Much of the attention paid to Western North Carolina’s upcoming off-year municipal elections has focused on a race that won’t actually take place until 2020. The contest for Asheville City Council, which has long been run in odd years, was moved to even years by the N.C. General Assembly as part of the 2018 law that also established election districts for the city.
Although Council voted on Oct. 23 to amend the city’s charter and restore at-large elections for Asheville, the race’s date remains set. At a Jan. 22 Council meeting, Mayor Esther Manheimer said Sen. Terry Van Duyn, whose District 49 encompasses most of Asheville, had requested the change to even years on the mayor’s behalf as a way to increase voter turnout.
Other Buncombe County municipalities followed suit, leaving Woodfin and Weaverville as the only towns with elections taking place in 2019. Of the four county races still occurring this year, just one — that for the Woodfin Board of Aldermen — has more candidates running than available seats.
To Asheville’s south, however, a vibrant collection of races is underway in Henderson County. Four candidates are running for two at-large seats on Hendersonville City Council, while contested elections are also afoot in the smaller municipalities of Flat Rock, Fletcher, Mills River and Saluda (part of which lies in Polk County). In addition, voters in Saluda will decide whether to allow the sale of mixed beverages in restaurants.
Xpress reached out to candidates across the two counties to understand their motivations for participating in the municipal elections. Many of the topics the hopeful elected officials raised — diversity, transportation planning and preservation of small-town character — may give WNC politicos a sneak peak at what will be important to area voters in 2020.
Quiet on the Buncombe front
Buncombe voters can expect little change to result from the county’s 2019 elections. All eligible incumbents are running for their current seats; barring unexpected circumstances, the posts of Weaverville Town Council member, Woodfin Sanitary and Sewer District trustee and mayor of Woodfin will stay in the same hands as they have since at least 2015.
Chris Cooper, head of Western Carolina University’s Political Science and Public Affairs Department, bemoaned this state of affairs in an email to Xpress. “Off-year elections are the redheaded stepchildren of electoral politics. People don’t pay attention to them, and few people participate in them on Election Day,” he noted. “This is clearly detrimental to American democracy, as these local elections are critical [in] deciding a host of issues including zoning, education, planning and taxation. Candidates — and voters — will ignore these elections at their peril.”
Woodfin Mayor Jerry Vehaun, who has headed the town to the north of Asheville without a contested election since first winning office in 2003, says he isn’t sure why his seat has had no challengers. “I just try to serve the public out there in Woodfin the best I can,” he says. “I imagine that may have something to do with it. I like to think it does.”
The Republican mayor and Buncombe County Emergency Services director adds that he’s worked to remain accessible to all constituents during his time in office — even those who, in his words, he knows “are going to raise Cain.” Listening and responding to resident needs, he says, are at the core of public service.
The only newcomer to the Buncombe field is Linwood Nichols, an unaffiliated candidate for the Woodfin Board of Aldermen. The 25-year-old Army veteran, self-described communist and head of security for Thermo Fisher Scientific says the board seat “seems like the best fit way for me to help other people.” He says he’s placed a strong focus on canvassing to increase his name recognition while better understanding the concerns of town voters.
Asked about his status as the sole Buncombe challenger, Nichols responds, “I’d say it means there’s a good bit of complacency that needs to be rooted out. If there’s no political competition, there will be no change.” He also notes that he’s earned the endorsements of the Western North Carolina Central Labor Council and the North Carolina State AFL-CIO.
Alderman Ronnie Lunsford, an incumbent Democrat who has served two full terms on the board, says neither he nor his two fellow incumbents up for reelection, Republican Jim Angel and Democrat Donald Honeycutt Jr., will be actively campaigning in response to Nichols’ challenge. He says the board has been doing “the right thing for the citizens of Woodfin” and looks forward to keeping tax rates reasonable while completing the Woodfin Greenway & Blueway and providing needed services.
Small is beautiful
In contrast to the tepid situation in Buncombe, Henderson County is full of contested elections, including multiple challenges to incumbent officials. Perhaps the most contentious race in the region is taking place in Flat Rock: For the first time in the village’s 24-year history, voters must choose between candidates in all three of its council districts.
The wedge topic in Flat Rock, explains unaffiliated challenger Anne Coletta, is a proposed expansion of North Highland Lake Road, one of the main arteries into the village. She charges that the project will remove numerous trees, impact historic properties and speed traffic flow — all changes to the detriment of Flat Rock’s scenic character.
