Quiet Confidence: An Interview with Democratic Party Chair Charles Carter

Tall, lean and with movie-star good looks, Charles Carter seems relaxed as we talk politics on the patio of Mountain Java, the Merrimon Avenue coffee shop he owns. It’s a cool, sunny Sunday afternoon a mere six weeks before the election, and he’s just come from church with his family across the street. Baptized at Grace Episcopal 43 years ago, Carter has attended the pretty stone church all his life.

Born and raised in Buncombe County, Carter and two siblings grew up on the campus of the prestigious Asheville School, where his father was athletic director for 40 years and his mother still serves as part-time librarian. Carter played baseball, football and track, going on to play basketball at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. After a year-and-a-half in Barcelona, learning the language and soaking up the culture, he came home to Asheville in 1993 to teach Spanish at North Buncombe High School.

Growing up in a bipartisan, politically aware home, Carter had a sense of civic duty and public service instilled in him from an early age. But it was his experience in the classroom that first got him involved in politics. Believing that his students’ needs weren’t being adequately addressed by his own state senators, Republicans RL Clark and Jesse Ledbetter, Carter decided to challenge them himself. After narrowly losing in 1996, he went on to outpoll both men in the two-seat Senate district race in 1998, at age 31. He won a second Senate term two years later.

Carter feels the competitive but cooperative nature of team sports was good preparation for politics: “You have a lot coming at you at once; you want to succeed and you want to win,” he explains. Clearly passionate about his party’s principles, Carter evokes Bill Clinton as he leans in and looks me in the eye.

“You put education and business first, and you take care of your environment,” he says. “Those principles guide me — I want everyone to buy into those; I want to help everyone see why those are so important to the candidates who are running under the Democratic Party.” He even sounds a little like Clinton. “I think it’s a testament when they win that you’re succeeding in getting that message across.”

It was on the campaign trail that Carter first came to appreciate the value of a good party structure. Teaching school all day and traveling the expansive district at night and on weekends, the candidate relied on the Democratic Party to carry his message forward when he himself couldn’t. He’s been active in the party ever since.

After the Democratic landslides of 2006 and 2008, Carter saw an opportunity to serve his party even more by helping secure victory in this year’s midterm elections, so he sought the post of party chair, which he’s held for almost a year-and-a-half now. With no presidential contest on the ballot, midterm elections typically see a much lower turnout.

“You have to put so much more effort into voter turnout,” he notes. “You have to get out there and remind people that there’s an election … and get them organized to get out to the polls. That takes a lot of effort in terms of canvassing, phone-banking and organizing the party structure so the whole party is moving in one direction and with one voice. You really can’t have any battles within the party: You have to be unified.”

Carter says he’s proud of how the party’s sometimes disparate factions have largely put aside their differences to focus on electing Democratic candidates come November. He’s also quick to give credit to virtually everyone except himself, reciting a litany of party officers, precinct chairs and activists.

“I think we recognized after this last election, when we were so successful — we elected people every place we ran — that we have a broad range of philosophies. The bigger your tent, the wider your views: You’re going to have progressives, you’re going to have conservatives. But at the end of the day, you bring everyone together to help one another win.”

I mention that many Republicans I’ve spoken with predict enough of a progressive defection this year to hurt Democrats’ prospects — and specifically, to enable Republican challenger Jeff Miller to eke out a victory in the 11th Congressional District race.

“I hope that’s their strategy, because that’ll fail,” Carter says with another big smile. “I hope they’re banking on that. I think that progressives here recognize that while Congressman Heath Shuler may not have voted on health-care reform the way they might have liked, he voted the right way on issues that are very important to them, particularly ‘cap and trade’ and the environment. Congressman Shuler has been a champion of keeping our region beautiful and clean. … And that’s not something we’d get under Miller.”

I ask Carter if he feels that any local races are a lock for the Democrats, and I can see his mind jumping as he handicaps the races in his head. “I consider every one of them as valuable as the next,” he says earnestly. “We’ve got to fight like we’re going to lose it — you never want to take any district for granted. We’ve got to work each of those precincts and get as many people to the polls as we can.”

