The race for Buncombe County’s 49th District state Senate seat pits Republican challenger RL Clark against longtime incumbent Martin Nesbitt.
To unseat the powerful Democrat, who was elected Senate majority leader in 2009 after serving 11 terms in the state House and five years in the Senate, Clark is hoping to harness what he believes could be a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment.
"In normal times, only a Democrat could win this Senate seat," Clark asserts, describing the district as "gerrymandered to favor Democrats.
"But I think this is a different political year," he continues. "People are fearful and angry. … The natives are somewhat restless this time."
Nesbitt doesn't deny that the voters he's been hearing from are also troubled about the current state of affairs.
"Everyone's concerned, including me," he notes. "We had the worst recession since the Great Depression, and in my opinion, it bordered on a depression. And it was worldwide, caused by some totally irresponsible actions. …
"No one is happy with the budget and the job situation," adds Nesbitt. "There are limits to what North Carolina can do in a national recession. But within those limits, we've done everything we can."
That, says Nesbitt, includes making it easier for small businesses to get loans and providing tax breaks when they hire new employees. He also emphasized his efforts to protect education and human-services funding in the face of tremendous fiscal pressure the last two years.
"The No. 1 answer to each and every problem is more education," Nesbitt asserts. "Poverty is about lack of education. So I jealously guard the community colleges, the universities; because I think they're our people’s way up. … I think that's why you've got to have someone there who’s going to try to make sure you do the least harm possible as you work through these things."
Clark, who’s tried unsuccessfully to unseat Nesbitt in the past, served two terms in the state Senate beginning in 1994. He points to his voting record as evidence of how he would act if given the chance to serve again, citing cuts in inheritance, business, food, excise and other taxes that he says totaled more than $1 billion.
"The way jobs are created is to reduce personal and business taxes and to eliminate unnecessary rules and regulations," Clark maintains.
The retired small-business man was first inspired to seek public office after the state seized property he owned on the Leceister Highway, claiming eminent domain. "I suddenly decided that rather than complain, I was going to attempt to do something about it," he explains.
Clark also draws inspiration to serve from strict principles that he sees as increasingly under attack by a far-reaching federal government.
"I believe in the Constitution as it was written, and I try my best not to deviate from that," the candidate asserts. "The Founding Fathers let the biblical principles be their guide for founding our nation; and yes, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, but it doesn't 'say freedom from religion.'"
Clark is reluctant to discuss his opponent directly, saying he'd rather let Nesbitt speak for himself, but he does say he's heard the incumbent describe himself as a "proud, populist progressive."
"I think that's a major difference between where he comes from and where I come from on the role of government," notes Clark.
Asked about the categorization, Nesbitt agrees, calling it "a pretty good description."
"RL's being kind these days," he adds with a laugh. "He's called me a whole lot worse than that."
Nesbitt describes his sense of "mountain populism" as attempting to "look at the world through the eyes of that average person out there who's trying to get along — that single mom or that family that's trying to raise their children and get them educated and make a living and have a home — and try to figure out how to help them."
In addition, Nesbitt touts the advantages of his status as majority leader in making sure the Western North Carolina is properly represented, saying it helped him recapture $32 million in Appalachian Regional Commission highway funding that was being improperly distributed statewide. He also takes credit for helping redistribute lottery funding to benefit WNC schools.
"The position puts you in the loop, if you will. You're pretty much in the know of what's going on, and you're usually participating," he explains.
Clark, however, doesn't buy that argument, predicting that major upheaval in the November elections, together with his past experience, will help propel him "into some sort of leadership role."
"I wouldn't be going back as a freshman state senator — I would be going back with seniority," he asserts. "I think I could do as much for Buncombe County and Western North Carolina as Sen. Nesbitt could."
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.