Coletta, who previously served on the Flat Rock Village Council from 2013-17, also accuses several current Council members of being less than transparent about their decisions on the road and other issues. Running on a slate with Republican Thomas Carpenter and unaffiliated David Dethero, she backs unaffiliated mayoral candidate Nick Weedman, who currently serves as the village’s vice mayor and finance officer and is running unopposed.
“I have no idea what she’s talking about,” says unaffiliated incumbent Ginger Brown about her District 2 opponent’s transparency claims. Brown says the Council has followed all applicable sunshine laws and advertised all of its meetings on the village website.
Along with Democrat Barbara Platz and unaffiliated Hilton Swing, who are respectively running for the Council’s District 1 and 3 seats, Brown supports the North Highland Lake Road project. “We have to recognize that there are things that are going to change, and it’s in our best interest to control that change,” Brown explains. “When this road is complete, people will look at it and say, ‘I don’t understand what the big fuss was.’”
Candidates in Mills River also differ on the future of their small town. Council member Wayne Carland says his biggest priority is maintaining a low property tax rate, which he cites as a major attraction for businesses to move to the area. “I think that’s one contributing factor, that we’re not taxing them to death,” says the Republican incumbent.
But challenger Randy Austin, also a Republican, is more focused on the challenges that rapid development poses to his community. Although he won’t criticize specific decisions of the incumbent Council — “I’m not going to do any Monday-morning quarterbacking,” he says — the town Planning Board member says Mills River should have strategies in place to maintain its rural character.
And Democratic challenger Mark Case, who is running alongside his Republican brother, John, for the two open Council seats, wants Mills River to deliver on pledges he says date to the town’s incorporation in 2003. “The people that were running around trying to get people to vote for a township promised two things: We could get free trash service for the residents and we’d get a post office,” he says. “We don’t have either one of those.”
Henderson County’s smallest city, Saluda, also has a contested race for its Board of Commissioners, with Democrat Bob Ross running against Republican incumbents Leon Morgan and Stanley Walker. None of the three responded to Xpress requests for comment.
In Hendersonville, the county’s largest municipality, three challengers are running in a field that also includes incumbent Republican Steven Caraker for two open seats on City Council. Democrat Debbie Roundtree, who also ran in 2017, says her push for a Council post is founded on a desire for diversity.
“I think that the City Council needs diversity among its members to see, recognize and accommodate the needs of all people in various religions, races and all walks of life who live here,” says Roundtree, who is African American. She points to affordable housing and homelessness as the most critical challenges for Hendersonville, placing part of the blame on loose zoning codes that allow businesses to gentrify formerly residential districts and displace current residents.
Caraker, however, praises development in areas such as Seventh Avenue, which he compares to Asheville’s South Slope. He also believes Council members should be more focused on the nuts and bolts of governance than on ideology. Should he be reelected, he says, a main priority is cooperating with Henderson County to develop a water and sewer master plan in preparation for the region’s growth.
“In my opinion, at the City Council level, you shouldn’t be about social issues,” says Caraker, who is white. “You’re there to produce the very best police, fire, sanitation, public works. You’re there to make that environment the best you can for those citizens at a fair tax rate.”
Caraker adds that Hendersonville’s mayor, Democrat Barbara Volk, provides diversity on the otherwise all-male council. “They [Roundtree and Democratic challenger Lyndsey Simpson] forget that the mayor is a mother and a grandmother, and although she’s been there a long time, she certainly is a female, and she interjects that kind of stuff all the time. I don’t know that their concerns are genuine,” he says of his opponents’ critiques.
The only other black candidate in this year’s elections, Preston Blakely, recorded a nearly 42 percentage point margin of victory over Hugh Clark and Julia Price-Fogel in the Oct. 8 nonpartisan primary for Fletcher Town Council District 2. The Democratic challenger will face Clark, the Republican incumbent, again in the general election.
The 24-year-old Blakely, a first-time candidate and recent graduate of Western Carolina University’s master’s program in public affairs, attributes his success to a “grassroots movement of meeting people and knocking on doors.” He cites improvements to the Fletcher library, affordable housing and “maintaining that small-town quality” as his three key issues. Clark did not respond to a request for comment on the race.
Blakely notes that he was partly inspired to run by the legacy of his grandmother Oralene Simmons, a longtime WNC civil rights leader. “It feels kind of like a passing of the torch, almost,” he says. “I’m excited to be able to advocate for the community and follow in her footsteps.”
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