There is one subject, however, that gets this otherwise unflappable fellow noticeably irked: the tactics of his Republican counterpart, Chad Nesbitt. It’s Sept. 12 — the day after Nesbitt has staged an event to raise money for the GOP. “When you see a party chairman who uses the memory of 9/11 and the memory of the people who passed away to raise money for a partisan effort … I’m curious if the Republicans in Buncombe County really endorse that,” says Carter. “If they really believe that that’s a proper way to communicate with the voters and to participate in our democracy.”

Nesbitt, continues Carter, is “a great opponent for us, he really is. Is that really what you’re going to run on? That somehow you think that if you continually drive wedges between people and between groups of people instead of working with people and building bridges … I’ll take that any day. I’m glad that he’s there. Basically the Carolina Stompers have hijacked the Republican Party. It’s a pretty scary thing.”

As for the proper role of party chairs, Carter says: “Chad and I, in our respective parties, serve the purpose of getting our candidates elected. … And that’s why you don’t see me out on TV as much as you see Chad on TV or in the news or in print or on viral videos. Because it’s not about me … and it’s not supposed to be about Chad. It’s about our candidates, it’s about our issues, it’s about our party.”

Michael Muller can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 154, or at mmuller@mountainx.com.

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19 thoughts on “Quiet Confidence: An Interview with Democratic Party Chair Charles Carter

  1. James P. Fisher

    I don’t know about the “movie star good looks”,but Charles is certainly far more experienced than his counter-part, Chad Nesbitt. And he is right: it is al about the candidates and getting folks to VOTE!

  2. Dionysis

    Plus Charles speaks two languages and Chad is still trying to master one.

  3. Jules

    I remember the days when both Charles Carter and Chad Nesbitt were in the Buncombe County Young Democrats together.

  4. The Trolls Troll

    anyone else notice how a goodly portion of muller’s stories contain superfluous descriptions of how attractive people are?

  5. Rabid Donkey

    I have to say, I think the wedge has worked well for the repubs. They rally over fear of socialism, terror, and diversity. By doing so, they often define the terms of debate. I believe dems need to start speaking in terms of how corporatism has delivered the realities we have been conditioned to fear in our nightmares of socialism. Republican led militarism has also made us less safe from terrorism. Finally, the far right social agenda would have us all wearing the uniforms prescribed by Christine O’Donnell and Pat Robertson. We need to make it clear that Republicans are a threat to our liberty and self determination.

  6. Media Watcher

    Tall, lean and with movie-star good looks . . .
    Carter says with another big smile . . .
    . . . Carter evokes Bill Clinton as he leans in and looks me in the eye.

    Reporter Muller seems quite taken with Mr. Carter.

  7. coolguyinnc

    How sad is it that Chad Nesbitt couldn’t find time to be interviewed. I guess he doesn’t want his leadership of the GOP to be questioned.

  8. Barry Summers

    Let this put to rest the “XPress is too hard on Chad Nesbitt & all Republicans” meme. Chad had a chance for a serious sit-down interview (with, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Michael Muller a Republican himself?), and he passed.

  9. “Chad had a chance for a serious sit-down interview (with, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Michael Muller a Republican himself?), and he passed. “

    Guess if your world view is “everybody who doesn’t think exactly the same as me, is evil” then the inevitable fear & paranoia takes over.

  10. Clyde Hunnicutt

    Tim Peck: “anyone else notice how a goodly portion of muller’s stories contain superfluous descriptions of how attractive people are?”

    Is that the reason this is such a kissy faced fluff piece? Or is it that the MX just doesn’t like republicans? Every article I’ve seen on MX about conservatives has a negative tinge to it. I’d like to see more objecticvity on the part of MX in covering local politics. Fair and balanced is my hope.

  11. Barry Summers

    Fair and balanced is my hope.

    One would think you’re joking when you say that. The term “Fair and Balanced” has been turned into a sick joke by Fox and those who pretend it’s an actual news network, instead of what it is: the media arm of the Republican party.

    But anyway, here you’ve got Michael Muller, who’s not just any Republican, but a campaign manager for Carl Mumpower, Nathan Ramsey, and Bill Russell, and he’s still not F&B enough for you? That’s outlandish enough that we can ignore any other point you’re trying to make.

  12. Barry Summers

    And besides, if Chad had been able to man up enough to sit down for an interview, I’m sure Michael would’ve said something nice about his pompadour and bronzing-gel tan.

