if we can," she says. "There's so much infrastructure that needs to be done — and we could be creating jobs as government."
In Congress, Keever says, she'd be most excited about working on issues related to education, health and the environment. "I want to be part of President Obama's team,” she declares. “I want to be part of the team that looks out for working Americans.”
Keever sees opportunities to help spread successful local projects such as the small-business incubator at A-B Tech to other parts of the district. And like Bellamy, she notes that she wants to "get manufacturing back where we can."
The two candidates are largely in agreement when it comes to the 2010 Health Care Act, offering praise for provisions that allow kids to stay on their parents' insurance until the age of 26 and limit the ability of insurers to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions. Other areas, such as the "individual mandate," need to be tweaked, they agree.
"Let's fix what needs to be fixed. But you don't throw the whole piece of legislation out because there are issues," Bellamy says. In the long-term, Keever says she supports a single-payer insurance system in which one public or quasi-public agency organizes financing nationwide.
Rocky road ahead?
Regardless of which Democrat wins in May, the numbers indicate that the candidate will have a difficult path to victory in November.
Although registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 185,817 to 168,405 in the newly drawn district, the 118,126 unaffiliated voters likely hold the key to success. And historically, they've heavily favored McHenry, who's won four straight terms. What’s more, according to Cliff Moone, the state Democratic Party’s 10th District chair, the area also holds "a lot of DINOs — Democrats in name only."
One indication of which way the winds might blow: In 2008, voters in the district’s territory favored Sen. John McCain over Obama 190,074 votes to 140,050 (Obama won the state overall).
McHenry seems poised to easily win the May 8 primary against Republican challengers Ken Fortenberry and Don Peterson. And, as in years past, he's proving to be an adept fundraiser, pulling in a whopping $786,375 since his last victory in 2010.
Meanwhile, Bellamy raised $121,356, and Keever raised $114,258, over the first three months of 2012. And both argue they're well-positioned for victory in the fall.
McHenry, says Keever, might be more vulnerable than the numbers indicate.
"You just wouldn't believe how people dislike him, personally," she asserts. "They feel like he's not representing them, that his constituent service is not good."
Meanwhile, Bellamy reiterates that she's uniquely positioned to unite people and says she's determined to outwork all her opponents.
Regardless of party affiliation, she says, "We all have some of the same issues, and we all want good government, better government, stronger communities.”