Up close and personal

You could say that next week’s election for the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners pits Team Challenger against Team Incumbent. And it’s true that a cohesive Republican slate has emerged to take on the Democratic incumbents.

But the matchup may be more like an Olympic individual-gymnastics competition than the final game of the World Series. Although each side is running as a team, voters can choose any individual candidates they wish (including a player from yet another contender, Team Reform Party) to fill the five seats on the board for the next four years.

The Democratic incumbents have faced a barrage of criticism from their Republican and Reform opponents, much of it centering on the commissioners’ handling of the zoning issue (which critics say divided the community) and charges that the county’s finances are in trouble.

In March of 1999 the board adopted the Comprehensive Land-Use Plan (an alternative to zoning) after many public hearings and a year of work by the Land-Use Plan Commission. But by fall 1999, board Chair Tom Sobol, Vice Chair Patsy Keever and Commissioner David Gantt had changed their minds and decided to back zoning. The issue was put to a referendum, and about 21,000 people (56 percent of the votes cast) voted thumbs-down last November on the concept of zoning.

“We must heal the wounds that have been bestowed upon this community,” Republican candidate Mike Morgan proclaimed at a Sept. 14 candidates’ forum in Fairview.

But Sobol says controversial issues simply come with the territory.

“If you show me a board that’s never addressed any divisive issues, I’ll show you a board that’s never made any tough decisions. If you never had a board that made any tough decisions, you have a board that’s never accomplished very much,” he declares.

The Republicans also say the county has financial problems, citing as evidence the commissioners’ decision to dip into the county’s fund balance (a kind of rainy-day fund) to the tune of $5.18 million to balance this year’s budget. But the commissioners say that they don’t anticipate actually spending any of the fund-balance they appropriated, and they point to recent bond ratings by Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s to support their contention that the county is in fine financial shape.

Despite being put on the defensive, the incumbents say their leadership has produced good results, including: library-system expansions and new soccer fields; an award-winning landfill; and the county’s role in supporting Project Access, a public/private partnership providing medical care for local people who are poor and uninsured. The incumbents also note that they’ve been endorsed by the Asheville and Buncombe chapters of the N.C. Association of Educators.

By the way, the compensation for these much-sought-after jobs may surprise you (especially in light of what some candidates are spending on their campaigns): The chairman’s position pays $17,888 annually (plus $6,500 in travel expenses and a $910 cell-phone allowance), while the commissioners each are paid $11,752 annually (plus $5,200 in travel expenses and a $910 cell-phone allowance).

Sobol estimates he’ll spend $50,000 this year; challenger Nathan Ramsey says he’ll match that. The rest say they project spending these amounts: Gerald Dean and Bill Stanley, $10,000 each; Vernon Sharp, $11,000; Michael Keleher, $12,000; Eric Henson, Patsy Keever and David Young, $15,000 each; Mike Morgan, $32,000; and David Gantt, $40,000.

In support of the incumbents, a group called Citizens for Experienced Leadership has spent about $20,000 (including contributions from supporters and the candidates), Sobol says. Two political-action committees are supporting the challengers: Citizens for Change, which treasurer Peggy Bennett of Leicester estimates will spend less than $5,000, and Citizens for Accountable Government, led by native Ashevillean (and former vice mayor) Chris Peterson, who estimates the group has spent about $4,000.

Team loyalties aside, here’s a look at the individual candidates, presented in the order in which they’ll appear on the ballot.

Tom Sobol, Democrat

Tom Sobol likes his work — and he wants to keep doing it. Sobol, who turns 58 on Nov. 5, has been a local elected official almost as long as his 32-year-old opponent, Nathan Ramsey, has been alive. Sobol has served 16 years as a county commissioner, including the past four as chairman (a position that consumes about 30 hours a week). Before gaining county office, he spent a combined total of 15 years as alderman and mayor of Black Mountain.

A graduate of Owen High School, the Black Mountain resident holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from East Carolina University. Sobol owns Valley Realty & Insurance (which, despite the name, doesn’t sell insurance), where he works another 30 hours a week as a real-estate appraiser. He’s also a small-scale builder with a three-man crew.

Sobol’s office at the county courthouse hints at his Democratic Party loyalties: The decor includes donkey-head bookends and a framed copy of JFK’s inaugural address.

“I think this election is an issue of experience and commitment,” Sobol says. “I have the experience, and I think my record shows I have the commitment. This is not a job you do in two hours a day, 10 hours a week.”

Nathan Ramsey, Republican

Although Nathan Ramsey has never held elective office, that doesn’t mean he’s completely new to politics — or to opposing Sobol. The Fairview dairy farmer (the first Republican in his family) helped organize Citizens for Property Rights, a group that vehemently opposed the zoning proposal in last November’s referendum.

Ramsey graduated from Reynolds High School and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting from UNCA, followed by a law degree from the University of Tennessee.

