“When you walk into a room and see that no one up there looks like you, you have to ask yourself, ‘What’s wrong here?'” remarked Asheville City Council member (and New Mount Olive Baptist Church Pastor) O.T. Tomes, during a break at the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s first-ever Political Institute, held at UNCA’s Owen Conference Center earlier this year. The Rev. Tomes said he had enrolled in the seminar at the urging of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. He is one of several institute participants who are candidates in this fall’s elections.
Tomes, who is the only African-American on City Council, was also the only minority participant in the institute. “Racism is inherent in our way of life,” he said in a later interview: “It’s been in place for so long, it’s not even thought about or noticed. Organizers don’t look around and ask, ‘Who’s missing? Who’s not at the table?'”
And with the election season now hard upon us, such concerns loom even larger. Only two of the 18 candidates for Asheville City Council, for example, are African-Americans, and only four are women.
Some also criticized the cost of the institute, aimed at people considering a run for local office. Tuition for the nine-week seminar, which ran from Jan. 21 through March 18, was $295 for Chamber members and $365 for nonmembers.
“It’s expensive: It cut a lot of people out,” asserted Leicester resident Michelle Cox of Cox Masonry, the only woman participant in the course. “I came and paid my own way,” she said.
Cox, who now chairs the Buncombe County Republican Party, was a featured panelist (she was then the party’s vice chair), explaining the structure of the GOP at the county, state and national levels and highlighting key planks of the party platform. “I’m the only person who has paid to hear myself speak,” she observed.
“With more sponsors, we could lower the costs and offer scholarships,” said Clay Dover of BellSouth Mobility DCS, a seminar sponsor. The conference, he noted, “did not make a profit.” Dover also chairs the Chamber’s Local Issues Task Force, which did the planning for the institute.
Notwithstanding those concerns, however, those who attended the seminar say they received valuable insider information on the ways and means of gaining public office, and they clearly seem to feel they got their money’s worth. And now, on the eve of the primaries, a review of what happened at the sessions may yield some clues about the nature of local politics.
A pilot project
The institute, said Dover, was “not geared to exclude anyone.” When asked about Tomes’ criticism, Dover said: “I welcome O.T.’s comments; I’m sure he brings a lot of good ideas. I would encourage more African-Americans to be active and to get involved, and I would welcome Hispanic involvement.”
“This was the first time we had done anything like this,” explained Angie Chandler, then-vice president of communications with the Chamber (she is now director of public programs at The North Carolina Arboretum).
“This was a pilot project; we used models from Columbia, S.C., and Fayetteville, N.C., in planning the course. The first and foremost group we were trying to reach were the 2,100 Chamber members who we represent,” she explained, adding, “We did not market [the institute] outside the Chamber.”
The first meeting had an air of suit-and-tie formality. But in subsequent Thursday-night sessions, the men seemed to relax, dressing more casually and engaging in friendly conversations during the breaks and over meals (which came from a different local restaurant each time).
“We are looking at expanding and improving this program any way we can,” said Chandler, noting that the organizers — who included former Asheville Mayor Russ Martin — had been pleased by the turnout. “We weren’t sure it would fly in this community,” she confessed. Chandler worked with Ondine Constable and Mary Ward of the Chamber’s Communications and Public Affairs Department to coordinate the seminar. The women were on hand to greet presenters and participants, and they helped with the setup and cleanup each week.
Conference presenters repeatedly stressed the need for more diverse participation in the political arena.
“Everybody should be involved in politics,” declared former Rep. Marie Colton, obviously quite at home on the podium after 16 years in the N.C. General Assembly. “But our community is more prosperous now,” with a greater gap between the upper and lower ends of the scale. “A lot more money goes into political campaigns, with less chance for people without financial backing or personal money to run for office,” she noted, adding: “We are a multicultural community with 24 foreign languages — 130 statewide. Shame on the schools that do not have enough provisions for ESL to integrate these people.”
Dr. Gene Rainey, a former two-term Asheville City Council member and past chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, echoed some of Colton’s concerns, saying, “Politics needs new blood: Minorities, women and youth should be encouraged to toss their hat [into the ring].” In his opening address, “The Nature of Political Involvement,” Rainey — who teaches political science at UNCA — complained: “The young people I teach are not really voting. The participation is atrocious.”
No one under 30 enrolled in the seminar, which drew 13 participants, including independent-business owners and other middle- and upper-income men employed in the insurance, home-building, automotive, food-distribution and resort industries, as well as a first sergeant with the Highway Patrol.
And, though many women were invited to speak at the sessions, none of the presenters were African-Americans or members of other racial or ethnic minorities.
“I would want to believe there are some African-Americans who are members of the Chamber,” said Tomes. “Were they invited to the table to discuss the format and structure of the seminar?”
