Political activism is alive and well among Asheville/Buncombe’s substantial cohort of conservatives and libertarians.
Organized by groups such as the Buncombe County Republican Action Club, given voice by outlets such as The Asheville Tribune and conservative blogs, and energized by the efforts of individual activists, these folks tend to oppose what many see as the twin threats of increasing government intervention and disintegrating cultural values. Other hot-button issues include illegal immigration, gay marriage and (of course) zoning.
Here’s what a sampling of local folks had to say.
For Leslee Kulba, spiritual beliefs are what drove her to get involved in politics.
“I’m in this because I believe, for spiritual reasons, that the most important thing in the world is the free agency of man,” she declares. “People are better at making decisions for themselves than some out-of-touch government bureaucracy is.”
The City Council correspondent for The Asheville Tribune and a former writer for the now-defunct Mountain Guardian, Kulba has often combined the roles of activist and reporter, raising questions and offering criticism as well as reporting on events. Recurring concerns include the city’s use of federal funds and regulation of private property.
In January, Kulba told City Council that she would read from Frederic Bastiat’s libertarian manifesto The Law for 10 minutes at every meeting “until Council begins respecting individual property rights.”
Politically, Kulba says she’s “for the Constitution”; learning more about that landmark document is what compelled her to get involved. “I could live in any country in the world — why would I choose to live in America? Because the Founding Fathers left us with the greatest form of government on earth, but people today don’t seem to get what it’s about.”
In Kulba’s view, the system is falling apart due to attempts by special interests at both ends of the spectrum to use the power of government for their own ends. “People want their interest groups and their projects to get the money — and they’re willing to destroy the entire system to get their piece,” she says. “Look at how big taxes and government are. That tells us that we’re not really a free society, as I see it.”
She also feels that things are getting worse. “In some ways, I’d just like to go back to the 1970s; it seemed so much less political,” Kulba asserts. “We get a lot of nonsense at the national level. The race between [Heath] Shuler and [Rep. Charles] Taylor, for example, is not really a race about ideals — it’s just politics. It’s almost more like a circus.”
At the national level, Kulba finds little that she feels she can support. “The Libertarian Party in this state has disintegrated,” she observes. “If I were just to read the Republican platform, I’d be happy with them. There’s some I can respect. The problem [with] Republicans in general is that they’re moving towards higher taxes and bigger government and corruption, and I just can’t support that.”
That dissatisfaction underscores Kulba’s belief in the importance of individual activism. “I hate people who carry signs and chant — I’m totally opposed to coercion,” she says. “I just want to inform people.” She wishes there were “some way to teach independence or self-reliance to people who feel they need to be dependent on the government.
“The president of our church once said, ‘We don’t let politics interfere with what we do.’ I think that’s the approach I’m going to take. Everybody in town has gotten a nasty e-mail from me,” Kulba says with a chuckle, adding, “I just try to do what’s right.”
The Buncombe County Republican Action Club began as a branch of the Men’s Republican Club. But “the most active people tended to show up, and it developed into [something] more,” explains President Kathie Lack, adding, “We’ve even had some Democrats and unaffiliated voters join.”
The group’s stated purpose is to “elect qualified Republican candidates for state and local office,” and all three Republican candidates for state House are members, including Rep. Charles Thomas. The club is backing R.L. Clark for state Senate and has endorsed Charles Taylor for Congress but is not working actively on his campaign.
For Lack, it comes down to what she calls a “belief in the wise and strong principles this country was founded upon: … property rights … not straying from our Constitution … and concern about illegal immigration.”
Club member Kathy Rhodarmer laments seeing “so much hatred for America. … Yes, we’ve made mistakes; every country has. I don’t know of any country that tries harder to rectify their mistakes.”
Club member Tim Peck is a libertarian blogger who was an associate editor and webmaster for the Mountain Guardian. His long political life, he says, has led him to believe “that the proper function of government is the protection of individual rights — and little else.”
Peck feels the difference between liberals and conservatives lies in their responses to “issues we all agree are problems … such as affordable housing, education and homelessness. The left usually runs to government first to solve those problems. Conservatives first look towards liberty-oriented solutions.”
Liberals, says Peck, favor “subsidized housing, demanding that the government take money and distribute it to people to whom it doesn’t belong. Conservatives want to stimulate economic growth, bring in jobs and raise wages. Either way, you get more affordable housing. But one is liberty-oriented, and that’s a key difference.”
The club’s billboards sparked a fierce outcry. Vandals spray-painted accusations of racism on several of them, and some residents condemned the billboard campaign at the Aug. 22 City Council meeting. Council member Bryan Freeborn charged that the Republican Party was “rolling this out to pit citizen against citizen in an election year” (see “A Heaping Helping,” Aug. 30 Xpress).
But Peck maintains that “conservatives have been addressing this issue for more than a decade. If conservatives were swept out of power, this would still be the most pressing crisis facing this country.”
Lack concurs. Freeborn, she says, “implied it was just because of the election. That’s ridiculous; it just happened that the election’s here.” She favors “closing the border and enforcing our laws” to curtail illegal immigration. “We can also vote with our dollars and boycott businesses that are contributing to this.”
Both Lack and Peck condemn the attacks on their billboards, which they say indicate a general lack of tolerance on the part of their political opponents.
“Before I got involved, I thought people who were more liberal were more open-minded. I’m finding quite the opposite,” says Lack. “When you’re in the minority and you express an opinion that is not popular, they’ll do everything in their power to shut you down. … There’s very little interest in free and open expression.”
