For Buncombe County Democratic Party Chair Kathy Sinclair, Nov. 7, 2000, was an important day—the day she decided to get involved.
“I got involved after moving here from Illinois. I went out to vote, all anxious and excited like I did every other Election Day—and I realized that our electoral votes did not go towards our Democratic candidate that night,” she recalls. “It was a real wake-up call for me: If you’re going to live in a red state, you have to do more than just vote.”
As Sinclair sees it, “Democrats are looking out for all Americans, looking out for everybody as far as what our future means. We’re not looking out just for today. We’re looking to the future and what it’s going to mean for jobs, for health care, for education. We’re looking out for everyone, and we’re looking at the big picture.”
For Buncombe County Republican Party Chair Tim Johnson, his decision to enter came as part of a personal journey.
“I’ve had an affinity with politics since I was a teenager,” says Johnson, who has a master’s in public administration. “I started doing some research about five, six years ago after taking a break from politics. I came to decide on the Republican Party because of its fundamental principles, where my spiritual growth is at, where I saw some of the needs at, and where I saw an opportunity to make a difference.”
Here’s how Johnson defines those core principles: “We believe in equality. I see the Republican Party as a party that’s about inclusion. The Republican Party in North Carolina was started with 101 whites and 46 blacks in 1867. The Democratic Party can’t claim that. Sometimes we’ve done a poor job of making that clear: The Republican Party has been seen as the old-white-men organization, while the Democrats are assumed to be everything else.
“As a person of color, it’s assumed I’m going to support [Sen.] Barack Obama,” he continues. “I’m pro-life; I think marriage is between a man and a woman. Those are my core values: I don’t say they have to be everyone else’s, but they’re mine. Before we even talk about issues, before we talk about candidates, those are my gateway.”
Both Johnson and Sinclair are relatively new to their posts. Sinclair became her party’s chair in April 2007, Johnson in March of this year. Both were hailed by their respective party faithful as marking a new direction. Progressive Democrats such as local blogger Gordon Smith hailed Sinclair’s election as “a turning of the tide,” while Johnson’s election was greeted with similar enthusiasm among conservatives, marking the end of a period of GOP infighting that had seen the two previous chairs each serve less than a year.
Now, with North Carolina dubbed a “swing state” in the presidential race and many state and local offices also up for grabs, both parties—and their leaders—are facing one of the most closely watched elections in recent memory.
Who’s changing what?
“We’re taking a page out of Sen. Obama’s playbook,” Johnson admits with a smile when asked which issues the GOP is focusing on. “We’re talking about change, but we’re talking about positive change. Since 1898, the Democratic Party has led the state all but 12 years. When you look at that, it’s kind of interesting that the Republican Party is blamed for all the ills in the world. Let’s talk about the last eight years. We talk about education, we’re talking about mental health, we talk about the economy and gas prices. We’ve been talking about the fact that Gov. Easley can’t seem to find his way to Western North Carolina unless it’s for the Vance-Aycock Dinner.”
Hence, says Johnson, the party’s concentration on getting their information out to voters.
“We’re really trying to educate one at a time. We’re trying to get people to assess; we have so many people talking about our problems,” he reports. “The Democratic Party is saying they’re the party of change and hope, but look at who’s been running things in North Carolina. Because of this Obama movement, people aren’t paying attention to the issues that affect our lives right here. We have the highest taxes in the Southeast. Who’s responsible for that?”
Although local Republicans aren’t pushing mass voter registration, Johnson notes: “While people may register Democrat, this is still a conservative state. Asheville is more liberal, but the whole county isn’t. There’s a lot of unaffiliated voters, which means they’re dissatisfied with both parties. That’s the audience we’re targeting.”
Registered Democrats do significantly outnumber Republicans in Buncombe, but the county has voted for Republican candidates in national elections in recent years, though polls show the presidential race in North Carolina to be extremely close this year.
Sinclair, however, is enthusiastic about her party’s chances. “We have the most organized campaign going on that I’ve ever experienced,” she says. “Of course the Obama campaign is extremely well-disciplined. I think [Democratic National Committee Chair] Howard Dean‘s 50-state strategy has made a difference as well. Everyone’s on the same page, we know what we’re doing, and it’s created a tremendous amount of energy.”
Coordination among the national, state and local campaigns, she adds, has improved markedly, including sharing volunteers. “It’s made a difference,” says Sinclair. “We’re all unified.”
