Go with what you know

It’s a sad day in Buncombe when we celebrate the fact that 48 percent of the registered voters actually made it to the polls. But celebrate we will, especially considering that this was a midterm election with no hotly contested presidential election to bolster the turnout.

Despite chilly weather and a steady rain, polling stations reported a steady flow of voters. Possibly influencing the turnout was the battle for the long-held seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Jesse Helms. Republican Elizabeth Dole faced off against Democrat Erskine Bowles, and though the race appeared close in the days leading up to the election, North Carolinians wound up honoring tradition by dubbing another conservative to replace Helms (arguably the U.S. Senate’s most conservative member). Dole carried the day, winning 54 percent of the vote (1,166,650 votes to Bowles’ 970,848). Here in Buncombe, however, things were much closer: A mere 45 votes separated the two.

In the 11th Congressional District, Republican incumbent Charles Taylor defeated Democrat Sam Neill for the second time. This year’s race was far tamer than the mudslinging, bare-knuckle boxing match staged by these same candidates in the last go-round. Apparently, this year’s kinder, gentler Neill proved no more appealing to voters than the pugnacious Neill of two years ago. More than 25,000 votes separated the two candidates — a substantial-enough gap to give any Dems waiting in the wings pause for thought. Libertarian candidate Eric Henry, meanwhile, would have made his namesake Patrick proud with his 3,068 votes — not bad for a guy who spent less than $1,000 on his campaign.

State and local races

In the state-level races, familiar names often produced familiar results: Longtime Democratic Rep. Martin Nesbitt handily defeated Republican Bill Porter by more than 5,000 votes. Libertarian Clarence Ervin Young netted 915 votes, a finish typical of the experience of Libertarian candidates statewide. Despite those low numbers, however, some will argue that Libertarians’ increased presence on North Carolina ballots has effectively highlighted their freedom-based platform. Whether it’s due to the Bush administration’s assault on civil liberties through the deceptively named USA Patriot Act, disgust with corporate welfare and economic globalization, or simply discontent with the homogenization of the mainstream parties into one monolithic “Republicrat” ruling party, more Libertarian candidates seem to be on the ballot in local races statewide, and even some more mainstream candidates appear to be echoing Libertarian tenets.

Incumbent state Sen. Steve Metcalf (49th District), a Democrat seeking his third term in Raleigh, roundly defeated his Republican opponent, R L Clark. Metcalf, coming off a legislative victory (he co-sponsored, with Nesbitt, the much-ballyhooed Clean Smokestacks Act), paid a high price for victory — more than $200,000, according to some estimates. Much of that money appears to have bankrolled the glossy mass mailings that have landed in local mailboxes at a steady clip in recent weeks. One can’t help wondering whether any thought was given to the trees sacrificed in order to promote this candidate’s environmental record.

But the passage of the popular Clean Smokestacks Act wasn’t enough to re-elect all of its supporters. Incumbent Republican Mark Crawford (115th House District), a vocal backer of the legislation, lost his seat to first-time politico Bruce Goforth, a Democrat who squeaked by with an 899-vote margin. Goforth also wins the unofficial designation of savviest campaign spender. Anyone who attended Asheville Tourists games this season spent a good amount of time staring at the ad for Goforth’s construction company (with his name prominently featured) on the outfield wall. Even tipsy Thirsty Thursday revelers left the ballpark knowing this guy’s name — and for a political outsider, name recognition is everything.

In the Buncombe County sheriff’s race, voters sent a message loud and clear: Incumbent Sheriff Bobby Medford is one popular lawman. Despite being mired in a controversy surrounding his department’s handling of an alleged domestic-violence incident involving Medford’s son, the sheriff trounced his Democratic opponent, Mike Ruby, by 12,000 votes.

Even in the liberal bastion of Asheville proper, Ruby wasn’t able to firm up his base of support. Although the challenger did carry the popular vote in the city (by a mere 1,103 votes), as the results poured in from around the county, Medford coasted to victory. Even in Asheville, in four precincts in different parts of the city, Ruby was the only Democratic candidate who lost. In other words, Democrats in these precincts backed their party’s candidates in every race except the sheriff’s contest.

Whether the lopsided contest reflects the age-old stereotype that Democrats are soft on crime or simply voter satisfaction with Medford’s job performance, Ruby suffered the worst loss of any local Democratic candidate. One tactic that may have backfired was the challenger’s emphasis on Medford’s budget. Ruby alleged that, under Medford, the Sheriff’s Department budget has jumped from $10 million (in 1994) to $18 million — without adding any more patrol officers. And though this message may have struck a chord with some voters, a good many others apparently feel that crime is being dealt with properly with the staff Medford has — whatever the cost.

In the local judicial races, sitting District Court Judge Shirley Brown will keep sitting (on the bench, that is), having fought off a feisty challenge from attorney Susan Wilson. In the other District Court race, Patricia Kaufmann defeated Roger Smith.

Finally, under the category of “Races With Interesting Results,” James Coman and Elise Israel won seats on the Soil and Water Conservation board. And while both candidates made strong showings, the real surprise here actually comes from one of their opponents. In the grand tradition of demanding a seat at the table (and backing it up with a mandate), Alan Ditmore — who ran on a platform of conserving natural resources by promoting birth control (a nonstandard approach, but logical given the connection between limited resources and population growth) — netted an impressive 7,393 votes.

And instead of licking his wounds the next day, Ditmore fired off an e-mail to various political leaders, environmentalists, media outlets and a hodgepodge of others, reasoning that since he scored 11 percent of the vote, that same percentage of the SWCD’s budget should be allocated to his issue. Ditmore figured that the district should spend about $565 of its $12,000 annual budget on family-planning services at the Buncombe County Board of Health “for the purpose of reducing the burden of soil, water and all natural resources caused by population.” (Each vote he received, the candidate calculated, was worth 7.6 cents.) We’re not sure the new leadership is ready to comply, but one has to admire Ditmore’s perseverance — now sanctioned by more than 7,000 voters.

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