District elections loom large in commissioner races
Buncombe County's new district elections for the Board of Commissioners proved to be good news for Republican candidates, who made historic gains even though the final results still aren’t known. After being virtually excluded from the board in recent elections, GOP candidates will probably hold at least three seats and could claim a voting majority on the now-seven-member body (see sidebar, “Still in Flux”).
The GOP gains came even though Democratic candidates for the board (including the chair, who’s still elected countywide) garnered substantially more votes overall, outpolling Republicans 209,757 votes to 136,431.
That’s led some to charge that the new system, engineered by Republicans in Raleigh, is actually a partisan attempt to thwart democracy. Critics also fear that compartmentalizing the electorate could encourage individual commissioners to act in the interest of their district rather than the county as a whole.
Republicans, meanwhile, say that while the new system definitely helped their cause, district elections will help restore political balance after more than two decades of Democratic rule and ideological domination by Asheville voters, giving more conservative, long-neglected rural residents a voice.
Pushed by Republican state Rep. Tim Moffitt, the switch to district elections was approved, largely along party lines, by the General Assembly in 2011. The five incumbent commissioners, all Democrats, opposed the move; their attempt to hold a local referendum was blocked by Moffitt and his allies in Raleigh.
The new system created three commissioner districts. This year only, voters chose two candidates to represent their district, the top vote-getter winning a four-year term and the second-place finisher getting two years. Future elections will be staggered, with one open seat per district. Incumbent board Chair David Gantt easily defeated challenger J.B. Howard, 61 percent to 38 percent.
As expected, District 1, which covers most of the city of Asheville, was a Democratic stronghold. Incumbent Holly Jones collected 45 percent of the vote, and former Asheville City Council member Brownie Newman won with 39 percent.
But Republicans will probably pick up at least one District 2 seat (see sidebar) and both District 3 slots.
Changing the outcome
About 69 percent of Buncombe County’s registered voters participated, casting 128,582 ballots. Democrats dominated the countywide races, with Asheville voters overwhelming Republican support elsewhere in the county.
Despite losing North Carolina, for example, President Obama carried Buncombe with 55 percent (70,625 votes). Incumbent Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger defeated Republican Pat Cothran with 57 percent. Gantt's margin was even greater.
Meanwhile, in the three commissioner districts, Democratic candidates collected 133,606 votes versus 88,894 for Republicans — a 44,712-vote margin. (Only one Republican, Don Guge, ran against two Democrats in District 1.) Add the countywide chairman’s race to the mix and the Democratic margin becomes 73,326 votes.
"If we had seen the same candidates running under the old rules,” notes UNCA political science professor Bill Sabo, “I would be surprised if you had one Republican on the board.” This year’s results, he continues, "demonstrate the power of rules. … You change the rules, you change the outcome."
Emmet Carney, chair of the Buncombe County Democratic Party, agrees, saying the results of the "weird little scheme" make him "question whether we're living in a democracy. … This is an election we will be talking about for decades to come.”
Many local Republicans, however, say their party has been unfairly suppressed for decades. Under the former at-large system, notes Sabo, "Republican candidates did reasonably well in certain parts of the county, but when the board was all Democrat, that was just as undemocratic. Certainly for the last four years, eight years, Democrats controlled the board almost exclusively, which meant that all the Republican votes amounted to nothing."
Now, he says, the "Republican support that has always been there translated into seats for the first time."
According to historical voting patterns compiled by the General Assembly during the redistricting process, District 3, which includes Arden, Enka/Candler and Leicester, encompasses the most conservative areas of the county. In 2008, those voters supported Republicans John McCain (for president) and Pat McCrory (for governor), though neither candidate carried either Buncombe County or North Carolina.
This year, Republican Joe Belcher won the district's top spot on the Board of Commissioners with 19,394 votes; Republican David King was second with 18,561. And Democrat Terry Van Duyn finished last despite spending a whopping $112,107 as of Oct. 20 (far more than any other candidate for Buncombe County office this year, according to the latest campaign-finance reports).
The historical voting patterns also held up in District 2, which includes Fairview, Black Mountain and Weaverville. In 2008, the more evenly divided electorate there narrowly favored McCain for president but Democrat Bev Perdue for governor. This year, the district seems poised to send Republican Mike Fryar (19,993 votes) and Democrat Ellen Frost (19,904) to the Board of Commissioners.
And this year’s successful Republican candidates say the new system played a key role in their victories but wasn’t the whole story. Sabo agrees, saying ultimately, "It still comes down to the candidates and their ability to mobilize supporters."
"I think, with atrocious candidates, they wouldn't have won. They had candidates who ran hard," he maintains. The new system created an opportunity, and "They took advantage of that.”
Helping them do so was a significantly more organized local Republican Party, with twice as many precinct captains as it had two years ago, an aggressive social media presence, more volunteers at the polls and better fundraising.
A conservative mandate?
On election night, Belcher quickly declared the results “a conservative mandate for the county.”
Asked for specifics, Belcher echoed his earlier calls for spending cuts and fiscal restraint. He also emphasized the need to give residents living outside of Asheville a stronger voice in county decision-making — one of the main reasons Moffitt gave last year for changing the system. (Moffitt did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
"When you have an entire county vote and most of the population is in the city, then you end up with more city representation of thought than you do in the county. The reason I ran was because it was broken into districts: I felt we could make a difference," Belcher explains. (In fact, however, the rest of Buncombe County has almost twice as many people as Asheville, according to 2011 Census Bureau estimates: 156,961 vs. 84,458.)
"Barnardsville, Weaverville, Leicester, Candler, some of these areas have been neglected in the past,” Belcher maintains. “We're not going to neglect the rest of the county, but it gives us an opportunity to represent those people and their thoughts and desires and goals. We're going to work together to make sure that every area in the county is represented."
Sabo, however, questions whether the election results constitute any specific call to action. "Every election winner claims, certainly, to have a mandate,” he points out. “This is the luxury that the winner has: to define and spin things in any way that they want. If it was a massive outpouring of Republican support, then Gantt wouldn't have won, for instance, at least as comfortably as he did."
Sabo says it's too early to tell what specific changes rural residents might want, but he agrees that over time, the district elections will help clarify and empower those interests.
"We should get a clearer picture on the distribution of interests and preferences across the county over the next four to eight years, I would think. Because now there is a particular person who might articulate the interest of that community," Sabo maintains. "That's the logic of district systems: They make government more responsive to local areas and to minority interests."
Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.