Council candidates share life on the campaign trail

READY, SET, GO!: The six candidates vying for a seat on Asheville City Council from left are Kim Roney; Kevan Frazier; Sage Turner; Bo Hess; Tod Leaven and CJ Domingo. Illustration by Randy Molton

Running for local elected office isn’t for the faint of heart. It involves investments in time, effort and money, as well as a willingness to stand up for your beliefs in the face of criticism or disagreement. 

Of the eight Asheville City Council candidates who decided to take the political plunge this year, only six advanced from the March primary: CJ Domingo, an operations supervisor at Securitas Loomis; Kevan Frazier, owner of Well Played Games and executive director of community partnerships at Western Carolina University; Bo Hess, clinical social worker at Western North Carolina Therapy and Consulting; Tod Leaven, an attorney at Leaven Law Firm; Kim Roney, music educator and City Council member since 2020; and Sage Turner, finance and project manager at the French Broad Food Co-Op and City Council member since 2020.

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, Asheville residents will choose three of those candidates to serve on Council. 

With the general election six months away, Xpress asked each candidate about campaign strategies and lessons from the trail thus far. All replied by email. Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Three of the Council candidates, Frazier, Leaven and Domingo, are running for office for the first time. 

“I suppose it’s most like being an intern,” says Domingo. “You keep showing up for a job with the hopes it turns into a ‘real’ position. You work as hard as you can and in return you’re getting ‘paid in experience.’ The biggest difference is that instead of trying to improve your own career prospects, you’re trying to improve your local government, and instead of bringing coffee to execs, you’re bringing hot chocolate and tea to the people helping to represent you at the polls.”

Meanwhile, Leaven says running an open and honest campaign can make a candidate feel vulnerable.

“You have to let people in and get to know you,” he notes. “It is easy to pander, be vague or respond in noncommittal ways, but this helps nobody. When you disagree or have contrary opinions, you need to listen but you also need to speak your truth. You have to be open and honest, and this can get awkward.”

For his part, Frazier says he doesn’t ordinarily enjoy the spotlight but campaigning has taught him to embrace discomfort as a way to connect with voters.

“Running for office for the first time has been a little strange,” Frazier says. “As a candidate, I am asked to talk about myself much more than I am wont to do. What’s more natural for me is to listen, to consider and then to lead in a collaborative way.”

All of the newcomers say they have been pleasantly surprised at the sense of congeniality among their fellow candidates, even when vitriol at the national and state levels seems to be at an all-time high. 

“I do not want this taken out of context, but I am surprised by how much I genuinely like the other candidates I am running with,” Leaven notes. “Even though I disagree with a number of their approaches, I believe they all have Asheville’s best interests at heart.”

Domingo echoes Leaven’s observation. “I have been pleasantly surprised how much locals are on the same page about many local problems and what types of solutions they would like to see our government and institutions pursue to improve the situation on our toughest challenges,” he says.

“Especially at the local level, we are just neighbors wanting to support our neighbors,” Frazier adds. “Twice during the primary season, we had public events that included dance parties. All candidate forums should include dance parties.”

Seasoned vets

On the other hand, this isn’t the first rodeo for the other half of the candidates. Turner, Roney and Hess have all led campaigns before.

Hess, who ran in 2022 for the U.S. House of Representatives in District 11, says that he vividly remembers the moment he decided to run in late November 2020.

“I started thinking about the critical issues of the time, for example, rising fentanyl overdoses and how the opiate epidemic ties into national security. I was concerned about surges in authoritarian tendencies, both at home and abroad,” Hess recalls. “I felt a bit out of my element.  I had never run for office, let alone on the national stage, but I also felt determined and called to serve my community.”

He laid the groundwork — filing the necessary paperwork, connecting with current and former officeholders and building a support team —  for around five months before launching his campaign in April 2021. “We sent out our press releases in the morning, and I was humbled by a quieter-than-expected reception, a firsthand experience of the importance in building trust and rapport in Western North Carolina’s political landscape,” Hess says. 

Council incumbent Turner remembers the months leading up to her 2020 primary Council win amid the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice uprisings and economic uncertainty. She attributes her electoral win as a first-time candidate to decades of community service and relationship building.

“The primary was exciting, daunting and full of activity. I was attending events, meetings, coffees, house parties, luncheons, etc., almost daily for months. Then COVID hit a few days after the primary, and within a couple weeks, we were in shutdown mode,” Turner remembers. “That changed the general election, as we moved to virtual meetings, virtual neighborhood gatherings, approximately 20 questionnaires and very few events. Campaigning took on a new energy, one of greater concern for community survival, first responders, emergencies, hospitals, salvaging business activity and incredible uncertainty.”

Incumbent Roney, who first ran for City Council in 2017, recalls the exhilaration of campaigning for the first time.  

