For the first time in more than two decades, no hopefuls for the N.C. Senate District 49 seat will be running against an incumbent. Democratic Sen. Terry Van Duyn is instead shooting to become the state’s next lieutenant governor, creating a vacuum that three of her party colleagues hope to fill.
Van Duyn’s chosen successor is Asheville City Council member Julie Mayfield. As newly redrawn in September, District 49 now includes the entirety of Asheville city limits, giving Mayfield a strong base of previous supporters — including Mayor Esther Manheimer — on which to base her run. Mayfield’s war chest also stood at over $81,000 at the time of the Xpress questionnaire, with support from wealthy donors such as Mack Pearsall and Fred Stanback.
Mayfield’s most vocal critic in the race is attorney Ben Scales, who has previously mounted two campaigns for Buncombe County district attorney: Last June, he blasted Mayfield for her deciding vote to allow the conversion of the Flatiron Building into a boutique hotel. Scales’ own platform includes legalization of medical marijuana and new wealth taxes to fund education, health care and environmental reforms.
Rounding out the field is IT manager and political newcomer Travis Smith. The only candidate to identify as a “progressive Democrat,” Smith advocates for Medicaid expansion, expanded public school funding and a carbon fee and dividend as a means to combat climate change.
The name of each candidate is linked to their responses in the post:
Occupation: Co-director at MountainTrue, Asheville City Council member
Previous candidacy or offices held: Asheville City Council member
Key endorsements: N.C. District 49 Sen. Terry Van Duyn, Mayor Esther Manheimer, WNC Sierra Club, Lillian’s List, Equality NC
Amount of money raised: $81,600 as of Jan. 19
Top three donors: Mack Pearsall, Fred Stanback, Richard Wasch
What makes Western North Carolina home to you? I moved to WNC to enjoy the vibrancy of Asheville, the progressive politics and the beautiful natural environment. WNC is also my mother’s childhood home, and I am connected with family and land here. Having lived here for 11 years, I also now love the engaged community and the myriad of people — many of whom are volunteers — who work hard every day to make our city and region more sustainable, more equitable and more resilient.
What do you bring to the General Assembly that other candidates don’t? I know this job and can hit the ground running. I bring over 25 years of policy advocacy experience, mostly at the state level. I have written and negotiated bill language, testified at legislative hearings, lobbied extensively and worked closely with both Democrats and Republicans to achieve my policy objectives. I have strong working relationships with the 15-member WNC state delegation, Gov. Cooper’s staff, Department of Environmental Quality staff and several statewide advocacy organizations.
What do you see as the greatest specific need for your district compared to the rest of WNC, and how would you propose meeting it? I think District 49’s greatest specific need is to address affordability. Asheville is already unaffordable for too many, and the county is going that way as well. On the income side, we need to raise the state minimum wage and enable local governments to enact living wage laws. On the cost-of-living side, we need more state funding for transit, to expand Medicaid and local authority to require affordable housing as part of new developments (aka inclusionary zoning).
How will you protect Asheville’s interests in a General Assembly that is often viewed as hostile to the city? My working relationships with the WNC delegation, especially the Republicans, should help cool this historic hostility and, I hope, make progress for Asheville possible. Similarly, my relationships with Mayor Manheimer and other City Council members, and my experience on council, give me a unique ability to broker conversations with legislators. One doesn’t just waltz into the Senate and begin making deals without these relationships — especially as a Democrat — and they set me apart from the other candidates.
In what ways can the state support the rapid population growth taking place in WNC? The state can invest more in our region, from disaster and climate resiliency planning to transit and affordable housing to Medicaid expansion and public education, including early childhood education. The state can also incentivize and invest more in clean energy to ensure we do not need any more fossil fuel plants. And the state can give local governments authority to generate new revenue and to adopt variable tax rates for different residents (e.g., second homeowners versus longtime residents).
How will you contribute to resolving a state budget process that has proven highly contentious in recent years? The fact that this has not yet been resolved despite there being a widely supported, bipartisan Medicaid proposal perhaps means no one can resolve it. I would seek to at least unite our WNC delegation behind the bipartisan proposal so that we could speak with one strong voice to the leadership of both chambers. I would also support independent redistricting after the 2020 census to increase the chances of Democrats retaking the majority so the legislature can return to work.
Previous candidacy or offices held: Candidate for Buncombe County district attorney in 2014 and 2018
Key endorsements: North Carolina AFL-CIO; Asheville Firefighters Association IAAF Local 332; Asheville City Council member Brian Haynes; Keynon Lake, author, activist and founder of My Daddy Taught Me That; Paige Smith Duft, educator
Amount of money raised: $25,000
Top three donors: Ben Scales, Ann Beauchesne, Dean Cannon
What makes Western North Carolina home to you? My family has lived in Asheville since 2002. My wife, Cate, and I have raised three children here, and our youngest child was born here. I’ve involved myself heavily in our community as a volunteer and activist, from producing the Montford Music and Arts Festival, to serving as president of the Isaac Dickson PTO and the Preservation Society, to serving as a Big Brother to a young man in a single-parent home, to representing domestic violence victims pro bono.
