This year's Buncombe County Board of Commissioners race is a whole new ballgame. Last year, the N.C. General Assembly summarily switched Buncombe County from a five-member board elected countywide to a seven-member board with three districts (each electing two commissioners), plus a board chair elected at large. The legislators then drew up those districts.
The move was widely condemned as a power grab by the GOP majority, but potential commissioners have wasted no time in adapting to the new system and hitting the campaign trail in advance of the May 8 primary.
The new District 1 consists primarily of the city of Asheville, traditionally a Democratic stronghold. Republican Don Guge of Woodfin is running unopposed; five Democrats are vying for two spots on the November ballot.
Some are familiar faces. Former Asheville Vice Mayor Holly Jones is seeking a second term as a county commissioner. She touts her experience in both governments as evidence that she can accomplish her goals.
“I bring to the table a really strong track record,” Jones asserts. “I'm not just talking about these things on fliers or websites: I've done them. The challenges of our time require a lot of flexibility, and I think I bring that too.”
Jones says affordable housing is a top priority, along with reassessing the county's land-use and affordable-housing policies.
“Unless we start turning the corner on this affordable-housing supply issue, we're going to be playing catch-up on everything else,” she maintains. “There's not a magic bullet, but I think it's really important for jump-starting a piece of our economy.”
Jones also says she’d like to see more of the county's budget deliberations conducted in public, to allow for more input before the final product comes up for a vote.
Another experienced politician, Brownie Newman, is also running for the Board of Commissioners after eight years on Asheville City Council. Newman spearheaded the city's energy and sustainability efforts, as well as helping craft its equality resolution and domestic-partner benefits.
“We've made a lot of progress on issues that were important to me on City Council,” he notes. “Running for county commissioner really felt like an opportunity to expand the progress we've made on these issues at the city level.”
One of those issues is reducing carbon emissions and energy expenditures.
“I'd like to see Buncombe County make a really ambitious commitment to energy independence,” Newman explains. “The county's doing some good things on energy, but a big goal like that really helps to up its game.” He also plans to push for domestic-partner benefits and official recognition of equality for LGBT county employees, though he notes that this might take a different form from the city's policy.
Newman says his Council record went beyond “just having a progressive philosophy” to “actually making change.” Like Jones, he sees increasing transparency as a priority.
“I think there's a need for greater public involvement in the decision-making process,” Newman asserts.
Shiloh resident and activist Aixa Wilson has never held public office, but he ran a dark-horse congressional primary campaign in 2010 against Rep. Heath Shuler. Although Wilson lost that race, he did carry Buncombe, making a surprisingly strong showing for a little-known candidate.
“I want to help at the local level but still have a regional impact,” says Wilson. “Buncombe County plays such a key role in Western North Carolina.”
Education, he believes, is key to boosting the local economy.
“Community colleges do offer us the most flexible way to approach new business. We can work with state legislators if we need new progams particular to this area,” notes Wilson. “We have to make sure we're maximizing our education efforts for our youth.”
The candidate feels he can bring a fresh outlook to the expanded Board of Commissioners.
“I'm just looking to serve and participate in my government, like any citizen should have the opportunity to do,” he points out. “I don't have entrenched views about things; I don't have a lot of established relationships. I might bring some lateral thinking to the board.”
Tracey DeBruhl boasts a well-known name in county politics (he’s the grandnephew of longtime Register of Deeds Otto DeBruhl), but he says it was his experience as a Marine in Iraq and his religious beliefs that led him to run for office.
“With all that's going on, it seems the only way to make things better for my people is to get involved,” says DeBruhl. “As a kid growing up, I swore I wouldn't run on [his family’s name].”
DeBruhl says he wants to bring a more common-sense approach to zoning, calling the current rules governing manufactured homes inconsistent and arbitrary.
He'd like to see both the U.S. and Buncombe County move toward universal health care. DeBruhl also says he supports, on religious grounds, Amendment One, which would prohibit legal recognition of same-sex relationships. “People have been gay since Alexander the Great at least,” he adds, “so I don't think it's going away.”
DeBruhl says he's focusing on “knocking on doors and talking to people” rather than handing out fliers or staging campaign events.
Although this is Keith Young’s first run for elective office, the Asheville native is no stranger to politics. Besides being president of the Buncombe County Democratic Party's African-American Caucus, Young serves on the state party's Executive Committee.
"We've got people in office, and they're doing a good job, but I think there's an opportunity for a new voice" thanks to district elections, he explains.
"People are really concerned about bringing jobs into Buncombe with decent pay, and affordable housing," notes Young. "The current commissioners have done a great job, but I think we can take it a step further." Those issues, he maintains, transcend the political divisions among county voters, adding that he’ll work to protect the environment and promote "civil equality for all citizens, across the board."
Running on the slogan "A new voice for the people,” Young says he won't criticize other Democrats in the primary.
"As Democrats, we all share the same basic ideology; there are just some different nuances," Young maintains. "But I think there are some things a new voice will bring to the table. What defines a leader is their passion and determination. Do [the current commissioners] still have that same passion?
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.