Buncombe district races move new faces toward fall election

Poll positions: Overall, the turnout was high for a primary election, with 39 percent of Buncombe’s registered voters weighing in. photo by Max Cooper

Voters and candidates explored uncharted territory in the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners May 8 primary, as a change to district elections that was mandated last year by the N.C. General Assembly went into effect.

Under the new system, the county was divided into three commissioner districts; the top two vote-getters from each party on May 8 earned spots on the November ballot. The top two winners in each district in the fall election — regardless of party affiliation — will earn seats on the board.

The race for the board’s chair position remains countywide, as does the register-of-deeds election.

Overall, the turnout was unusually high for a primary election, with 39 percent of the county's registered voters weighing in. Here's a look at some of their choices in key local races, with vote totals for the winning candidates.

Please note: The voting tallies reported in Xpress’ election roundup are awaiting official confirmation from the Board of Elections and are rounded to the nearest percentage point.

Chair, Board of Commissioners

Democrat: David Gantt (27,081 votes)
Republican: J.B. Howard (10,112)

Incumbent Chair David Gantt handily beat challenger Milton Byrd in the Democratic primary, earning a whopping 81 percent of the vote. The more competitive race was on the Republican side, where J.B. Howard defeated Glenda Weinert 55 percent to 45 percent.

This is a first run for office for Howard, a former highway patrolman and private investigator. But he said he's ready for the upcoming fight against Gantt, who garnered almost three times as many votes. "It feels to me like I've been given the privilege to represent the common man, the working man out here," Howard said. "I think I'm the candidate who most represents a cross section of this county."

Gantt took the results as a sign that residents will once again endorse his leadership. "I'm very gratified on the Democrat side of things that people thought we were doing what we needed to do on the commission," he explained. "I think that's going be the issue this fall: We've got a record that everybody can see."

District 1

Democrats: Holly Jones (11,617) and Brownie Newman (8,861)
Republicans: (No primary: Don Guge, the sole GOP candidate, advances to November)

The mood was jubilant at Asheville Brewing, a common election-night gathering spot for local Democrats, as Buncombe Commissioner Holly Jones and former Asheville Vice Mayor Brownie Newman celebrated a resounding win in the county’s District 1 primary. Jones captured 43 percent of the vote, and Newman received 33 percent.

One-time colleagues on Asheville City Council, the two hope to reunite on the Board of Commissioners in the strongly Democratic District 1.

“I feel the results tonight really reflect a forward-looking community that understands the possibilities," an exultant Jones said in between hugs from supporters. Newman, beer in hand, spoke of his hope for a “strong, progressive group of commissioners.” Given their comparatively strong base in the district — which encompasses most of Asheville — both said they would focus their efforts on helping out candidates in the other two, more-competitive districts, leveraging their local political experience.

Republican Don Guge was unopposed in the primary and will also be on the District 1 ballot in November.

District 2

Democrats: Carol Peterson (6,504) and Ellen Frost (5,991)
Republicans: Mike Fryar (4,075) and Christina Kelley G. Merrill (3,909)

At home with her family in Fairview when the primary results came in, incumbent board member Carol Peterson claimed victory, receiving almost 40 percent of the vote. Fellow democrat Ellen Frost, who received 36 percent of the vote, will also advance to November.

In the general election, Peterson said, she will emphasize her record. "I really think we're on the right path. It's important that we make people aware of all the work that the county does," she said.

Meanwhile, celebrating at Asheville Brewing downtown, Frost cited her campaign's hard grass-roots work. "People want answers, people want to know where you stand and I think we gave them that."

Watching the returns roll in with fellow Republicans at Pack's Tavern, Mike Fryar smiled. He received about 36 percent of the vote and will advance to the general election along with Christina Kelley G. Merrill. Four years ago, Fryar lost his first bid for the commission. "Looking forward, it's going to be a whole different race," he noted.

Opting to stay home with her family on election night, Merrill received just 166 fewer votes than Fryar. Looking toward the fall, she said, "I think that voters are really sending a message that they're looking for a different direction for our county. It gives me a lot of energy for the next few months to go on."

District 3

Democrats: Michelle Pace Wood (4,532) and Terry Van Duyn (4,259)
Republicans: Joe Belcher (4,324) and David King (2,668)

Encompassing a swath of western Buncombe County, District 3 is the most conservative of the new districts and is incumbent-free. Many Republicans see it as their best chance to gain representation on the board, which currently consists of all Democrats.

Joe Belcher, a regional manager for Clayton Homes, emerged at the head of the GOP pack, garnering 33 percent of the vote. "The people of this county supported conservative leadership and Christian values, and that's really what brought them to me," he said on election night as he huddled at home with friends and family.

David King also earned a spot on the November ballot, narrowly edging out third-place finisher Linda Southard by 181 votes. The only Buncombe native in the GOP race, King credited deep local support for the win, but he acknowledged that he'll have to do better to gain a seat on the board. "I need to get out there and start shaking more hands,” he said.

On the Democratic side, small-business owner Michelle Pace Wood topped the field, with 39 percent of the vote. "I think our campaign was unique and merged the best of traditional politics with the best of the new," she said.

Meanwhile, retired systems analyst Terry Van Duyn wasn't far behind, with 37 percent. In an email to supporters, Van Duyn emphasized that "winning the election in November is going to require a strong, grassroots, people-powered campaign."

Register of Deeds

Democrat: Drew Reisinger (18,018)
Republican: (No primary: Pat Cothran, the sole GOP candidate, advances to November)

Incumbent Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger won the Democratic party's most rancorous local-primary battle, receiving 54 percent of the vote compared to Marie Hall’s 34 percent and Johnny House’s 11 percent.

Last year, the party’s executive committee appointed Reisinger to complete the four-year term of Otto DeBruhl, who retired after 33 years at the helm. A 27-year-old party activist, Reisinger narrowly defeated DeBruhl's choice for his successor — creating bitter divisions among the party faithful. Both House and Hall had strong ties to DeBruhl.

Now Reisinger faces his first general election, against Republican Pat Cothran, a Buncombe County native with 25 years of experience in the land-title industry who was unopposed in the primary.

As he celebrated with supporters at Asheville Brewing, Reisinger savored the primary victory. "We had a very positive message about the things we've been able to achieve in office," he said. "Everything from making things more accessible here for all people in Buncombe County, while saving taxpayer dollars.”

— For more election news, visit mountainx.com/election or follow us on Twitter (#avlelect).

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