What do you bring to the General Assembly that other candidates don’t? A dedication to service over self and a history of standing up for the powerless against the forces of oppression. I’ve represented pro bono activists from Occupy Asheville, Black Lives Matter and the Sunrise Movement, helping them speak truth to power. I’ve drafted legislation to create a comprehensive medical cannabis system that has been introduced into the General Assembly eight times, and I’ve traveled to Raleigh many times to lobby for it, all at my own expense.
What do you see as the greatest specific need for your district compared to the rest of WNC, and how would you propose meeting it? We need to change the way the hotel occupancy tax is administered in Buncombe County. Currently, by state law, it is administered by an appointed board composed primarily of hoteliers. That board can only use the funds for either advertising the tourism industry or for projects designed to “significantly increase” hotel occupancy. That law needs to be changed so that that tax revenue is administered in a way that benefits all of the people of Buncombe County and not just the hotel industry.
How will you protect Asheville’s interests in a General Assembly that is often viewed as hostile to the city? Before moving to Asheville, I was involved in the settlement of an international civil case over an estate valued at $1 billion. When the case began, the parties’ positions were so far apart, their lawyers couldn’t even be in the same room. Over 18 months of negotiation, a truly global settlement was reached. I believe that I can use the lessons learned over my career to reach common ground with my colleagues in the General Assembly.
In what ways can the state support the rapid population growth taking place in WNC? This is one issue the Green New Deal can address, with policies to create green-sector jobs at a living wage in growing communities. The state can get out of the way of city and county governments and stop trying to micromanage those governments, because those local leaders are closer to the problems at home and understand them better than anyone in Raleigh. And the state can make sure local needs, such as education, transit and environmental regulation, are met.
How will you contribute to resolving a state budget process that has proven highly contentious in recent years? I will present legislation that will lead to new revenue streams to pay for the new expenditures for which I’ll be asking. Conservative estimates show that my cannabis law reform proposals could bring in over $600 million in new tax revenue, as well as jobs and cost savings for criminal justice. The new taxes I’ll propose on wealth and inheritance on the ultrarich will also add to our public coffers, allowing investment in education, health care and the environment.
Occupation: IT manager, systems analyst
Previous candidacy or offices held: N/A
Key endorsements: Rebecca Lance, chair of the West End Clingman Avenue Neighborhood board; Dr. Michael Hill, Asheville School instructor and 4X4 for Wild Native Plantings co-founder; Ben Harper, Asheville Tool Library co-founder and Community Roots board member
Amount of money raised: $40,000
Top three donors: Self, individuals
What makes Western North Carolina home to you? My wife and I had our first child at Mission Hospital last year! WNC is certainly home to us. I’m a dedicated and active member of our community. I’m a board member for both Asheville-Buncombe Crime Stoppers and the Asheville Tool Library. I’m also a congressional liaison with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, pressing Congress for action on climate change. We’re 40 years late, but better late than never. We need a price on carbon pollution now!
What do you bring to the General Assembly that other candidates don’t? As a progressive Democrat, we have a lot of work to do in North Carolina! Over the last three months, I’ve knocked on thousands of doors all over our district. I have the drive and determination to get the solutions we need in N.C.: 1) Support for our public schools and teachers 2) Immediate action on climate change 3) Medicaid expansion 4) Raise our minimum wage 5) Legalize and tax cannabis 6) Expand LGBTQ and minority rights.
What do you see as the greatest specific need for your district compared to the rest of WNC, and how would you propose meeting it? We need more funding for infrastructure, services and affordable housing. Our occupancy tax in Buncombe County should be helping us more with this, but it’s not. We’re getting lots of money from our tourists, but there is a state law from the 1980s that is forcing us to spend 75% of this revenue on advertising. I want to change this in our Senate. Our city and county should be in control of our occupancy tax, not Raleigh!
How will you protect Asheville’s interests in a General Assembly that is often viewed as hostile to the city? We are all shellshocked, having just witnessed a decade of Republican lies, corruption and cheating in Raleigh. They have been hostile to all cities in our state, and it is crucial that all Democrats take action next November by voting! With a Democratic majority in the General Assembly, I am certain our interests can be pursued. For starters, we need more funding for public schools, Medicaid expanded, action on climate change from Duke Energy and our minimum wage increased.
In what ways can the state support the rapid population growth taking place in WNC? Our schools need more funding, and we need to expand pre-K services to support families. We need better funding for our infrastructure projects. We need support to upgrade our existing infrastructure and execute smart growth projects into the future. This includes our water, sewer, stormwater and transportation infrastructure. Our state funding should help us execute ambitious plans for public transportation growth with smart affordable housing programs!
How will you contribute to resolving a state budget process that has proven highly contentious in recent years? It is my hope and desire that we Democrats can take a majority in the General Assembly. I want to work to implement smart and fair laws for our state. Gov. Cooper has been our saving grace, as we’ve been able to temper the total power that Republicans held under Gov. McCrory. As a result, Republicans have resorted to lies and tricks, trying to hold surprise voting sessions to pass their unreasonable budget. We must defend our democracy!