All’s fair in love and politics

This race started out as a sleeper: A few months ago, Republican incumbent Charles Taylor was seen as a shoo-in to keep his seat in Congress. Then, reports of delinquent taxes, Russian deals, bank investigations and potentially illegal HUD payments surfaced in Raleigh, Charlotte, Asheville and even national newspapers.

At an Aug. 24 meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners, Taylor accused the press of printing “dirt, dirt, dirt” — and Democrat challenger Sam Neill of saying “nothing, except he hates me.” Taylor reported that he had paid the delinquent property taxes under protest and was denied an appeal hearing until after the election.

By October, USA Today was reporting, “Taylor is struggling to beat back an aggressive challenge from Democratic real estate lawyer Sam Neill.” A congressional watchdog group also reported that the race was no longer a cinch for Taylor.

Taylor was unavailable for comment. He also refused to debate Neill or appear at forums where Neill would be present.

Mountain Xpress repeatedly requested a chance to interview Taylor — by phone, by e-mail, on the weekend when he was more likely to be in the area, or at any Asheville-area appearance he was likely to make. Scheduling aides didn’t return our calls or e-mails. We were told by Taylor’s press agent, Roger France, “They’re voting in Washington, and we just don’t know when [Congressman Taylor] will be available. [But] we’d be happy to respond to written questions about the issues.”

What we received were not direct answers to the questions, but copies of press releases and letters to (and from) Taylor supporters — most dealing with the property-tax scandal. Xpress also received an almost daily flow of faxes on Taylor initiatives in Congress, such as his Great Smoky Mountains Clean Air Act of 2000, introduced in July with an eye toward forcing TVA power plants to reduce emissions.

Neill’s office kept our fax machine warm, too, with copies of articles about Taylor.

But Neill also agreed to a face-to-face interview — though because it was brief and squeezed in between other engagements, several questions were not addressed.

Libertarian candidate Barry Williams met face to face with us, as well.

After brief profiles of the candidates, we present their responses to a series questions about the issues. Comments attributed to Taylor stem from his Aug. 24 meeting with CIBO; other sources are so noted.

Sam Neill, Democrat

For 12 years, Hendersonville resident Sam Neill served on the Board of Governors for North Carolina’s 16-campus university system. He chaired the board in the mid 1990s, winning the seat, he says, “because I was known for building consensus.”

The third Democrat to challenge Taylor in the past six years, Neill has been accused by his opponent of running a negative campaign. Neill’s response: “I’m running a factual campaign … a very aggressive campaign. Taylor calls me a liar, but never disputes the facts. [These tax and other issues] are examples of Taylor’s professional and personal behavior [and] show how he does business. There’s been a frightening failure of leadership by Charles Taylor. He’s out of touch with the district. [Taylor] got $10 million for homes in Russia, when we have [affordable-housing] problems here. Where are his priorities?”

Neill, who names education, health care and the environment as his three main issues, makes two basic promises: “I won’t forget where I come from. [And] I will listen.”

Charles Taylor, Republican

Brevard resident Charles Taylor was first elected to Congress in 1991. He told CIBO members on Aug. 24, “I got involved in politics because I was running against a fellow who was 10 percent more liberal than Ted Kennedy, and I think, in the long run, that’s against the best interest of the country.”

He added, “One of the reasons we keep getting elected is that we serve everybody equally [in the district],” citing the money he’s secured for capital improvements at the V.A. Hospital and the siting of the Blue Ridge Parkway Headquarters in Asheville as accomplishments. Taylor said he’s the first Republican represent the district in consecutive terms since 1896.

Speaking about this year’s race, he said, “The leadership in Congress is very liberal. If they win, they’ll take over. If you vote for [Neill], you’ll get a liberal Congress.” Re-elect Taylor, on the other hand, and voters will retain one of a senior Republican in Congress one who serves on the influential Appropriations Committee. “A freshman in Congress won’t accomplish anything,” Taylor concluded.