  13. Dionysis

    “Every article I’ve seen on MX about conservatives has a negative tinge to it.”

    That’s like saying everytime I’ve been sprayed by a skunk, a bad smell lingers.

    Here would be an example of the right’s version of ‘fair and balanced’:

    Q. Mr. Carter, when did you first come under the sway of Marxism?
    Q. As a leader of the local Democratic Party, do you support your party’s support of Muslim terrorists?
    Q. Is it your plan to continue the insidious spread of socialism into the fabric of society?
    Q. How strongly do you support the Militant Gay Agenda?
    Q. As a Democrat, are you ever bothered by your association with a bunch of America-haters?

  14. Clyde Hunnicutt

    Barry: “One would think you’re joking when you say that. The term “Fair and Balanced” has been turned into a sick joke by Fox and those who pretend it’s an actual news network, instead of what it is: the media arm of the Republican party.
    But anyway, here you’ve got Michael Muller, who’s not just any Republican, but a campaign manager for Carl Mumpower, Nathan Ramsey, and Bill Russell, and he’s still not F&B enough for you? That’s outlandish enough that we can ignore any other point you’re trying to make.”

    Barry, Lord man, why all the anger against conservatives? Fox News has by far the largest audience for news. Simply because they are fair and balanced. They report the news and leave the decisions to us. Watch NBC, CNN, CBS, MSNBC and you hear comments like “Obama sends a thrill up my leg”…by a man no less.

    Relax Barry. The world will never be made perfect by politics alone. I think it best we hope for the best, but don’t let the ups and downs of life get us upset. God bless you. have a nice day!

  15. “Fox News has by far the largest audience for news. “

    So what… what kind of “largest audience” actual numbers are you citing? Largest audience for cable or satellite channels is much different than news audiences of the ABC/CBS/NBC.

    Most computer savvy people are now getting their news off the internet. My pics are Christian Science Monitor, Financial times and several of the mainstream online sites….and Jon Stewart / Steven Colbert satire.

    When I go into a store or dealership or restaurant blasting Fox New Channel…I take my money elsewhere. Cuz I feel like I’m being slimed by Fox’s condescending view of their audience as unquestioning and stupid.

  16. Barry Summers

    Back to the point, Clyde, which you pretend not to consider, is the fact that XPress literally hired a professional Republican political operative to cover local politics, and you & yours still claim there’s some ‘anti-Republican bias’.

    XPress: Are you noting this? I don’t know if the decision to hire Michael was based in some desire to take the heat off the ‘anti-Republican’ charge, nor would I expect you to admit it if it was. Like I’ve said, I respect Michael & don’t have a problem with his reporting (as long as he isn’t ‘reporting’ on his own candidates.) But they will never ever acknowledge that your reporting is “Fair and Balanced”. Ever. You hired Michael Muller, they’ll give you grief it wasn’t Matt Mittan. You hire Matt Mittan, they’ll say it should’ve been Bill Fishburne. You hire Bill Fishburne, they’ll whine that Chad Nesbitt himself should get a weekly column. You give them Chad, they’ll slam as you Communists because you didn’t hire Kirk Lyons.

  17. Piffy!

    Barry, there’s little point in debating “Clyde”. His “opinions” are not for debate. They are for distractions.

  18. Margaret Williams

    My oh my. Clyde, Barry et al: There was no political agenda in hiring Muller or a desire to “take the heat off the ‘anti-Republican’ charge” (we’re a progressive newspaper with an environmental-activist background, and one that tries our best to be balanced and fair). But there’s no denying our identity as a progressive media outlet.

    As I recall, Muller attracted our publisher’s attention earlier this year because of a) his social-media (i.e. Twitter) use and b) his energetic desire to be part of Xpress. I needed a business reporter at the time; he took that on. Muller’s political background was a plus (but also, admittedly, at times it’s problematic for us, though I’ll emphasize to the choir that Muller is not currently paid as anyone’s campaign adviser or campaign manager, nor has he been active in anyone’s campaign since being hired at Xpress).

    In any case, don’t get me started on Fox News. And as for Charles Carter’s “movie star good looks,” I’m certainly not one to judge. This is a profile piece; it’s about personality and perception.

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