Editor’s note: News reporting inevitably involves many judgment calls. Typically, the quest for balanced reporting would call for including comments by Carl Mumpower’s critics as well as his friends and supporters. But those critics have been vocal and their concerns widely reported, both in this paper and elsewhere. Rather than repeating them here, we have opted for something different: an up-close-and-personal look at a man who is perhaps better known in the abstract than in the particular.
In recent years, Carl Mumpower has been—by his own choice—one of Asheville’s most controversial public figures. From his seat on City Council, where he serves as the self-designated “lone conservative” amid what he sees as a nest of progressives and “Socialists,” Mumpower has willingly provided no shortage of well-publicized fodder for his political and ideological enemies on issues ranging from drugs to illegal immigration to moral and personal responsibility. (See sidebar, “The Gospel According to Mumpower.”)
And those enemies aren’t solely on the left: Mumpower is an equal-opportunity scold who has frequently ticked off members of his own Republican Party by decrying their profligate ways, calling for the impeachment of President Bush and openly despising the neocons who he says run Washington.
Meanwhile, his current, seemingly quixotic run for Congress against incumbent Democrat Heath Shuler has only raised the stakes.
Yet friend or foe, most know Mumpower only through media reports, cartoons and caricatures—as well as his own guerilla-style political theater.
But just who is this man whose supporters say is unjustly maligned and misunderstood—and who manages, by turns, to both repel and fascinate his constituents?
This story represents an attempt to answer that question. Over a 24-hour period in late August, this reporter traveled with, talked intimately with—and, yes, even shared cramped sleeping quarters with Mumpower (in an area of Madison County called “Sodom,” no less).
“I wish I knew him better,” said Donna Forga, chair of the Haywood County Republican Party, after Mumpower spoke to the party faithful at an Aug. 23 picnic at Lake Junaluska. “I want to know who he is as a person. How did he get to where he is now? And what has he done in his life that makes him like every other person that’s been sitting here listening to him today?”
Born under a bad sign
Ralph Carl Mumpower III was born in London, England, on Dec. 4, 1952, to Ralph Carl Mumpower Jr., a sailor in the the U.S. Navy, and Joy Mumpower, an English homemaker. It was a particularly bad day to come into the world.
While Joy was giving birth, a freak climate event—later dubbed “The Great Smog” and “The Black Fog”—was unfolding in London. As a cold fog descended, residents began burning more coal than usual. The resulting pollution was trapped by the dense mass of cold air, and concentrations of toxic substances spiked dramatically. Within days, more than 4,000 people died of sulfur-dioxide poisoning. In the weeks that followed, another 8,000 perished.
“My father has passed, but he used to talk about that night,” Mumpower recalls. “It was the foggiest day in London’s history, according to him. He rode on the hood of a jeep with a buddy as they tried to get to the hospital. They ended up driving through a fence into a field and getting lost. I hadn’t thought about this since I was a boy.”
The letting go
If Mumpower’s birth was marked by death, his childhood wasn’t much brighter. Riding in his Lexus SUV on a brilliant, late-summer afternoon en route to a campaign event in Haywood County, Mumpower remarks that his upbringing was less than ideal.
After moving to the United States, his parents split up when Mumpower was about 3; due to his mother’s mental state, says Mumpower, his father was given custody, a rarity in those days. They moved often—to Philadelphia, Mobile, Ala., Buncombe County and points in between—and Mumpower lived in several locations in the Buncombe County during his school years. As a small child, he even spent awhile in a local “detention center,” as he calls it, because his father was still a sailor and unable to take care of him.
Mumpower senior, the rebellious son of a Baptist preacher who grew up in Yancey County, was “a wild child,” his son says. Joy Mumpower suffered a breakdown, and after the divorce, contact with her was sporadic at best. She died of cancer in Mobile in 2000.
“I never had much of a relationship with her,” says Mumpower. “I maybe saw her 10 times in my lifetime. … She was brought up in England during the Blitz. I don’t know if that’s what did it, but she said that had a lot of effect on her. She was maybe 11 or 12 during the war and all the bombings. She just had trouble; she couldn’t quite get her feet under her. She was a real beautiful lady, but she was very emotional.