Barry Williams, Libertarian

A piano tuner/repairman and tutor by trade, Burnsville resident Barry Williams would agree that he hasn’t got much chance of winning the district in this, his second attempt. “First of all, I’m running to educate people about Libertarians,” he explained. “We call ourselves the party of principle: No one has the right to initiate force against anyone.”

That principle underscores all of Williams’ convictions about government and its role in society: “Government can’t be used to make everybody’s life OK. When it tries, it fails. Government solutions should only be applied when absolutely necessary. It’s government’s role to protect us when we can’t protect ourselves,” said Williams.

He’s also running to give Libertarians a voice, admitting that it’s something of a paradox for a Libertarian to run for office at all. “But I tried to be apolitical for years,” he noted. “I couldn’t do it. In a sense, Libertarians have no country, and everybody wants one. Having a political party and a candidate brings us together to share ideas.”

Mountain Xpress: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 as the most “liberal” and 10 as the most “conservative,” where would you place yourself?

Neill: “I think I’m in the middle, because I try to find consensus and listen to different people’s opinions and find common solutions.”

Taylor: Not answered.

Williams: “‘Liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have no meaning to [Libertarians]. We’re the party of [one] principle: No one has the right to initiate force against anyone. We should have the freedom from being forced to live one way or the other.”

MX: What is the most pressing issue facing District 11? And what specific plans do you have for addressing it?

Neill: “There’s been a failure of leadership by Charles Taylor. He uses wedge, hot-button issues to divide the community and accent differences of opinion — like going before an environmental group and saying they’re all crazy. You build a sustainable community by building consensus.”

Taylor: “I have plans for uplifting WNC and raising the economic standard,” he told CIBO members.

Williams: “The environment. I believe in preserving our forests and natural resources, but, as a Libertarian, I would never favor doing so at the price of individual property rights. But a person doesn’t have a right to pollute his air, because it pollutes my air. That’s initiation of force.”

MX: If the federal budget surplus truly exists, what would you do with it?

Neill: Not addressed.

Taylor: Not answered.

Williams: “Our taxes are obscenely high. I would use it for tax reduction.”

MX: What would you do to attract high-tech, higher-paying jobs?

Neill: “I have served on the board of Advantage West, [a regional economic-development organization]. Twenty thousand manufacturing jobs have been lost in WNC in recent years — 8,000 in Rutherford County alone. We need help with the infrastructure that attracts industry, including broadband, fiber-optic, high-speed and affordable Internet access. We also need to improve the education system … to get local training for our work force.”

Taylor: “First, you have to have the educated workers in the area, or companies won’t come near you. Second, we have to have the infrastructure: Bandwidth is absolutely necessary for this area to compete in technology. You can’t operate a high-tech business [here] without it. In the 20th century, it was roads. In the 21st, it’s bandwidth,” Taylor told CIBO members.

Williams: “It’s not the province of government to interfere with where businesses locate. And I’m not sure tax incentives and such are fair, much less effective. I believe in the free market.”

MX: What are you most proud of?

Neill: “When I became chairman of the [universities’] Board of Governors, the board was factionalized, with people trying to gain advantage. I worked to build consensus and create a process that treated all the units of the system equally. We kept the board together and focused.”

Taylor: Not answered.

Williams: “My background is in visual arts, not writing, so I’m proud of completing four novels. They’re all political, of course. I’m also proud of [some recent] improvisational work with my music — piano and guitar.”

MX: What are your specific plans for addressing the high cost of health care and prescription drugs?

Neill: “Prescription-drug coverage … needs to be a benefit under Medicare, to cover all seniors. [Also], pharmaceutical companies are three times more profitable than any average industry, yet they pay half the taxes. [They’ve] bought Congress.”

Taylor: Not answered.

