Asheville City Council candidate interview: TJ Thomasson

Mountain Xpress: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your occupation, age, any political experience before now, how long you’ve been in Asheville, just introduce yourself.

TJ Thomasson: I work as an assistant innkeeper at a local bed and breakfast, it’s the North Lodge on Oakland, near A-B Tech. I’ve been in Asheville for six years now and this is the first time I’ve ran for political office, but I’ve worked on several campaigns in the area, Patsy Keever’s campaign; I’ve volunteered with Cecil Bothwell’s current campaign and also done work with the Obama and Hillary campaign.

I noticed in the Scrutiny Hooligans blog that you said that the 2008 campaign really got you fired up about politics. Can you explain that a little more?

I originally was a Hillary Clinton supporter, but obviously coming from my perspective as a progressive, the ultimate goal was to not have another George Bush elected in the form of McCain/Palin, so I jumped on the Obama bandwagon right after the primary was decided and he just really inspired me to come out and get people to come out and vote and work on his campaign. I was really excited when he was elected and I’m glad that America is on the path that it’s on, compared to where we could have been if we had elected someone else.

Is it true that you have an Obama tattoo?

Yes, I do. It’s on my left shoulder.

So, as you know then, working with politicians a little bit through some of those campaigns you mentioned earlier, it can’t all be glittering generalities. It can’t all just be the phrases and the buzzwords. I’m curious what specific steps you’ll take to addressing Asheville’s lack of affordable housing. How do you plan to handle that?

With affordable housing, one thing that I really like that I’ve read some about is the mixed housing. I know that—I went to a City Council meeting about a month ago and they’re really exploring this with Lee Walker Heights to try just to redevelop that project because, like a lot of our housing projects in the city, it’s almost, I call it, infrastructure discrimination because these people are land-locked and there’s only one way in and one way out. I really think it just sets everybody that lives there up for harder conditions and I would really like to see the city look at more, at getting more of these grants to redevelop, have mixed housing where you have low income and middle income all living in the same community. Then, that will just build community because we’ll know our neighbors and knowing your neighbors and knowing your community can make a big impact on reducing crime.

So, you don’t want things to feel so polarized when you enter a neighborhood.

Yeah, that’s what we really need to address when it comes to affordable housing and just redoing how we see things. I don’t’ think things should have been done the way they were done when those projects were built.

Can you elaborate on what things you didn’t agree with?

I just think the city planners at that time, they just wanted to get the housing projects and put them into pods, I just call them pods. This land that they put them on, especially with Hillcrest, the land they put them on was used for nothing so they decided to put a housing project there. And it worked at the time because they wanted to use the land, wanted to give people some low-income or even free housing. So, I think it worked then but now we’re at a different time where we need to include people. We need to all be part of Asheville. 

Being a part of Asheville is also about getting around Asheville. Do you think that we need to improve the Asheville transit system, and if so, how would you plan to do it, especially in regard to funding?

Definitely need a transit system, definitely something that we need to change because I want to be able to drive as little as possible. I’ve attempted to ride the bus and I haven’t found where I could ride the bus to work and. depending on my schedule, I would have to find a different way home because either the bus stops at 11 and I get off at 11, and that would prevent me from being able to take the bus home, so I think we do need to look at extending the hours some and the routes that are really really heavily used, we need to double up and have more of those routes. The biggest problem with the transit is the fact that right now every bus goes to the central terminal. Like a couple years ago, I wanted to take the bus because I actually didn’t have a car at the time and I could walk to work in 45 minutes. If wanted to ride the bus it would take about two hours because I’d have to go get a transfer and go out Tunnel Road. It definitely needs to improve its efficiency and I think the transit master plan addresses a lot of those issues. And definitely Sunday service is a big thing that I’ve always wanted to see in Asheville. As you said, the funding is a big key, especially during our current economic times. But I really think we really need to view public transit like we do our streets. When streets are in disrepair, we find the funding. I look at the bus system the same way that it’s in disrepair, so we can find the funding. I’m in favor of a bond referendum to raise money to implement the bus transit because if you get this implemented it will get more and more people riding the bus, which will bring more revenue into the system. So in the long haul, we would make that money back with a temporary bond referendum.

With the bond referendum, is that how you think funds can be found?

Yeah, I think. I’ve looked at the budget and I really don’t see a lot of places where I would really want to cut, and I definitely not in favor of raising the property taxes so I think a bond referendum. And I work in the tourism industry and I know I’ve read about how our hotel occupancy rate has really been improving this year compared to last year, so I would even look at maybe a small increase in the occupancy tax rate. I think if we raise it like a quarter of a cent, then we can get our tourists helping to fund our sidewalks and our bike lanes and helping the bus system. And I think just a tiny increase is not going to affect the tourism because Asheville is a place everybody wants to come so if you have to pay an extra $5 or $10 on a hotel, I don’t think that will affect them coming to Asheville.