“All members of the Local Issues Task Force of the Chamber were invited to participate in planning the seminar,” said Dover. Preparing for the event, he added, was the focus of the group’s monthly meetings for a year.
The task force’s lone African-American member — Darrell Hart of Hart Funeral Services — did not attend any of the planning meetings, according to Dover. Hart is chair-elect of the Chamber’s board.
Hart acknowledged that he had not been involved in planning the Political Institute, noting that he had been asked to make a presentation, but had been unable to do so. “Being chair-elect, I am invited to all task-force and committee meetings,” he explained, adding, “It doesn’t mean I have a chance to make every one.”
Problems with diversity in participation occur everywhere, asserted Hart. “You have to watch the barriers,” he said, noting that cost, too, is always a concern. And, speaking about the need for Chamber events to reflect community diversity, Hart remarked, “If we’re not there, we’re getting there. I’m working toward that effort — it doesn’t happen overnight.”
All the conference sessions were led by volunteers — local men and women who have been players in the Buncombe County political arena for decades. They shared vital information about the nuts and bolts of seeking and winning political office. Organizers also provided considerable supporting material on strategies, plans, tactics and how to manage a political campaign.
Conference attendee Peter Sprague of Ingle’s Markets said he had come to educate himself on the political process: “I lost touch: It’s been 25 years since I’ve been out of school.”
“I’m not in office, but I’m not out of politics,” explained Colton, who now serves on the board of the nonprofit group Common Cause. She offered a word of caution for potential candidates: “Do not make a commitment ahead of time to lobbyists.”
Another speaker, Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick, told participants about the crisis that had thrust her into the political arena in 1978, when her family was exposed to toxic chemicals while living in Swannanoa.
“I was an unpaid, unconnected lobbyist for the things I cared about,” she observed. Sitnick also warned her listeners about how much time and energy it takes to hold public office. The mayor said she receives a foot-and-a-half of mail every day and works 50-70 hours a week. “I don’t think anyone can serve in public office without the total support of your family,” she advised.
And when seminar participant James Ellis, who works at the Black Mountain Center, asked Sitnick if she would be running again, the mayor said no: “I’m not running again: I’ve given six years. My circumstances have changed; I can’t live on $11,000 a year.” And, offering an insider’s perspective, she reflected, “This is a terrible job if you don’t love it,” adding, “I’m doing this to do something good for this community.” Ellis is a candidate for city council.
But even if Sitnick isn’t running herself, she clearly still wants to support whoever does feel the call. “I’ll help anyone who wants to run. I encourage anyone to run, even if I don’t agree with their agenda,” she promised.
“Why is everyone telling us how much they appreciate us being here?” wondered 1st Sgt. David Miller of the Highway Patrol, as the mayor finished up her presentation.
“Because you need thick skin,” she replied. “You have to be vulnerable and put your neck on the line. Your lives will never be the same — just running for public office makes you part of a small minority. Very few people vote, very few run for office.” Before she stepped down, Sitnick gave Tom Sobol, chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, an affectionate hug and kiss. “We’re friends, in spite of what you might read,” she commented.
“Running for office in a local area is toughest of all — there are no buffers between you and the public,” noted Sobol. The Black Mountain native said his guiding principle in public life has been: “Whatever is morally wrong cannot be politically right. You need to have a clear sense of core values.”
What price politics?
Numerous speakers expressed concerns about the high cost of running a successful campaign for public office. Sobol said that he had won election as a Black Mountain alderman in 1969, at a cost of just $27. “My daddy let me have that,” he confided.
“Today, a race for chair of the county commissioners would cost about $50,000,” predicted Sobol; “I spent in the low-to-mid-$40s to win” in 1996.
Buncombe County Commissioner David Young said that he had raised $400,000 for his 1998 congressional race. “The average minimum is about $600,000,” he noted, adding, “It takes a long time to raise that kind of money. Unfortunately, I don’t want to do that again.”
Young’s experience, however, contrasted sharply with that of Doris Giezentanner, who recalled her first campaign for a seat on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, in 1978.
“I ran on my own, with a printed card with my name and the insignia of Democrats,” she said. “I spent $45 and was the top vote-getter.” And Giezentanner, like other speakers, had some encouraging words for her listeners. “It’s rewarding and exciting: Do all you can to get involved,” she advised, adding, “It’s wide open right now.”
Michael Morgan, who owns Total Home Maintenance, wanted to know how serving in political office would affect a person’s business.
“You’re going to have to have a lot of help to stay in business,” replied former Buncombe County Commissioner and state Sen. Jesse Ledbetter. “The only reason I still have a business is because I have a wife who looked after it for me.”
Former Mayor Martin, showing off the theatrical skills honed by 12 years with the Asheville Community Theatre, stepped out from behind the lectern as he addressed the topic, “Do You Have What It Takes to Run for Public Office?”
