Election analysis: Buncombe voters make changes, set up fall battles

Election results

The May 6 primary proved historic, as Buncombe County voters propelled Todd Williams to a landslide victory over District Attorney Ron Moore, who had held the position for 24 years. Voters also ousted Commissioner David King and set the stage for several battles in the fall general election. Here’s a rundown of some of the key local races and results.

Buncombe gets new district attorney

The Democratic primary marked the end of an era for the Buncombe County district attorney’s office: Williams crushed Moore, winning 68 percent of the vote.
Soon after the results came in, Williams greeted jubilant supporters at Asheville Brewing Co. “It excites me to think that we have changed history here in Buncombe County, but I’m not sure that’s entirely sunk in yet,” he told Xpress. Exhausted after a sleepless week of final campaigning, he added: “It’s euphoric to be in the presence of all these supporters and volunteers. I’m getting energy from that.”

Todd Williams greeted supporters at Asheville Brewing Company downtown after defeating Ron Moore to become Buncombe County's new district attorney. Photo by Jesse Farthing.
Todd Williams greeted supporters at Asheville Brewing Company downtown after defeating Ron Moore to become Buncombe County’s new district attorney. Photo by Jesse Farthing.

Williams faces no Republican opposition in the November election. However, at this writing, at least one unaffiliated candidate — attorney Ben Scales — had mounted a  campaign to get his name on the November ballot. To do that, he’ll need to collect the signatures of 7,331 registered voters (4 percent of the Buncombe County total) by June 12, according to Rachel Rathbone at the Buncombe County Election Services Department. The department had verified 653 signatures as of May 9.

The district attorney is responsible for prosecuting all criminal cases in Buncombe County and advising local law-enforcement officials. “It’s a tough job,” Moore told Xpress on election night. “In each case you’ve made someone mad, whether it’s the the defendant or the victim. … Getting elected is the easy part. Doing the job is the hard part.”

Williams has been a defense attorney for 15 years, nine of them as a local public defender. In his campaign for DA — his first bid for public office — he focused on making the office more transparent and renewing public trust. Last year, several local media outlets (including Xpress) took legal action against Moore, unsuccessfully attempting to force him to release an audit of the Asheville Police Department’s evidence room.

Huddled with supporters at the Apollo Flame Bistro on Brevard Road, Moore took the electoral loss in stride, even as friends and family members shed tears. “I appreciate the opportunity to serve the last 24 years. I feel like myself and my office worked very hard to make the citizens in this county safe,” he said. “I congratulate my opponent and his campaign — he did a really good job getting the word out. … I called him earlier and told him we’d try to make it a smooth transition.”

Ron Moore hugs supporters after conceding defeat to challenger Todd Williams. Photo by Hayley Benton.
Ron Moore hugs supporters after conceding defeat to challenger Todd Williams. Photo by Hayley Benton.

Williams was endorsed by various local Democratic leaders, including Asheville City Council members Cecil Bothwell and Gordon Smith and Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger. Moore, meanwhile, had racked up support from other powerful Democratic officials, such as Sheriff Van Duncan and Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt. The longtime DA attributed his loss to the growing power of the local party’s progressive wing. “I’ve always been a moderate Democrat,” he said. “I’m not a right-winger or a left-winger. Clearly we have a movement in our city, and I think that prevailed today.”

Bill Sabo, professor of political science at UNC Asheville, agrees with Moore’s assessment.

That shift, says Sabo, has been playing out “step by step” for the last few years, as evidenced by Reisinger’s successful 2011 bid to succeed Otto DeBruhl and Terry Van Duyn’s recent appointment to fulfill the late Sen. Martin Nesbitt’s term in the General Assembly. (Nesbitt died in March, having served in the General Assembly for decades.)

“Todd Williams is another step,” says Sabo. “What you’re seeing is the replacement of what was considered the old guard with a new group of folks, who are tightly knit. … They’re basically liberal on social questions.”

Buncombe Commissioners District 3

The only challenger who beat an incumbent commissioner was political newcomer Miranda DeBruhl, who collected 59 percent of the vote to unseat David King in the Republican primary. Facing no Democratic opponent in the fall, she’s guaranteed a position on the board unless an independent candidate orchestrates a successful write-in campaign. District 3 encompasses the most conservative part of the county, stretching from Arden to Sandy Mush.

DeBruhl, a nurse and small-business owner, ran to the right of King, slamming the incumbent for his votes in support of a budget that raised property taxes and a measure that set carbon reduction goals. Her top priority, DeBruhl told Xpress via a questionnaire, is to end a sales-tax that generates a revenue for capital improvements at A-B Tech.

On election night, she celebrated with friends and family at the Stone Ridge Tavern. “I am humbled by the support I’ve been given. I love my community and am honored to have this opportunity,” she told Xpress. “The voters have sent a clear message to find ways to cut spending and lower taxes.”

