Tall, lean and with movie-star good looks, Charles Carter seems relaxed as we talk politics on the patio of Mountain Java, the Merrimon Avenue coffee shop he owns. It’s a cool, sunny Sunday afternoon a mere six weeks before the election, and he’s just come from church with his family across the street. Baptized at Grace Episcopal 43 years ago, Carter has attended the pretty stone church all his life.
Born and raised in Buncombe County, Carter and two siblings grew up on the campus of the prestigious Asheville School, where his father was athletic director for 40 years and his mother still serves as part-time librarian. Carter played baseball, football and track, going on to play basketball at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. After a year-and-a-half in Barcelona, learning the language and soaking up the culture, he came home to Asheville in 1993 to teach Spanish at North Buncombe High School.
Growing up in a bipartisan, politically aware home, Carter had a sense of civic duty and public service instilled in him from an early age. But it was his experience in the classroom that first got him involved in politics. Believing that his students’ needs weren’t being adequately addressed by his own state senators, Republicans RL Clark and Jesse Ledbetter, Carter decided to challenge them himself. After narrowly losing in 1996, he went on to outpoll both men in the two-seat Senate district race in 1998, at age 31. He won a second Senate term two years later.
Carter feels the competitive but cooperative nature of team sports was good preparation for politics: “You have a lot coming at you at once; you want to succeed and you want to win,” he explains. Clearly passionate about his party’s principles, Carter evokes Bill Clinton as he leans in and looks me in the eye.
“You put education and business first, and you take care of your environment,” he says. “Those principles guide me — I want everyone to buy into those; I want to help everyone see why those are so important to the candidates who are running under the Democratic Party.” He even sounds a little like Clinton. “I think it’s a testament when they win that you’re succeeding in getting that message across.”
It was on the campaign trail that Carter first came to appreciate the value of a good party structure. Teaching school all day and traveling the expansive district at night and on weekends, the candidate relied on the Democratic Party to carry his message forward when he himself couldn’t. He’s been active in the party ever since.
After the Democratic landslides of 2006 and 2008, Carter saw an opportunity to serve his party even more by helping secure victory in this year’s midterm elections, so he sought the post of party chair, which he’s held for almost a year-and-a-half now. With no presidential contest on the ballot, midterm elections typically see a much lower turnout.
“You have to put so much more effort into voter turnout,” he notes. “You have to get out there and remind people that there’s an election … and get them organized to get out to the polls. That takes a lot of effort in terms of canvassing, phone-banking and organizing the party structure so the whole party is moving in one direction and with one voice. You really can’t have any battles within the party: You have to be unified.”
Carter says he’s proud of how the party’s sometimes disparate factions have largely put aside their differences to focus on electing Democratic candidates come November. He’s also quick to give credit to virtually everyone except himself, reciting a litany of party officers, precinct chairs and activists.
“I think we recognized after this last election, when we were so successful — we elected people every place we ran — that we have a broad range of philosophies. The bigger your tent, the wider your views: You’re going to have progressives, you’re going to have conservatives. But at the end of the day, you bring everyone together to help one another win.”
I mention that many Republicans I’ve spoken with predict enough of a progressive defection this year to hurt Democrats’ prospects — and specifically, to enable Republican challenger Jeff Miller to eke out a victory in the 11th Congressional District race.
“I hope that’s their strategy, because that’ll fail,” Carter says with another big smile. “I hope they’re banking on that. I think that progressives here recognize that while Congressman Heath Shuler may not have voted on health-care reform the way they might have liked, he voted the right way on issues that are very important to them, particularly ‘cap and trade’ and the environment. Congressman Shuler has been a champion of keeping our region beautiful and clean. … And that’s not something we’d get under Miller.”
I ask Carter if he feels that any local races are a lock for the Democrats, and I can see his mind jumping as he handicaps the races in his head. “I consider every one of them as valuable as the next,” he says earnestly. “We’ve got to fight like we’re going to lose it — you never want to take any district for granted. We’ve got to work each of those precincts and get as many people to the polls as we can.”
There is one subject, however, that gets this otherwise unflappable fellow noticeably irked: the tactics of his Republican counterpart, Chad Nesbitt. It’s Sept. 12 — the day after Nesbitt has staged an event to raise money for the GOP. “When you see a party chairman who uses the memory of 9/11 and the memory of the people who passed away to raise money for a partisan effort … I’m curious if the Republicans in Buncombe County really endorse that,” says Carter. “If they really believe that that’s a proper way to communicate with the voters and to participate in our democracy.”
Nesbitt, continues Carter, is “a great opponent for us, he really is. Is that really what you’re going to run on? That somehow you think that if you continually drive wedges between people and between groups of people instead of working with people and building bridges … I’ll take that any day. I’m glad that he’s there. Basically the Carolina Stompers have hijacked the Republican Party. It’s a pretty scary thing.”
As for the proper role of party chairs, Carter says: “Chad and I, in our respective parties, serve the purpose of getting our candidates elected. … And that’s why you don’t see me out on TV as much as you see Chad on TV or in the news or in print or on viral videos. Because it’s not about me … and it’s not supposed to be about Chad. It’s about our candidates, it’s about our issues, it’s about our party.”
Michael Muller can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 154, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.