Peck agrees. “Asheville is plainly intolerant of diversity,” he says. “I also work with the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, with Democracy for America; I mingle with all sorts to find solutions for difficult problems. I’m seeing those [solutions] coming from the conservatives and libertarians in town. But we’re in the minority, and on top of that we’ve got a left-leaning media here. We do what we can.”
From activist to candidate
Eric Gorny‘s path has taken him even further into politics, transitioning from activist to candidate. He’s challenging state Rep. Bruce Goforth, a Democrat, in the 115th District, which includes southeast Asheville and Buncombe County.
Gorny’s journey into political activism began four years ago when, at the instigation of talk-radio host Ken Bagwell, he attended a county Board of Commissioners meeting “to see what my tax dollars were going for” and didn’t like what he found out. “I started going to county meetings, and the more I got involved with county politics, the more I realized the state controls almost everything the county does,” says Gorny, who’s also active in both the local Republican Party and the Action Club. “Then my focus changed from the county to the state, and I noticed what our local representatives were doing.”
Gorny cites two things in particular that persuaded him to run for office. One was Goforth’s vote in favor of the state’s $19 billion budget, which Gorny believes is too high). The other was Goforth’s support for inserting language about sexual orientation into the state’s equal-employment-opportunity law, which Gorny feels “is wrong and doesn’t represent [the] district.”
Gorny, who calls himself “a moral and fiscal conservative,” sees fiscal restraint as a key to local prosperity. “With lower taxes and better infrastructure, you have a better business environment. That would really benefit the Asheville area,” he maintains. “My social reforms would be around a marriage amendment [and] an amendment to restrict eminent domain, to stop seizures of property to increase the tax base. I’d like to end forced annexation and bring district elections to Buncombe County. Each school district would have one county commissioner come out of it.”
Enacting those measures is a very real possibility, he notes, because the balance in the state House might hinge on Buncombe County. “In the last election, more Republicans were voted for, but because elections are so gerrymandered, they didn’t win the seats. We need a three-seat swing, and we can pick up two in Buncombe County.”
Gorny also emphasizes the importance of state-level politics. “We can have Medicare reform, we can have illegal-immigration reform (restricting entitlements to them is one of my top three issues). All that is state policy.”
And while he admires the Republican Party platform, especially at the state level, Gorny says that the national party has had troubles due to “what we call RINOs … — ‘Republicans in Name Only’ — who register as a Republican but don’t act like it. Unfortunately it’s those legislators at local, state and national level who really hurt the Republican Party.” Gorny’s list of RINOs includes Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, and “even George W. Bush. Socially, I’d say he’s pretty liberal on issues like immigration reform.”
As for his prospects on Election Day, Gorny is optimistic: “This is a conservative-leaning district. Bruce Goforth only won the last campaign by 900 votes. I think I’ve got a good chance.”
“Every progressive’s nightmare”
Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower doesn’t mince words. “I’m a Christian, I’m a conservative, I’m a Republican — I’m every progressive’s nightmare,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m not ashamed of it. I’m sincere and consistent about it, and I go about it in a thoughtful way. I’m not simplistic or narrow in my thinking.”
First elected to Council in 2001, Mumpower says he got into politics “because I was kidnapped by influences and folks who were concerned about where their city government was going.”
A psychologist by trade, Mumpower narrowly held onto his seat in 2005 and is now the only Republican on Council. Faced with a progressive majority, he frequently casts dissenting votes on matters involving development, illegal immigration and accepting federal grants, which he views as fiscally irresponsible.
Asked how Asheville would look if run by conservatives, Mumpower said: “A lot more of our money would stay in our pockets instead of government’s pockets. The government would concentrate on core services like public safety, streets [and] sidewalks, and stay out of things that are better left to people, to churches and service organizations. We wouldn’t waste a lot of time on nonsense and entitlements that seduce people, not uplift them.”
Although Mumpower isn’t actively campaigning for any current candidates, he notes, “I believe we have some good people and authentic conservatives running for state office and sheriff, and I hope they’ll be successful,” specifically mentioning Gorny and Mike Harrison, a candidate for the 114th House District.
Mumpower has cooperated with groups such as the Action Club on certain issues. He gave $1,500 to help finance a series of controversial billboards the group put up in July. Showing a Mexican flag flying over an upside-down American flag, the billboards asked, “Had Enough?” The money, says Mumpower, “was very specifically for their effort. I didn’t even know what was going to be on the billboards, though I’m glad they chose what they did.”
At the national level, Mumpower feels “we are all voting beneath our dignity” but says the Republicans represent the lesser of two evils. “I don’t think either party deserves credit for a job well done, but the Republicans do try to contain government and do try to uphold reasonable cultural values and standards. They at least talk about conserving money and resources. The other party, of which I used to be a member, has surrendered to extreme elements [that] I believe are out of touch with the American reality.”
Another key concern is what Mumpower sees as the decline of cultural values. “The human spirit needs the restraint of guiding values and principles,” he says. “I disagree with the healthiness of [an] ‘any way you like it’ cultural value system; I believe it destroys people. It’s no coincidence that as we’ve walked away from spiritual and personal values, our culture has developed more problems with drugs, crime and sexual disorder.”
Still, holding conservative beliefs in Asheville, he says, is a lonely task. “I can’t think of any [other] voting official in the county right now I’d describe as an authentic conservative. … I uphold conservative principles, but that has nothing to do with not caring for people or being rigid and indifferent. You are punished in this community for being a conservative. You are judged, ridiculed and slandered.”
[Freelance writer David Forbes is based in Asheville.]