Williams: “In the Libertarian view, you can’t have a right to health. You can have a right to work with a doctor, with other health-care providers. But government control will force people to use certain doctors, certain hospitals. This is not something we can control. I can find a way to get health care for my kids, but I can’t promise to provide it for others.”

MX: What specific proposals do you have for improving air quality in WNC?

Neill: “I will work to close that lethal loophole in the Clean Air Act [that grandfathered coal-burning power plants built before 1985]. Clean air relates to our quality of life, our health — the Asheville area has the highest incidence in the state of the flu and pneumonia — and our economy. It is time people realized that the environment is our economy. [Tourists and retirees] aren’t going to stay when they see the smog.”

Taylor: Not answered. But this summer, he sponsored the Great Smoky Mountains Clean Air Act of 2000, introduced in July and aimed at forcing TVA power plants to reduce emissions.

Williams: “Polluting our air and water is initiating force against someone else. Government’s role is to protect us from that. I don’t want to take risks with the environment, but I do favor the free market and individual property rights. Concern for the environment is typically seen as anti-business, but that’s not where I’m at.”

MX: How much money do you anticipate raising and spending on this campaign?

Neill: “Approximately $1 million. I’m going to run this race under the current campaign-finance rules, but the process is wrong and unfair for the average citizen. The current system protects the incumbent.”

Taylor: Not answered.

Williams: “I have raised none and I will spend none.”

MX: Should the U.S. take an approach to drug control that’s different from the current “war on drugs”?

Neill: Not addressed.

Taylor: Not answered.

Williams: “The war on drugs is an absolute waste of time. You can’t guarantee someone’s not going to use drugs. We can only address our own children. Giving a higher penalty for drug possession than for violent acts — that should be different; it violates [the Libertarian] basic principle. Marijuana became illegal, originally, largely because of [chemical manufacturer] Dupont: You can grow hemp to make paper, without using all the chemicals required for making it from trees.”

MX: How would you improve our educational system?

Neill: “I support reducing class sizes from grades K-3. I also support [providing] additional funds for loans and grants for college tuition. The most important thing we can do is provide educational access for all our citizens.”

Taylor: “[Congressman Taylor] supported the creation of the Workforce Development Center at Western Carolina University for technological training, the Pisgah Forest Institute to provide environmental education for high-school teachers, and the Education and Research Consortium of WNC between WCU, Brevard College, Montreat College and Mars Hill College,” Taylor spokesperson Richard Faulkner told members of the Asheville Civitan Club on Oct. 17.

Williams: “This isn’t a typical Libertarian point of view, but I favor vouchers. [They] give parents more options on how to educate their children. Public schools are government schools, and I don’t want to subject my children to the latest passing fads in education.” [Williams home-schools his children.]

MX: Would you support hate-crime legislation that included gays, lesbians and the transgendered?

Neill: Not addressed.

Taylor: Not answered.

Williams: “No self-respecting Libertarian would favor laws against what people think or feel. A crime needs to be judged on its violence. If someone clubs me on the head to rob me, or someone clubs me over the head, saying he hates Libertarians — both of them should locked away.”

MX: Who are your heroes and/or role models in life?

Neill: Not addressed.

Taylor: Not addressed.

Williams: “I admired Barry Goldwater. He was smart, spunky and stood up for liberty. Some Libertarians speak highly of Thomas Jefferson; he talked good about liberty, but he couldn’t have not known that many people on his plantation were being held against their will. [But] if Bill Gates would destroy Microsoft, he’d be my hero.”

MX: If you were an animal, which one would you be?

Neill: “I went to Africa this year, so I may have a wild answer: a giraffe. I’ve seen the beauty of them on the plains of the Serengeti.”

Taylor: Not answered.

Williams: “A bear. I was always one of the shortest kids in class, and I like to think of myself as big and powerful. And bears will eat anything.”

MX: What are some of your favorite books and movies?

Neill: Not answered.

Taylor: Not answered.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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