Novelty seems to have a fatal attraction for American consumers. In the voting booth, however, those same citizens tend to favor familiar names and faces.
In Congress, for example, re-election rates for incumbents seeking another term have ranged from 95 to 98 percent in recent years, according to Jeffrey Bernstein, a political science professor at Eastern Michigan University. And Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government has gone so far as to call this trend “a threat to democracy.”
One oft-cited reason for incumbents’ formidable edge is their greater access to the media. To help even the odds in this year’s Asheville City Council race, Xpress spoke with the four contenders who are mounting their first run for public office. Here’s what they had to say.
[Editor’s note: Watch for information on all mayoral and City Council candidates in our Oct. 5 issue.]
The first thing you notice about Dwight Butner is his voice. It’s booming — not in an obnoxious way, mind you, but when this man talks, it’s hard not to listen.
Of course, his vocal cords have probably been tuned by years of barking commands over the din of a busy kitchen. Since 1996, Butner has owned and operated Vincenzo’s Ristorante & Bistro in downtown Asheville. And that experience, he believes, makes him a strong candidate for the Asheville City Council.
“Going from serving the public to public service is a shorter step for me than most,” he notes. “I have to do the same things now that Council people will have to do: balance competing interests, serve your customers well, budget — all the things that are associated with running a large business enterprise.”
An Asheville native, Butner has a bachelor’s degree in history from Eckerd College in Florida, and he’s taken graduate-level courses in political science at UNCA. As for his own politics, Butner is a registered Democrat who describes himself as “liberal on social issues but a fiscal conservative.”
The restaurateur is no stranger to committee work — he’s served on the board of the Asheville Downtown Association, was a founding member and the first president of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, and currently serves on the board of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Butner also spent six years as a board member for Hospitality House, a nonprofit agency that assists Asheville’s homeless population. That may have been a factor in his being tapped by City Council in 2000 to co-chair the Downtown Social Issues Task Force’s subcommittee on panhandling. The group developed a multifaceted plan, titled Spare Change for Real Change, that included placing drop boxes throughout the city where people could make donations to support services for the homeless rather than giving money directly to panhandlers. Butner and his colleagues presented the plan to Council last spring, but the drop boxes have yet to appear due to “unforeseen circumstances,” he says.
Asked why he’s running, Butner responds that he has “fairly good skills and just wants to see us working better together again.” And if anyone tries to label him a political novice, Butner has his answer ready: “You know, public service and government are about making and keeping promises. Business is about exactly the same thing — that’s what I do every day.”
If he’s elected, Butner lists three top priorities: Uniting the community, finding a settlement to the water dispute and “[looking] carefully at the role of business and development and finding a balance between growth and quality of life.”
And as campaign season heats up, Butner says he’s keeping his focus on the future: “I’m going to talk about moving forward. I see no reason whatsoever for me to second-guess or criticize the current administration. I’m putting myself out as a person that is going to be dealing with what we have going on right now and what we need to be doing in the future.”
— Brian Sarzynski
Some might consider 24-year-old Matt Hebb, who’s lived in Asheville for just a year-and-a-half, the greenest of the greenhorns in the City Council race. But ask him why he’s running and Hebb pounces like a veteran politico.
“Because I love Asheville,” he said in a recent interview. “I think it’s one of the finest American cities to live in, and I see so much potential for greatness continuing here. And I also see the potential for disaster. … Mismanagement that seems bad now is only in its infancy and could get far worse.”
A self-proclaimed caffeine-and-conversation junkie, Hebb seems to enjoy mixing it up rhetorically as much as he professes to love Asheville.
Hebb’s campaign slogan is “a different approach to leadership.” How different? “If you like anything about the way the government is being run right now in Asheville, I might not be your best choice,” he says. “If you put me in there, I’m going to shake things up.”
Asked to summarize his platform, Hebb ticks off five key points: “Real fiscal accountability, real efficiency in government, real openness with those we serve, real cultural and artistic preservation … and real road maintenance.” Then he adds, “a real business-friendly environment for Asheville.”
Hebb, who is president of the Asheville Young Republicans, describes himself as a “Republican Libertarian.” But he’s quick to note: “Look, I am not some stalwart. … I’m very economically conservative, but I’m relatively socially liberal.”
Calling himself “very pro-business,” Hebb says he also appreciates the concerns of working people. “I represent a large portion of Asheville. I don’t live in a great nice house in north Asheville. I don’t drive a Lexus. I work a regular job” (delivering pizza).
If elected, says Hebb, a top priority would be cutting city spending. “We’re up to a $100 million budget in this town. When you start doing the math on that, it gets kind of scary.”
Asked where he’d trim the budget, however, he says: “I’m not going to start making accusations about where specifically things need to be cut. These are things that are going to have to be looked at when I’m in a position … to do something.”
Hebb also has a ready answer for anyone who think’s he’s too young to be seeking public office: “Good, we need some energy on this Council.” And to voters concerned that he’s spent too little time in Asheville to be an effective local leader, Hebb notes that he spent several years in Chimney Rock while he was growing up. Furthermore, he argues, “You only need to be able to do one thing to understand the lay of the land as much as it matters, and that is be able to listen to the people who have concerns and problems in this town and be able to take efficient and effective action [in response] to what they say. … I pay a lot more attention than a lot of people around here have. I’ve been spending a great deal of time absorbing, learning and being around.”