King spent the evening with supporters at the Holiday Inn Asheville on the Smokey Park Highway. He voiced disappointment that he won’t be able to continue to work on things he’s supported, such as developing the River Arts District. “I was interested in growing the job base and the economic base here,” he said, adding, “Hopefully, though, that will go on — someone else will do it.”

Things were tense as David King (left) watched the primary results come in with supporters. Photo by Hayley Benton.
Things were tense as David King (left) watched the primary results come in with supporters. Photo by Hayley Benton.

And despite DeBruhl’s criticisms during the campaign, King said he “wouldn’t go back and change anything.”

Asked how he interpreted the election results, King replied: “It’s pretty much a typical primary where the very hard-core base turns out and not much anyone else turns out. … I’m not saying it should be a mandate from the entire community, but it’s a win for her.”

Voter turnout in Buncombe County was only 15 percent, and in off-year primary elections, “The better organized and more highly motivated groups will tend to dominate,” says Sabo. King’s loss, he adds, “is not surprising. This happens in the county when an individual deviates from the agenda of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. And they just leveled both barrels at him.”

King, however, said he’s looking forward to having more free time after his term expires at year’s end. “I guess some people would be devastated, but I’m not,” he noted. “I plan to use some time to do things that I have not been able to do: get my fly rod out. It’s been over two years since I’ve brought that out.”

Buncombe Commissioners District 2

Incumbent Vice Chair Ellen Frost trounced former Commissioner Carol Peterson in the Democratic primary, winning 69 percent of the vote. Frost now faces a November rematch with Republican Christina Merrill, whom she defeated in 2012 by a mere 18 votes. In that contest, Merrill took unsuccessful legal action, seeking to disallow hundreds of ballots from voters at left-leaning Warren Wilson College. District 2 encompasses Fairview, Black Mountain and Weaverville; the winner in this race will determine which party holds a majority of the board’s seven seats.

After spending the evening of May 6 celebrating her victory at Avenue M on Merrimon Avenue, Frost told Xpress that she’s taking the general election challenge seriously. “We faced the primary like it was going to be tough, and we’re going to apply the same grassroots effort,” she said, noting that volunteers “probably made 5,000 phone calls in the last 10 days.”

Merrill, meanwhile, said she took heart in DeBruhl’s win. “What happened in District 3 is a really good indication of Buncombe County voters wanting to go in a different direction of less spending and less taxing,” Merrill told Xpress. “Ellen’s definitely showed that she is not fiscally conservative. … I am a fiscal conservative, and I want to stem the tide on that spending. It’s really, really important to have a conservative majority on the board so that we can change the tide.”

Frost dismissed Merrill’s criticism of her fiscal credentials as “the same old ‘taxes were raised’” message. “I think there’s a lack of understanding of finances,” said Frost, adding, “I’ll run on my record of education, job creation and the environment. I think this commission has done really good things in a really short time.”

Buncombe Commissioners District 1

Incumbent Brownie Newman soundly defeated challenger Keith Young in the Democratic primary, winning 72 percent of the vote. Newman faces no Republican challenger in the fall. This was Young’s second failed bid for the seat. He was hoping to make history by becoming the first African-American to be elected to the board.

N.C. Senate District 49

In the Republican state Senate primary, former state Rep. Mark Crawford edged out RL Clark with 43 percent of the vote. Clark, a former state senator, collected 40 percent. Clarence Young came in third with 17 percent. Crawford earns a spot on the November ballot against newly appointed Sen. Terry Van Duyn.

Judicial District 28

In the District Court judicial primary, three candidates were vying for two places on the November ballot. The winners were J. Matthew Martin (39 percent of the vote) and incumbent Judge Ed Clontz (35 percent). They will now face off against each other in the general election. Although the primary was technically nonpartisan, both winners are Democrats. Clontz was appointed by then Gov. Bev Perdue in 2011 to complete the term of Sharon Barrett, who moved over to Superior Court.

Clontz previously served as Buncombe County’s chief assistant clerk of Superior Court and, before that, as assistant clerk and magistrate. Martin, born and raised in Asheville, is an attorney in private practice and an adjunct professor at the UNC and Elon University law schools. He previously served as associate judge of the Cherokee Court, the tribal court for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Republican J. Thomas Amburgey finished third in the primary, with 26 percent of the vote.

U.S. Congress

In the 10th District Republican primary, Rep. Patrick McHenry soundly defeated challenger Richard Lynch, winning 78 percent of the vote. McHenry faces a challenge by Democrat Tate MacQueen in the general election. The 10th District includes most of Asheville and stretches southeast all the way to Gastonia. In the 11th District Democratic primary, Tom Hill beat Keith Ruehl, winning 54 percent of the vote. The 11th District includes western Buncombe County and much of Western North Carolina. Hill will face incumbent Republican Mark Meadows in the fall.

Clerk of Court

In the most lopsided race of the night, Clerk of Superior Court Steve Cogburn defeated challenger Cary Stone in the Democratic primary, 84 percent to 16 percent. Cogburn faces no opposition in the fall.

Hayley Benton and Jesse Farthing contributed to this report.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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