A thin crowd had settled into Magnolia’s Raw Bar & Grille on election night. In one corner of the downtown Asheville watering hole, a muted TV flashed images of Dancing With the Stars—high kicks and twists, sparkle tights and stretch vests. Beneath the dancing, a crawler announced less frivolous happenings—the incoming results of the local primary races.
“No one deserves to be commissioner as much as this man,” declared Rick Jenkins, the voluble vice chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party, pointing toward Mike Fryar, a candidate for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners who was seated at a neighboring table. “He grew up hard but has made a big success of himself. He knows how to keep the books.”
But by 9:25 p.m., it was evident that Fryar’s bid to secure a spot on November’s ballot had fizzled. In fact, he’d finished last among the Republican contenders (3,447 votes, 10.84 percent). “Looks like I’m sixth,” he said, nodding up at the TV screen. He shrugged. “It’s OK; I tried. I’ve won races and I’ve lost races,” he said, alluding to his experience as a NASCAR engine designer. “I hoped to get in there and do some good for folks, but it look’s like I’m out,” said Fryar, car keys already in hand. Also falling short was Steve Bledsoe of Asheville (3,703 votes, 11.64 percent).
Nearby sat Joe Dunn (7,656 votes, 24.07 percent), the leader among the six Republicans, with his wife, Sandra, and daughter, Kristie. A two-time Asheville City Council member, Dunn—a retired dentist who received nearly a quarter of all votes cast in the Republican primary—said he could spend his time “playing with my grandchildren 24 hours a day,” but he feels he still has “something to give.”
Dunn’s platform includes holding down tax rates and healing rifts between city and county government. “We need to look at the school systems, at parks and recreation; stop fighting over water. We’ve got to give voters in November something to chew on.”
Second-place finisher John Carroll (6,294 votes, 19.79 percent), spent most of election night with his family at his Asheville home.
“I felt like that was the better place for me to be,” Carroll said, “because they’re going to be a big part of this whole thing.
“The real work begins now,” he said. “The primary is a time when you’ve got to try get things going in a rush. But now we have time to organize. I’m looking forward to it.”
A former teacher and assistant principal and longtime member of the Buncombe County Board of Education, Carroll cited education and health care as his chief concerns.
“I have a great deal of compassion for children,” he said. “We have a great responsibility to take care of them. If we don’t … there are any number of social problems that come along behind them.”
With economic conditions worsening, Carroll believes the county will have to pay even greater attention to sound fiscal policy.
“There are going to be a lot of additional demands for services, but at the same time a need for belt-tightening,” he said. “We have got to find a balance.”
Coming in third was Don Yelton (5,521 votes, 17.36 percent), who spent the better part of the evening hosting Citizens Speak, his weekly show on public-access channel URTV. “Everybody wanted to know where I’d be,” he said. “And I told them, ‘I’ll be on TV taking calls from the people.’”
Yelton cited “people wanting an open government” as the reason for his success in the primary. He would have made an even better showing, he believes, if voters in the Democratic primary had been able to register support for him as well.
“But this fall,” he noted, “anybody who wants to vote for me can vote for me.”
Placing fourth in the race was Ron McKee, former owner and general manager of the Asheville Tourists. McKee (5,181 votes, 16.29 percent) spent primary night with his wife, Carolyn, in a decidedly more exotic locale: a cruise ship somewhere in the vicinity of Hawaii.
“He’d planned this trip three years ago and was on a waiting list for a year,” explained Chris Jennings, McKee’s daughter and campaign manager, emphasizing that his absence wasn’t meant as a slight against his supporters. The next day, Jennings still hadn’t learned whether her father had gotten the good news. “They’ve been having trouble with e-mail on the ship,” she said.
According to Jennings, McKee’s platform emphasizes open government; his suitability for the job, she says, has much to do with his business acumen and his respect for the place he’s lived all his life.
“He is determined to do the right thing,” she said. “That’s how he runs his business life, his family life and that’s what he wants to do as a county commissioner.”
All four Republican contenders drew far lower vote totals than the Democrats they’ll square off against in November. With each voter free to choose up to four candidates, Democrats registered 142,375 votes versus 31,802 for GOP candidates. This reflects, in part, the substantially lower number of registered Republicans in the county.
Meanwhile, Yelton—who says his prior role in civic affairs has involved a certain amount of “kicking people’s rears”—said the same would come back on him if he fails to live up to his creed.
“If I deviate from that, there’s a whole bunch of people out there who’s going to kick my butt,” he said, chuckling.