— Jon Elliston
At a recent high-school reunion of the class of ’85, Asheville native Selina Sullivan says many former classmates told her, “I would love to come back.” Having managed to do just that herself after years of living elsewhere, she knows the difficulties firsthand.
“There’s no opportunity here, and many who have gifts — I’m talking about chemists, doctors and lawyers, sports announcers … we need those gifts here. We need those talents here. But they’re building up other cities — they’re building up Atlanta and Charlotte and Denver. We need to look at that,” says Sullivan.
Economic development, therefore, is one of this political newcomer’s three main goals in seeking a seat on City Council. “We’ve got to make it so that businesses become successful,” she declares. “It’s hard to get a business launched [here], and it shouldn’t be that way.” Sullivan particularly emphasizes nurturing small businesses, which she calls “the character of Asheville.”
Education is a parallel concern: both strengthening public education and helping build a more skilled work force. Based on her own experience as a black child in the city schools, Sullivan advocates reaching out Asheville residents. “The parents, the school and all the other community organizations like the after-school programs — we’ve got to get them to start to come together [and] build relationships, because people are not trusting [one another]. We’ve got to build those bridges; we’ve got to let the community be empowered,” she says.
A third priority, supporting local families, is quite personal for this 38-year-old whose own love of family drew her back to her hometown. “Our families are being attacked,” she proclaims. “We need mentors … actually helping the families to get up on their feet.”
Sullivan believes she’s well equipped to tackle the job, citing “strong leadership — in whatever type of situation [or] crisis situation — and I can relate to people of all backgrounds, all cultures, and have an understanding of the individual issues common to our city and can give solutions.” Her varied professional life has included stints as skills facilitator for PSNC Energy’s statewide Customer Care Center and as director of women’s services for the YWCA in Asheville. Sullivan is now director of public relations and community development for radio station WLFA (subchannel 91.3).
“I helped build relationship,” she says in summarizing all her jobs, and as a Council member, she would “bring the people together and have them working on a common goal.”
But Sullivan also aims to have some fun in the process, including evenings of ballroom dancing, karaoke, an Education Expo for junior-high-school students, and bluegrass with the Sons of Ralph. And far from worrying about fund raising, Sullivan not only anticipates a surplus but plans to donate it to the Asheville City Schools Foundation to help scholarship winners pay for items such as clothing and incidentals.
And if anyone suggested that she doesn’t have enough experience to serve on City Council, “I would laugh,” Sullivan says simply. “I would laugh.”
— Nelda Holder
Keith Thomson says he’s not impressed by politics. “At this level, it’s more about civics than about politics: neighbors serving neighbors and trying to reach out and build community,” he maintains. But too often, says the candidate, partisan squabbling gets in the way of achieving results.
Thomson owns SysAdmin Services, a computer network service provider for small businesses and nonprofits, and sitting in the small meeting room at his downtown office (which doubles as his campaign headquarters), Thomson outlines how his experience building relationships has prepped him for a seat at the City Council table.
“Relationships in the community are what make our civic life function,” he declares. “People knowing each other, so even if we disagree, we have some relationship to fall back on.” Those personal connections, he believes, can help bridge the gap when personalities clash and tempers flare over difficult issues.
An Asheville resident for 24 years, Thomson is no stranger to civic involvement, having served on the Asheville-Buncombe Clean Air Community Trust, the Asheville City Development Plan 2025 Advisory Committee and the Citizens Committee for Better Schools. And though this is his first run for public office, he doesn’t see that as a negative. “I don’t necessarily think I have the same experience as somebody who has been elected — but I don’t think I have the baggage that one or two of them have had,” he observes.
Thomson first arrived in Asheville at age 21; over the next two decades, he watched the downtown renaissance unfold. But now that the city has made the A list of desirable locations, the candidate feels we need proper planning to make the attendant growth compatible with maintaining quality of life, education, jobs and air quality.
“How we develop — what sort of options we have for people to live and work and shop in closer proximity — is one of those development choices we have,” he notes. He says he feels some frustration that the 2025 Plan, in particular, hasn’t received more attention from City Council. “Unfortunately, Council has put [the plan] on the shelf and not done all they can to take all that input from citizens and help create solutions,” says Thomson. Those solutions, he believes, should include increased support for small businesses.
Thomson also feels strongly about the importance of education, and as the father of two public-school students, he believes that public schools require support from both local government and parents to give kids the education and civic knowledge they need. That, in fact, is one of the reasons he decided to seek a seat on Council.
“No Child Left Behind is one of those mandates that the federal government passes down that it doesn’t fully give us the tools or the funding to provide,” says Thomson. “And the schools themselves, as hard as they are working, cannot do everything that needs to be done. … Rising achievement is not only mandated by federal law, but it is something that we can pay forward for our own children.”
— Brian Postelle