But are they? The Democratic candidates for the Board of Commissioners, for example, hold widely varying views. Vice Chair David Gantt, who’s looking to unseat Chair Nathan Ramsey (the lone Republican on the board), has called the controversial sale of public parkland in City/County Plaza a mistake, while Democratic commissioners Carol Peterson and Bill Stanley (who’s seeking a sixth term) praised the move. Stanley is also markedly more conservative than, say, Asheville City Council member Holly Jones (who’s also on the ticket) on many other issues, including slope development and zoning.
“Oh, I don’t think they disagree,” Sinclair demurs. “I think it all comes together; there’s value in having varied opinions on the [Board of Commissioners]. Asheville is just a part of Buncombe County. When we get outside, the Democrats are probably more represented by some of the more conservative candidates; you don’t want groupthink on your commission.”
As for the issues, Sinclair says: “I don’t think anyone could not pay attention to the economy. That’s going to make a huge difference, especially at the top of the ticket. Locally, it’s development—especially the environment, how green the candidates are.” And she calls her party’s push to sign up new voters and get them out the polls “extremely well-disciplined.”
Johnson, however, says the GOP is very concerned about potential voter fraud.
“Voter fraud has taken over this election cycle: Anyone who thinks it doesn’t exist is fooling themselves,” he asserts. “It’s happening with registration. Let’s say you register one person two times: If it doesn’t get caught, two absentee ballots could be sent to one house, and that person gets to vote twice. Where’s it going to get caught? It doesn’t take much for it to become astronomical.”
But according to Board of Elections Director Trena Parker, such repeat registration is nigh impossible to pull off even once, let alone 10 times, because registering voters have to provide either the numbers on their driver’s license or the last four digits of their Social Security number, which are immediately checked against federal and state databases.
“It also shows any similar registrations, and we double-check them too,” notes Parker. “The system is set up to flag if ballots are going to the same address, or have similar information, or the same number is already registered—we have a lot of safeguards people don’t immediately see. We also keep an eye out ourselves, just in case a bundle of registrations come in with the same handwriting, for example. We’ve been doing this for a while.”
All those measures, she says, are effective in ferreting out anyone attempting to vote more than once, noting, “We haven’t had any incidents like that in Buncombe County.”
Who owns tomorrow?
A particular gripe of Johnson’s, he says, is the lack of civility in this election cycle.
“I’ve been appalled at how I’ve been treated,” he notes, adding, “I think the nastiness is coming more out of the Democratic side. There were about 100 of us at the Obama rally, standing outside, just holding up our signs. We weren’t shouting at anyone, [but] we had this [Johnson gives the middle finger gesture], we had kids doing that. We had adults cussing at us; we even had one guy trying to provoke a fight. To me, that doesn’t add up. … We’re the minority, and we’re not being disrespectful, but people were doing it to us. I find that interesting that the media didn’t cover that.”
For her part, Sinclair says her views have also been shaped by her personal experience (she’s an employment consultant with the Employment Security Commission)—especially in connection with the economy.
“We’ve lost so many jobs in this area,” she notes. “Creating jobs in this economy is very, very important. Our unemployment is at a seven-year high. We have got to get people back to work. On a local level … people like [Democratic candidate] K. Ray Bailey, with his 40 years of experience at A-B Tech … I work with people that are losing their jobs overseas, trying to get them back to school, get them jobs. We’ve lost all our textile jobs. Go further east, you’ve lost furniture jobs; we need to bring some jobs here that will be sustainable. We’ve got to do it.”
Sinclair also maintains that this year’s Democratic campaign “has a lot of very positive energy. There’s a lot of maturity. People’s heart and soul are really in this election cycle, and it’s made a difference. That’s not just for the presidential election—it’s for getting all our candidates elected.”
Johnson, meanwhile, raises another key isssue in the presidential race. Speaking as a black Republican, he says: “I wish the race issue wasn’t there. Obama’s played the race card; any time McCain brings up Will Ayers, Tony Rezko, he has to tiptoe around it. If [Obama] was a white man, that wouldn’t be an issue. My black American experience and Obama’s experience are totally different. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio; he grew up where? Hawaii. Why can’t Obama be a dark-skinned white man? Why does he get this pass of being an African-American? This is about reparation; people have a hands-off attitude with him, because it’s about reparation.”