“So she just let us go. … She just gave up on us.
“My father was a troubled guy, too,” adds Mumpower. “He was the classic minister’s son: He drank a lot; he was a partyer and a gambler and a womanizer. He was just a wild child … until the day he died. … He wasn’t the best role model.”
On the campaign trail
Betty Budd, who’s piloting the official campaign vehicle this day—a red 1988 Toyota pickup featuring a massive “Mumpower for Congress” sign—leads the way to the picnic at Lake Junaluska, where the candidate is slated to speak. A retiree, she gladly works for his congressional campaign without pay.
More than 70 people have gathered for barbecue and politicking by Mumpower and a handful of other pols. The all-white crowd is middle-aged to elderly and almost entirely middle-class working folk—no stereotypical Republican fat cats here, notes Forga. Although Haywood County is Democratic territory, this is a Mumpower kind of crowd.
Gussie Gammon, a co-founder of the local party organization and an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention, says she admires Mumpower for sticking to his principles, even when it’s not politically astute to do so.
“I invited him to our Republican women’s meeting,” says Gammon, recalling the first time she met him. “He came and spoke, and everyone fell in love with him. He’s so sincere, and he thinks like I think, too.”
“People don’t know him; they really don’t,” Budd puts in. “They see him sitting at City Council, reading his notes, wearing his dark suit and his tie. I think they see him as kind of a stiff person, but he’s not like that at all. He does all sorts of things for other people in the community and really cares about people.
“I knew him from City Council,” she continues. “He was the liaison person to [two boards] I was appointed to. … I watched him on City Council, and I think he’s right on almost every vote. He’s got a tough row to hoe, because people in Asheville are not conservative basically. He just represents good, solid principles that make this a great country.”
When his son, Matt, was arrested recently following an altercation in an Asheville bar and restaurant, Mumpower quickly fired him from the campaign. “The thing with Matt has been very sad,” says Mumpower. “I was disappointed; hurt. He’d been cautioned numerous times about the vulnerabilities that go with a situation like this. But he’s accountable for his behavior: That’s not the kind of behavior that ought to be going on. I’ll take the heat, and he’ll take the responsibility.”
Such principles aside, adds Budd, “Carl is also into empowering people to be their best. I asked him once, ‘How are you ever going to be a politician? You have to bring home gifts.’ And Carl said, ‘Oh, I’ll bring home gifts—I’ll let people keep their money.’”
Over the course of the evening, the various other candidates deliver red-meat, Republican boilerplate. But when Mumpower steps before the crowd, he wastes no time proclaiming that Republicans have lost their way.
“In the Bible it says that those that God loves, He offers correction, too,” Mumpower tells his audience. “It would be my suggestion that the Republican Party in America is receiving a measure of correction, and it will continue until we get the message. The most recent statistics I can find show that 47 percent of the new voter registrants in North Carolina are Democrats. Forty three percent are independents. That means 10 percent are Republicans. During that same period of time, Democrats … have gained a million new voters; we have lost roughly the same number.
“We had a town-hall meeting in Haywood County recently. … There was a young lady who came up to me afterwards who told me, ‘I really liked what you said, but you shouldn’t be a Republican—you should be an independent, because Republicans don’t have a chance anymore.’ I said it will never happen: I am a Republican through and through to my core. I believe the Republican Party is the future of America—but not the Republican Party of power. It is the Republican Party of principle that is responsible and will carry the future of America.
“In a dangerous world, people get more conservative. Why are they leaving the Republican Party? Because they don’t believe us anymore. They believe we are about big government. Government got bigger and people got smaller while we were in control. … The Republican Party in America betrayed our world. I may incense some folks by saying that, but it is the truth. And unless we look at it and rededicate ourselves to what we are really supposed to be about, I believe the Lord will continue to correct us to the detriment of our country, our children and our grandchildren.
“That’s not what I’m about.”