“You have to have something [ready] to say all the time, in reserve, and to know where you are on everything at all times,” he cautioned, adding, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
Buncombe County Commissioner (and Enka Middle School teacher) Patsy Keever also had advice for potential candidates: “You need to be running because you are willing to serve the public, because you like people and want to be in a position to help.” And for those who wage successful campaigns, she noted: “It is mostly on-the-job training. You won’t have the power that everyone in the outside world thinks you have.”
Eugene Presley, who was then the chair of the Buncombe County Republican Party, asked about the dynamics of how elected officials relate to their staff. “The real politics is with the staff,” he observed.
“If we feel strongly about an issue, we ask the county manager to carry it out,” responded Keever, adding, “Mostly, we see eye to eye.”
Keever also had some cautionary words about how much time holding public office can take up: “The meetings you attend are just a small amount of your obligations as a public official. That is a disadvantage for women with small children.” Essentially, said Keever, it’s a round-the-clock job. “In the back of your mind, your elected-official hat will be on 24 hours a day.”
Tomes agreed. “One of the things I learned early on,” he noted, was that, “I had to put some constraints on my time.” Describing his decision to run for City Council as “a divine, intuitive nudging in my life that said it was time to come out from behind the scenes,” Tomes confided: “My wife asked, ‘Are you going to try to put that [politics] on top of everything else?’ When I said no, she gave her commitment.” After that, Tomes chose to heed that spiritual call, even though, he said, “I knew I didn’t know the answers to a lot of issues.”
Tomes also noted that he’d learned a lot by “going to institutes and other continuing education,” which he said “can be an eye-opener.”
“That’s the Institute of Government you go to — that socialist outfit down in Raleigh,” retorted Presley.
Flat Rock resident Eric Henry, who serves on the Executive Committee of the Libertarian Party of North Carolina, elicited the most questions from those in attendance, as he spoke about the libertarian philosophy which, he said, emphasizes personal rights and personal responsibilities.
“I’m here as a Christian,” he declared, adding, “We simply believe in persuasion, rather than coercion.” Characterizing mountain natives as “rugged individuals,” Henry proclaimed: “We don’t like the government messing with us. We’re not anarchists — we simply don’t believe in federal police powers.” He also fielded questions about income taxes, guns and social security.
“If the federal government was not extorting 35 percent of your income,” he asserted, “people would have more money to keep.” Henry dismissed Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme: The feds have raided it from day one.”
Ledbetter also spoke about traditional mountain attitudes, proclaiming, “I am one of the few people who is an absolute native of Buncombe County; most elected officials are not.” Ledbetter said he ran for public office four times before first getting elected. “Candidates need to have time and energy and be willing to spend it,” he told the gathering. Success, he said, depends on having “strong ideas and the ego to push those ideas and to convince others of the rightness of them.”
Do the right thing
Not all the speakers were present or former politicians, however. Harold Littleton Jr., adjunct professor of religion and humanities at Mars Hill College, was allotted just under half an hour to address the topic “The Role of Ethics in Campaigns.” Declaring that, “Nothing clouds decision-making ability like dogma,” Littleton gave an overview of various approaches to ethical theory, challenging participants to discover “what dogma dictates your thinking.” For politicians, he stressed, ethics is not an abstract matter: “Ethical errors end careers,” he said, adding that there is “nothing more dangerous than a tarnished public image.”
“It’s sort of a tease,” complained participant Butch Patrick of Peppertree Resorts Ltd. “Twenty minutes for morals and ethics.”
Sitnick also stressed the importance of ethics, counseling, “Constituents have to trust you to be honest, ethical, to use common sense and use good judgment. Do things right, and do the right things.”
Cindy Pomeroy, a financial consultant with A.G. Edwards and Sons, took a somewhat different tack when it was her turn to speak. “The reality is, when running a campaign, your image is what sticks in voters’ minds,” she said. Pomeroy has worked as a media consultant to numerous local politicians, including campaigns for U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor and state Rep. Wilma Sherrill. She advised aspiring candidates to keep their message “simple and stupid.”
And, with regard to printed campaign literature, “The more general you are on issues, the better,” she suggested.
“Only two things count in a winning campaign — money and message,” proclaimed Gary Pierce, a former journalist who served eight years as a political adviser and speech writer for N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt. Pierce is now political adviser to U.S. Sen. John Edwards.
Pierce gave the seminar’s closing address, sending participants off with ringing words as they gathered with family members for a wine-and-cheese reception at the Holiday Inn in Biltmore.
To be a successful candidate, “You’ve got to be an animal … relentless, focused and hard-working,” Pierce told the gathering. “It takes courage to put your name on the ballot. My heroes are people who run for office; regardless of party, I admire them all.”