You just said that you don’t want to cut very much in the current budget, but let’s say we face another downfall in regard to the budget. How would you deal with that, especially if you had to make a cut?  Then on the flipside, if there was a revenue, where would you put that money?

I guess I’ll look at the positive first if we have a revenue. I would like to see us more money toward more bike lanes and improving our sidewalks. And one big issue with the sidewalks is crosswalks because we have a lot of new sidewalks, but haven’t really put in the crosswalks. Until recently in Biltmore Village, they had crosswalk signs that all the time just had a red hand and I had noticed in the last month that they had started working, so Biltmore Village really needs those signs to be working, and I’m glad they’re working. We just need to make sure we have those signs and safe crosswalks for pedestrians walking around downtown. And so that’s where I would put the money, and really the mass transit, because one of my campaign goals is to get more and more people out of their cars and walking, riding their bike, riding the bus because a walkable city will make a healthier city because the top ten healthiest cities in America are also the top ten walkable cities.

When you say, “walkable city,” are you referring to a specific part of Asheville? As you said, making Asheville a more walkable city is a major campaign goal of yours. Is there a particular area that you would like to at least start? Downtown? North Asheville? South Asheville? East Asheville?

We need to really address — I think they’ve done a good thing with the new sidewalks they’ve put in. They’ve pinpointed the priorities but definitely South Asheville, especially down Hendersonville Road, there’s long stretches where there’s no sidewalk. We need sidewalks in South. We need better sidewalks in North and East Asheville has had a long history of having really poor sidewalks and they really started coming a long way there. In West Asheville, it would be nice if it was easier to walk to downtown from West Asheville, it’s just 240 creates a big hassle and an extra long way to walk. The bike lanes that they put in to connect West Asheville to the River Arts District, I think, has really helped at least in making it at least a rideable city because I’d put rideable and walkable almost in the same thing because people aren’t going to walk from way West Asheville to downtown anyway.

We have to get back to the part of the question that you skimmed over. If you had to cut something, where would you cut?

That is a tough question. I would really look at the current budget to see what we can cut. My first thing is myself, as we have a big green trashcan, and we compost, and we recycle; and every week when the trash comes to pickup my green trashcan it’s hardly half-full. So one place I could immediately cut is changing trash pickup to every two weeks, like recycling. That would encourage, or almost force people, to do more composting, to recycle, and to take better care of what their trash is. That would be one way to cut some of the budget. It’s really a tough issue. I would actually look at the salaries. Anyone making over $100,000, I would look to see if the salaries could be trimmed a little bit if we were faced with a big deficit because I know our city employees haven’t had a raise in three years now. So that’s one area that I would like to look at if we had revenue, we could finally give our city employees a raise that they haven’t had in three years.

So when you say “anyone making more than $100,000,” who are you referring to specifically?

I was referring to city employees. I thought anyone making over $100,000 that we could give them a temporary 2 percent cut. That would actually be the last thing that I would want to do is to cut anyone’s salary. One thing I could see that we could cut would be travel expenses because in today’s time we can do a lot of teleconferencing. So I would say put a travel freeze if we’re under dire restraints that we don’t do any traveling unless its an extreme emergency, and that would cut some money as well.

Speaking of other tough issues, Asheville’s relationship with Raleigh has been considered by many to be a bit strained. So if you were elected, what exactly would you want to do to improve Asheville’s relationship with Raleigh?

I would really like to reach out to Raleigh because I know generally he philosophy that the Republicans are now in control is for smaller government and I really don’t see how it’s smaller government if they’re reaching the state’s hands into the local pot and trying to control how Asheville is running our city. I would just really like to have good conversations with Raleigh to try to come to the understand that we in Asheville know best for what Asheville needs in terms of merging the Buncombe County and the Asheville City Schools, which I know they had a push for that. Buncombe County schools and Asheville County Schools, neither one wants to merge into one because they’re really two totally different systems. They’re a lot different. I really think it would create a lot of issues in terms of different mindsets that are running Buncombe County Schools, different mindsets of the students that are going to the county schools and different ones that are in the city schools. So that’s one thing that I would like to protect to keep Asheville City Schools separate, and not us be forced to merge together. And we must also do everything we can to protect our water system along with the airport. So there’s two sort of fights that we have ahead and I hope they can be meaningful conversations. I have liked more of what I read about Tim Moffitt recently sine he was that’s brought a lot of these issues to Raleigh. He does seem to be listening to the voters now. At first it looked like he was going for a big power grab, but now it seems like he’s seen a big reaction from Asheville and I’m sure he wants to be reelected so he’s needs to listen to the voters and listen to what they want for Asheville; and we need to protect what Asheville has paid for with the water system and the airport and just keep the schools the way they are.