The Little Flower
Mumpower has been up since 4:30 a.m., and his energy is flagging. But he seems to perk up as he nears his 40-acre Madison County retreat, which he bought in 1995. We’re in Sodom, once a haven for liquor, gambling, wife-swapping and other activities that gave it its name.
Pulling up to an old poplar-wood cabin, Mumpower is greeted affectionately by a massive white mutt named Ayatollah that belongs to his best friends, Vince and Sue Vilcinskas, who live across the narrow, two-laned road.
Mumpower’s public demeanor is staid, but he comes alive in the presence of animals, slipping into baby talk with the dog and with his pet cat, Socko. He delights in pointing out glow worms in one of the dozen or so ponds on the property, a banded water snake mesmerized by his flashlight, and the big goldfish he’s stocked in one of the ponds.
The real centerpiece of the property, however, is not the ponds or the charming, rustic little cabin but the Church of the Little Flower, an abandoned 1930s Catholic church that Mumpower has had restored. In keeping with traditional Catholic practice, he leaves it open at all times for use by whoever comes along, and he proudly gives a tour.
“The Little Flower,” he explains, is Saint Theresa. “She was pure love. She was so loving, a person could just walk in her room and feel her love. That’s not a bad person to have your church named for.”
Inside are eight pews, the stations of the cross along the stuccoed walls, and the iconography and Jesus and Virgin Mary statues typical of pre-Vatican II churches. But the highlight is a cross blessed by Pope John Paul II.
Although Mumpower keeps the church in shape, its was actually restored by a family of survivalists who’d moved to the mountains in 2000 in anticipation of the end of the world.
“I was walking in the snow, and I came across this old car that looked like it had been abandoned,” Mumpower recalls. “I knew there was an old cabin up a ways, so I walked up to see what was going on, and there was a man and a woman and two children and they were in pretty rough shape. We got to talking with them and befriended them, and one thing led to another, and I think they needed the money and I wanted the church restored, so it worked out.”
Mumpower says he’d originally planned to turn the structure into family living quarters, “but this is the way it should be.
“Somebody spread the rumor that the reason I didn’t make a house out of it was because my grandfather was a Baptist minister and he thought it would be wrong,” notes Mumpower. “In truth, he thought that Catholic folks were sinners and were doomed; he had no use for the Catholic faith. He was a sweet man, but he just thought that their doctrine was really wrong and harmful. So he didn’t like the church; he didn’t want to preserve it. He would have bulldozed it. I preserved it because, as I spent time [here] and talked to people, I got to realize how important it had been to the community, how many people were raised in this church and how much history it had, having been built in 1931—and it was just better off as a church than my house.”
The heart of the matter
Although Mumpower does plan to build a house on his property one day, right now there’s just the cabin. Inside there’s a small bed, a table and chairs, and the typical accouterments: candles, a long gun, tools and work duds. There’s also a smattering of books: history, a men’s devotional and the Complete Kama Sutra, among others.
Rarely seen without a suit and tie, Mumpower has changed into jeans and a T-shirt. “Take your pick,” he says, gesturing toward nearly a dozen expensive cigars on the table. A man of few vices, cigars are one of Mumpower’s guilty pleasures, and one of his favorite things to do up here is pull out an Adirondack chair and puff away beneath the brilliant canopy of stars.
“Look at the Milky Way,” he exclaims, finally relaxing. (He mentions later he believes he has seen a UFO from this spot.) “Man, it’s really beautiful up here on a night like tonight.”
Talk of his love of cigars begs the question: What other vices does Mumpower enjoy?
“I’ve strayed in ways, but I do pretty good,” replies Mumpower, a religious man who says he strives to adhere to strict values. Baptized only about five years ago despite being raised Baptist, he now belongs to the First Baptist Church of Asheville, which he says is a little too liberal for his taste. But if he had to pick a vice, he says finally, it would be blackjack.