Although he had opportunities to practice law, Ramsey says he chose to return home to a job he enjoys. He and his brother, Bart, along with three other full-time employees, tend a 100-cow dairy herd. And though he’s been labeled a developer, Ramsey notes that he and his brother have built only two houses.

“I’m going to work for better education, better jobs, better quality of life for our community,” Ramsey declares when asked what sets him apart from his opponent. “I’m going to unite our community, rather than divide it. [Sobol] talks about his experience, but I don’t think that experience has been good for Buncombe County. I’m not going to talk out of both sides of my mouth. I’m going to say the same thing no matter who the audience is.”

David Gantt, Democrat

The only lawyer on the current board, David Gantt appears at ease in front of an audience, even to the point of poking fun at himself when he ran out of speaking time at the Fairview candidates’ forum earlier this fall. (“Typical lawyer,” he said with a laugh.)

Gantt, 44, whose specialties include personal-injury law, is completing his first term on the board. Born in Winston-Salem, he graduated from Sanford High School and UNC-Chapel Hill with a bachelor’s degree in economics. He earned his law degree from Campbell Law School. He and his family live in Fletcher.

Gantt believes his background as an attorney and small-business owner has helped him understand both the workings of government and the challenges of running a business.

“As a father and husband, I understand the need for family-friendly policies and ordinances. As an outdoorsman, I have a good appreciation of the natural beauty God’s given us here,” says Gantt. “I feel that I owe the community a lot because of my background, and I truly want to give back to the community, because I care about it.”

Patsy Keever, Democrat

Even when Patsy Keever leaves the schoolroom, she’s still a teacher at heart.

Pinned to the bulletin board in her office at the county courthouse is a snapshot of Keever and a student rolling down a sand dune during a field trip to Jockey’s Ridge. And should you ever have a coughing attack in her office (as happened to a certain unnamed reporter), trust her to have a cup of water, a cough drop and a tissue at the ready.

Keever, 52, works as an eighth-grade social-studies and language-arts teacher at Enka Middle School. The two-term commissioner/board vice chair earned her undergraduate degree in elementary education at Duke University and her master’s in education at Western Carolina University. She also serves on the county health board, appointed by her fellow commissioners.

What sets Keever apart from her opponents? “The most obvious thing is I’m a woman, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that. To have a woman’s perspective on a board is important,” the Asheville resident says. “Other than that, the skills I have as a communicator, a listener, things I have gained over the years as a teacher … and the experience I have in working with so many different people over the years.”

Bill Stanley, Democrat

A signed poster of bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs hanging in Bill Stanley‘s office hints at both the commissioner’s musical taste and his former life as owner of Bill Stanley’s Barbecue and Bluegrass Restaurant, which had a 10-year run ending in 1989.

Before opening the restaurant, Stanley had retired as principal of Asheville High School. The 71-year-old Stanley grew up in Marion and has lived in Buncombe County since 1957. He earned a bachelor’s degree in science and a master’s in biology at Appalachian State Teachers College (now ASU) and received his principal’s certification from Western Carolina University.

Allowing that he “probably has a short fuse,” he has sometimes lost patience with speakers who regularly criticize the board.

Past president of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, Stanley has served on state and national committees related to county government. Having served on the board since 1988, Stanley says experience sets him apart from his opponents.

“I”ve been here a long time,” he continues. “I think my participation on the state level has made some inroads to help us here in this county.”

David Young, Democrat

There are two Davids on the Board of Commissioners; David Young is the one who isn’t a lawyer.

Maybe you could call him the economic-development guy. Young, 40, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a bachelor’s degree in industrial relations and economics. He chairs the Economic Development Commission, and he’s vice president and owner of Fugazy Travel.

The Asheville resident — who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Charles Taylor for a seat in Congress last time around — is seeking a third term as commissioner. Young, too, feels his experience distinguishes him from his opponents.

“Eight years of experience doing the job, eight years listening to citizens, eight years of working on the issues that are there in front of us,” Young recounts. “I think I’ve gained from experience working on the issues and initiating laws or ordinances that work effectively for the citizens here. I think I have a clear vision of what needs to be done to improve our community, but more importantly, I think I have the know-how to get it done. I’m really proud of the things we’ve done.”

Eric Henson, Republican

Eric Henson downs a double espresso and an oatmeal-crunchy concoction with aplomb while fielding questions at a downtown coffee shop.

Henson, 33, a political newcomer, was born in Johnson City, Tenn., but moved here with his family when he was 1 year old. He graduated from UNCA with a bachelor’s degree in history and reveals that he’s read enough history books to “fill a bookcase” (though he also admits to being an avid Stephen King fan). Henson works as operations manager for D.O. Creasman Co., a family-owned business started by his grandfather that does contract work (mainly for BellSouth) placing telephone cables.

When asked what sets him apart from his opponents, Henson mentions his 10 years of service in the Army Reserves — including four as a drill sergeant.

“That taught me a lot about discipline and accountability,” says Henson — a perspective he says his opponents lack.