So it sounds like transparency and open communication are driving how you would handle this?

Especially with Tim Moffitt, even with the LGBT and the anti-gay marriage amendment, he really seems to be open to listening to the views of people because he still says that he hasn’t decided how he’s going to vote on that issue and I know we’ve been doing a lot of phone calling to try to convince him to vote against it and to vote with the majority of the democrats and not just vote with the republicans and not just put this on the ballot so more republicans can get elected because you shouldn’t be using gay marriage as an issue just to get more votes.

Interesting point, since in case people don’t know, you are running as an openly gay candidate in a city that is largely very accepting of the LGBT community. So, that being said, what would you bring to City Council as a gay candidate?

With the LGBT issues, the biggest thing I see right now actually goes back to the Equality Resolution Council passed earlier this year. A big piece of that was the anti-bullying ordinance, which has still not been implemented, still is not on the books. I would really like to pressure the City attorney to come back to Council with how the ordinance should read and so we can go ahead and get that implemented and start protecting people and hopefully prevent some of the hate crimes from happening that have happened in recent months around Asheville. That’s my first priority, and I really just think for the LGBT community to have a voice on City Council. I’ve seen statistics anywhere from 10 to 14 percent of Asheville is LGBT so I think I would really make them proud to have someone to look at that they can come to with their issues and I know most of the Council is very open.

Which like you said, Council recently passed the Equality Resolution without much dispute. So it sounds like a lot of what you can bring is that representation from what you are saying.

I really think it would help to educate those people that may not be as open-minded if they see that one of us is just a regular person, just the whole education key. Like if this anti-gay marriage amendment makes it to the ballot, our big commitment will be to educating the people in North Carolina that we don’t need discrimination, bigotry, put into our constitution, and that we’re regular people. We need more and more people to come out and educate those around them to be more open-minded, more accepting, and more welcoming and not preaching the hate.

How do you plan to win?

Other than the big issues of wanting more sidewalks and bike lanes and wanting a more LGBT community because Asheville is probably as friendly as you’re going to get in the South, my big issue, another big issue I’m passionate about, is the environment, sustainable development. I live in the Kenilworth Community and Kenilworth has been affected by some less than sustainable development that has been passed by City Council and to me it feels like what the community wanted was ignored by City Council because they signed a petition to have it rezoned to protect the community from having a large apartment complex built, and City Council came up a couple votes short of the supermajority to rezone it since Jan Davis and Bill Russell did not vote with the rest of the Council to rezone it. So environment and sustainable development is a big issue for me. There’s a lot of projects that were approved that I wouldn’t have approved if I had been on City Council.

I wouldn’t have voted for the 51 Biltmore Project. I think that large hotel that’s going into Biltmore is really out of character with the rest of the buildings around there and the big point is I don’t like that large amount of money that the City’s giving away that’s going to take 50 years for the City to get their money back. I just don’t see that as something we need to do to get businesses in downtown Asheville.

Is there anything else you would really like the people of Asheville to know about you as a candidate that they may not know?

One thing I like to mention a lot is job creation. What I really think Asheville needs to look at in bringing more jobs to Asheville is doing what they’ve done in the River Arts District. They’ve attracted what Richard Florida, he’s done a lot of research, he calls it the “creative class.” It’s this group of entrepreneurs that are coming to Asheville. They’re the artists; they’re the people that are bringing the tourists here, so we need to continue to have incentives to attract these people. We need to have — we need more of the River Arts District all around Asheville and I think if we just continue to have incentives to bring these people to Asheville, it will just make more booming. People will come up with different businesses to create, green businesses like Brownie Newman who’s leaving City Council to manage his business that’s really exploded, it’s of the biggest explosions of green companies in America, and we just need more and more of those type businesses to develop. So I’d like to see us have more incentives and I think the Equality Resolution and the city offering same-sex benefits really attracts this creative class because they’re progressive, they’re not necessarily gay, but some of them are, so they want to come to a city that’s accepting of all people. So we need to continue to have incentives from social issues to economic benefits.

When you say incentives, do you mean monetary incentives?
I would say the social incentives are the big thing, and we do have low interest loans that not necessarily the city is putting out, but BizWorks, which is really helping businesses get off the ground. And I just think the city has a great environment to support something like BizWorks helping small people start businesses and this will be a booming. I don’t think the city is at a point right now where they could really offer monetary incentives other than trying to keep the rent low in those developing areas.



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