“I love blackjack,” Mumpower declares, noting that he once won $3,700 at the tables. “I’m good at it; I’ve won money at it. I miss it. If I gave over to my dark side, I’d be living in Las Vegas working as a dealer, spending my salary playing blackjack.”
And though he strives to be a devout man, Mumpower acknowledges that his life has had its twists and turns. The father of two grown children, Matt and Kristen, and two grandchildren, Mumpower has been married four times to three women. His current wife, Lisa—a nurse at Mission Hospitals—is the love of his life, though they divorced shortly after they first married. The breakup came after Matt, then a preteen, moved in with his father. “That was pretty tough on her,” he says. But they remarried about five years ago, and Mumpower says things couldn’t be better. “I’m so glad we got back together. She’s a very special lady.”
He’s written four books: one on marriage, another on divorce, plus a therapy text and one about the Vietnam experience. A psychologist whose practice deals largely with couples and children, Mumpower says his own father wasn’t exactly a good role model for marriage.
“My father was married four times,” he reports. “I wasn’t given the best value system as far as women were concerned. Like a lot of people of my generation, I was brought up to think that relationships were disposable. If it made you happy, great; if not, get out of it. I’m grateful, though, because I have a child by each of my first two wives, and I have no regrets. I’m grateful for those two ladies and the children I have in my life.
“I think ladies need to be cherished, and I don’t think, as guys, we’re taught that. There’s a reason we have a lot of angry ladies in our culture: It’s terrible what our culture is doing to women. … I believe that when you cherish the woman you’re with, special things happen. It’s taken me a while to figure all that out.
“And Vietnam played a real part in that, too,” he notes. Vietnam was a transformative experience for Mumpower. After graduating from Owen High School in 1970, he enlisted in the Air Force, serving a tour in Vietnam and earning the rank of sergeant.
“I was 18 when I got to Vietnam, and all my friends were doing heroin, popping speed and smoking dope, and I liked drinking beer and chasing Vietnamese ladies,” he says. “Vietnam just didn’t get me off to the best start on the whole relationship thing. … You know what Italian women say? They say a man isn’t worth a damn until he’s 50. They may have something there. I’m 55.”
During his war stint, Mumpower says he worked as an intelligence-operations specialist and cross-trained as a medic. “The first place I was at was Saigon, and the greatest danger there was those Vietnamese girls I was fooling with, which I still have cherished memories of. I still remember this Chinese girl in Saigon. I’ll never forget the tenderness, the gift of tenderness she gave—and I’m not talking sexuality. But she was a gift, because Saigon was a pretty insane place at that time.”
Nonetheless, Mumpower says he wanted to experience everything he possibly could about the war.
“I bribed a clerk to get closer to the war,” he recalls. “I bought him a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black.” That won the young Mumpower duty in spotter planes in the war zone throughout the country, he says, and led to things like tagging along with Army Rangers and Navy SEALS and working as a Medical Civic Action Program medic.
“I saw a lot of waste, a lot of bad things,” he says, his voice trailing off. “I sort of questioned some of that. I never got into any trouble … but I guess you could say I was a hippie soldier in a way. I smoked some Thai stick one time that had some kind of hallucinogenic in it. I really wasn’t much into drugs, but I had a couple of my hooch mates that were heroin addicts. I was really more into the experience over there than getting high. I could probably count the times I smoked dope on one hand … OK, maybe two hands. I took some speed a couple times. Took some kind of hallucinogenic one time.
“I smoked heroin one time,” he adds. “You wouldn’t inject it, it was so pure. But I didn’t get anything from that. The first thing you do is vomit; I never saw anything to that.
“I wanted to get into everything I could get into, any opportunity to experience the war,” he continues. “I got some unique exposures, nothing too exotic. But I liked the intensity of it. I liked helicopters. It was scary to be shot at, but it was exhilarating. You could say I got into that a little bit.”
Back stateside, he started school, earning a master’s in counseling from Western Carolina University in 1975, a master’s in social work from the University of Georgia in 1976 and, in 1985, a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Union Institute, a distance-learning school in Ohio.