Mike Morgan, Republican

West Buncombe business owner Mike Morgan declares, “I’m a Republican that cares about the environment.” He says he touted the benefits of low-sulfur fuel two years ago, though it didn’t become commercially available locally until this summer.

The 43-year-old Buncombe County native owns the Fast Break convenience store and Morgan Enterprises, a cleaning service, as well as rental property. He says he’s one quarter short of a degree in electronics and circuitry from A-B Tech.

What sets him apart from his opponents? “Honesty,” Morgan replies. “I’m in touch with the people. I have a convenience store. I’m in touch with them every day. I’ve never had political experience so, therefore, arrogance couldn’t be formed. He adds that his opponents “show signs of arrogance because they’ve been in office too long.”

The first-time candidate has known his share of controversy. He, along with Peter Dawes and Don Yelton, successfully sued Buncombe County last year over access to public records.

But a court case from the late ’80s — the focus of a Sept. 30 Asheville Citizen-Times article — has resurfaced to cast a shadow on Morgan’s campaign. In 1989, he agreed to terminate his parental rights to a daughter from his second marriage in exchange for the district attorney’s office dropping a first-degree sex-offense charge filed against him alleging he molested her, according to a document at the Buncombe County Courthouse. The charge was dropped, and Morgan says he had it expunged from his criminal record, though references to it remain in civil records.

“I”ve never been guilty of anything,” Morgan asserts. “I don’t have any criminal record; I’ve never been before a jury. But let me say this: Anybody that’s guilty of such a horrible act as I’ve been accused of, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. On the other hand, anyone that falsely accuses another of such an act should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law also.”

He says he agreed to terminate his parental rights because he didn’t want to put his child through more emotional stress, and because his lawyer advised him to accept the deal.

Morgan says the criminal charge was a result of a bad divorce, adding: “In the ’80s, it was a way to get custody of your child, and it worked.”

Michael Keleher, Republican

In his first bid for office, Michael Keleher says he’s proud to be called a “rookie.” His family, however, is no stranger to politics: His mother, Barbara C. Keleher, was the first woman to serve on the Asheville City Council; his father, Dr. Michael F. Keleher, served two terms on the board of the Asheville City Schools.

And, speaking of family, candidate Keleher is also related to famed impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. (Unfortunately, he says he doesn’t have any of his ancestor’s original paintings.)

Keleher, 45, grew up in Asheville and now lives in the Newfound Community in Buncombe County. He received a certificate in carpentry and cabinetmaking from A-B Tech, where he now serves as an adviser. He parlayed that training into his business, Creative Woodcrafters, which specializes in custom-designed cabinetry.

What sets him apart from his opponents? “The Republican attitude of less government — that the people are the best judge of what should happen in their lives, as opposed to the government dictating their lives to them — and fiscal responsibility,” Keleher offers.

Vernon Sharp, Republican

Candler resident Vernon Sharp jokes that he’ll do what he can to help senior citizens “because I am one.”

On the serious side, the 69-year-old Sharp says he’s concerned about low-income senior citizens having trouble paying their property taxes and medical bills. Although he admits it’s unlikely that the commissioners could help seniors with their medical bills, he says he’d like to give elderly property owners who earn less than $15,000 per year a rebate on taxes levied on the unused portions of their land. All North Carolina counties, including Buncombe, already have similar programs in effect, which allow elderly or permanently disabled people who earn less than $15,000 a year to reduce their tax bills by subtracting $20,000 from the value of their land, according to county Assistant Tax Director Gary Roberts.

A Buncombe County native, Sharp graduated from the former Candler High School. The Korean War veteran spent eight years in the Air Force (evenly split between active and reserve duty). He retired from Ethan Allen Inc. as Southeastern lumber manager, noting, “I was well-educated in the lumber and timber business.”

How does Sharp differ from his opponents? “I will be more open to any action taken pertaining to Buncombe County and its operations, and I will be accountable to all of the citizens in Buncombe County. That’s me.”

Gerald Dean, Reform Party

Gerald Dean says he’s been called the “Jesse Ventura of Buncombe County.” But he may be best known as one of the regular speakers who challenges the county commissioners at nearly every board meeting with his unique brand of humor and criticism.

A former Democrat, the 55-year-old Fairview businessman switched parties to run on the Reform ticket after he lost in the primary.

The owner of Prudential Asheville-Fairview Realty, he’s a general contractor as well as a plumbing, heating and electrical contractor. Dean quit school after the 10th grade at Massey Hill High School in Fayetteville, returning later to earn his GED. Since then, Dean says he’s taken more than 100 community-college and technical training courses and has served as an instructor at Fayetteville Technical Institute.

He calls his 1994 DWI conviction (he was pulled over after a close friend’s wake) “a dead issue.”

What’s different about Dean? “I’ve got the ability to tell you face to face what the facts are and not lie to you. Good, bad or ugly, I will tell you, and no one else that’s running in this election will do that,” Dean declares, adding, “I’m for truth, freedom and the Constitution.”

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