But the transition from warrior to civilian wasn’t easy. “What I think I lost was my adolescence,” he observes. “I was so much older than the people I went to school with. It took the fun out of my life; it made me too serious. It made me afraid. It made me afraid for the country … anxious about things. I didn’t have much trust of people anymore, or the system. It was bad over there. It didn’t make me antiwar, but it made me anti bad war, just like now. We lost 57,000 troops there—that’s a lot of people—and all those people didn’t need to die. There’s lots of things we should have done differently.”
Still, he missed the intensity war afforded. “It made me an adrenalin junkie,” says Mumpower. “When I got back over here, I’d go scuba diving; I’d go spearfishing at night by myself off Fort Walton, [Fla.], which is kind of like the shark-fishing capital of the world. I’d go cave diving. I did all types of things just trying to get that intensity back into my life.”
Like a brother
After a fitful night of sleep punctuated by his worries about leaving Lisa home alone (the Mumpowers ocasionally receive “indirect threats” concerning his controversial and provocative political doings, he confides)—not to mention the incessant snoring of the reporter sleeping on the floor (which makes him the butt of jokes and good-natured ribbing the entire next day)—Mumpower gives a quick tour of his property the next morning, including a visit to his dad’s grave (he died in 2000, stung to death by the bees father and son tended on the property).
After that, Mumpower heads across the road to join his best friends, the Vilcinskas, for coffee and lighthearted fellowship.
Few people know Mumpower better or love him more than Vince and Sue, he says. Yet no couple seems less likely to have so fervently befriended the man, given their own political leanings. Vince, a gregarious Pittsburgh native of Ukrainian descent, and Sue, his sweet-but-feisty wife who was born and raised in these mountains, are self-described left-leaning Democrats. Vince’s pickup sports contrasting Obama and Mumpower bumper stickers; Sue chairs the Madison County Democratic Party.
But while Sue visits on the porch with James, a close family friend who’s getting ready to ship off again for Iraq, Vince and Mumpower share a firm and brotherly embrace.
“We just love him; just different politics,” Sue says with a laugh when interviewed by phone days later. “He’s just a good, decent man, and Vince and I love him. He’s just like our brother.
“We love him because we know he has a good heart, even if we don’t always agree with him … and he does want to make a difference. I guess we see beyond what other people see. I guess there’s more substance there than meets the eye,” she says—adding, however, that she won’t vote for him over Shuler. (Vince says he will vote for his friend despite the political gulf). It’s partly because of her position in the party, Sue explains, and partly her own deeply held politics. But Mumpower, she says, wouldn’t expect her to act any other way: He respects other people’s right to hold a different view and to follow their own convictions.
“I think a lot of people just misunderstand him,” she continues. Mumpower’s restoration of the church—which Sue attended as a child and got married in—is a clue to his character, she believes. “He could have chosen to have done any number of things with it, and it could have turned out differently. But he sensed how much people in the community valued having that church there: It was a center of something special and unique … a spiritual significance, and he saw that. He chose to take his own money and restore that church to as near as what it used to be. Not too many people would have done that.
She also mentions Mumpower’s involvement with kids in public housing. “He takes those kids, goes in the community and does special little things with them: helps them paint, puts their basketball courts up. And then there’s the bus shelters he’s built and paid for all over Asheville. Those kind of things? That’s being a human being; that’s caring about other people. He may do some off-the-wall, crazy things, but I think that’s because he wants to draw attention to the issue at hand, to some injustice.”
If everybody associated only with people with similar beliefs, says Sue, “This would be a really boring world. … We just agree to disagree, because we’re not going to change each other’s mind. We have the freedom to be who we are, and I think that’s what makes our relationship what it is—having that respect and admiration for each other.”
Are there ever any heated political discussions? “Oh, Lord, honey: knockdown-dragout,” she says, laughing.
“We disagree on just about every issue,” Vince chimes in.
“Carl is who he is,” says Vince. “He doesn’t pander to anybody; he’s not wishy-washy. What you see is what you have. He’s a kind, generous, thoughtful person. It’s hard in the political arena, because we’ve gotten to where we can’t separate issues from the person. … Some people can’t see past Obama’s race to see the person. And Carl has done so many kind things, and I’ve seen him in so many situations where he’s always empathetic and nonjudgmental. He puts his energy and wherewithal where his mouth is. He doesn’t just talk it—he lives it.
“But we’ve had issues where I’ve changed his mind,” continues Vince. He once told Mumpower about an Artist of the Year contest he’d heard about in some other city. Such a thing would seem ideal for an artsy town like Asheville, he told Carl.
“He just couldn’t see how that was important,” Vince recalls. “I told him, ‘Well, it may not be important on your radar, but it’s important to a lot of people; it’s part of Asheville’s soul.’ He took that, and it took him many years and many debates, but he finally got that in place. He even offered to bankroll it, he became that passionate about it. But in the beginning he felt it was just such a waste of time and money.
“There’s been several little things like that. People think he’s against public transportation, but I don’t know how many dozens of those bus stops he’s put all around. I’ve seen him come up here just exhausted from a day of building those things. But he takes no credit for that type of stuff. The thing about Carl is, if you can give him things in factual, nonemotional, nonpersonal ways, then he’s very open-minded.”
Like Mumpower, Vince had a tough childhood, raised on welfare and living in public housing. “We probably would have starved if it hadn’t been for free government food,” he says. And though Mumpower is compassionate toward people facing trying circumstances, Vince says his friend believes there’s a right way and a wrong way to improve their lives.
“He didn’t come up easy. But he wants people [to succeed] not through governmental help but by their own wherewithal, their own desire to do better for themselves. That’s the way he came up, and it has worked for him.”
Despite the Vilcinskas’ undying fondness for Mumpower, Vince, in particular, isn’t one to let his buddy off easy. And notwithstanding Mumpower’s preternaturally calm demeanor, he’s not always able to rise above the criticism he brings upon himself, says Vince. Because of that, both Vilcinskas say they originally tried to dissuade Mumpower from getting into the rough-and-tumble of politics.
“I get on him all the time. ‘I think you have a strong feminine side,’” a bemused Vince says he’s told his friend. “I always tease him, ‘Where are you at in your cycle? You’re like a woman, some days.’ I remember the first caricature of him that came out after he was on Council [an unflattering rendering by Xpress cartoonist Randy Molton]. He said, ‘Vince, are my ears really that big?’”
Council member Robin Cape and Vice Mayor Jan Davis are not as close to Mumpower, but they do interact with him regularly. Cape is Mumpower’s political opposite and a frequent sparring partner; Davis, a moderate Democrat, is the closest thing Mumpower has to a true friend on Council. Both evince a sincere, if peculiar, fondness for Mumpower—tempered by plenty of criticism.
“We’re equally strong,” says Cape. “I’m able to say to him that I hear your convictions, but I have mine, too.” Cape believes Mumpower defines himself largely by his Vietnam experience, seeing everything as a battle. “Truthfully, I don’t take Carl that seriously as a person, in terms of when he says things that are so mean. I feel, bless his heart, that he feels that conflict is the only way to resolve things. … I said to him one day, ‘Carl, how are you doing?’ And he said, ‘Oh, everybody’s after me.’ And I said, ‘You love it.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t.’ And I said, ‘No, you really must love it, because you create it everywhere you go.’”
Davis believes Mumpower has become harder-edged during his years on Council, largely because of his outsider status and the loss of his ideological soul mate—former Council member Joe Dunn. Davis also feels Mumpower’s so-called principled stands—such as the recent firing of his son—are sometimes politically tinged. And, echoing Vince, Davis good-naturedly jokes that Mumpower does indeed have a feminine side, recalling the time he urged Davis and Dunn to stop at an outlet store on the way back from a Council business trip so the typically nattily dressed Mumpower could shop for shoes.
“But Carl is tenacious, if you had to pick a word to describe him,” adds Davis, with obvious respect of the man’s convictions. “He will stay with an issue he feels strongly about, without wavering.”