“Those days of juggling two jobs while planning fundraisers, participating in 23 candidate forums and knocking on thousands of doors was so exhausting and yet so heartwarming,” remembers Roney. “When I assembled a team of friends and neighbors to help me run for City Council, I knew we would be running on a tight budget and without political party infrastructure, but it was exciting to innovate ways we could mobilize working, poor and compassionate people that shared a vision for ways Asheville could “Be ’Bout It Being Better.”

Hess, who was the fourth-highest vote-getter in the 2022 Democratic primary election for the 11th District, says the experience of running for office is full of highs and lows.

“There will be moments when you feel unstoppable, fully supported and as if everything is falling into place. Conversely, there will be times when it seems like no one is paying attention or cares about your campaign, and every step feels like an uphill battle,” Hess explains. “Running for office is a valuable experience, regardless of the outcome. Whether you win or lose, you’ll find the journey worthwhile. Stay positive, be present at every possible event and engage with your community.”

Roney says that she was “heartbroken” after losing the 2017 Council race but recalls some sage advice from a friend and fellow gardener. “It’s not about wins and losses; it’s about growing, so compost that energy into the next season of change,” Roney says. “So that’s what I do no matter what the outcome of an election.”

Building community

In the months ahead, candidates can count on sending emails, posting on social media, answering questionnaires and attending forums, meet-and-greets, house parties and more. 

Turner says in addition to all that, she’ll continue to provide context and clarity around current City Council issues and continue communicating with residents. 

“Info sharing remains the biggest component for me. Government and its many layers are complex; folks want to understand and learn how they can get involved and help shape their community,” she says. “Campaigning a second time is exciting in a new way, in that it’s a broader check-in with residents and neighborhoods on their issues, large and small. It is also helpful to hear direct feedback about how I’ve been doing thus far.”

HATS IN THE RING: This year’s candidates for Asheville City Council are, clockwise from top center, Kevan Frazier, Sage Turner, Bo Hess, Tod Leaven, CJ Domingo and Kim Roney. Photos courtesy of the candidates

Frazier says his favorite way to connect with voters is in small groups and plans to attend several meet-and-greets over the next few months.  

“I love meeting folks one on one as well, but I am finding that in small groups neighbors feel empowered and more comfortable speaking about what excites them about our community or what is keeping them up at night,” he says. “Surprisingly, one of the most powerful tools has been the postcards I sent to voters. In my businesses, we rely heavily on social media, but I am not finding it a useful tool for the campaign. In this time of never knowing if what you see online is actually real, in-person is powerful.”

Roney is also continuing two campaign innovations from her 2017 run: homemade yard signs and custom seed packets that share campaign information. 

“Our hand-painted, wooden signs were a tremendous group effort and definitely a labor of love,” Roney recalls. “It was hard, messy work that I couldn’t have done without a skillful, core team and dozens of volunteers. I often joke that if I never see another pallet again it will be too soon, but our process changed my way of thinking, and now I can’t walk past a construction site without peeking into the dumpster and estimating how many signs could be built.”

Having your back

Behind any good candidate is a network of friends, family and mentors. Leaven says that while his network is vast — he’s a combat veteran, lawyer and adjunct professor at the UNC School of Law — his family has been the foundation of his campaign. 

“My wife told me from the start to just be myself. I met early on with a lot of people in the know, and they had a wealth of great information, but in the end, it was my wife who gave the best advice,” says Leaven. “My wife is one of the most ethical and honest people I know. She is also wickedly smart and strong. She keeps me grounded and is my lodestar.”

“From my mentors, I’ve learned that politics is a marathon, not a sprint,” adds Hess, who says his mentors include both former and current players in the political arena. “I often tell voters and my team that I welcome constructive feedback — it’s essential for my growth and effectiveness as a candidate and, hopefully, as a representative.”

For his part, Domingo says that he’s grateful to have received a plethora of advice and help from former candidates, employers, friends and family. 

“I would say that the most important lesson is this: If you see a problem — even if it is bigger than you can solve — if you start taking the first steps to fix it, you will be surprised how many people will appear to try and help,” he says.

Just do it 

Reflecting on their campaigns so far, all six of the Council candidates offer hearty encouragement to anyone considering running for elected office. 

“Go for it! Local races don’t cost a lot upfront, and you will learn a mind-blowing amount about your community,” Domingo says. “The real cost is showing up every day, but it is absolutely worth it to gain a new perspective on our city and to meet hardworking folks who strive to make Asheville a better place.”

“I absolutely love the fact that anyone with the drive can step up to help get this amazing city back on track,” says Leaven. “Also, don’t try to be the perfect candidate for Asheville — just be yourself. Democracies always get what they deserve. If you are true to yourself and you are what Asheville wants, then you will get elected.” 

“Do it! We need more folks stepping into these challenging roles. We are a better city when we have diverse leadership with various backgrounds and perspectives,” says Turner. “I encourage everyone to consider it.” 

Hess sounds a similar note.

“My advice is to not let self-doubt take hold. Ignore the inner voice that says you can’t do it or that you don’t fit the traditional political mold. Keep your vision clear, maintain your integrity and focus on your goals,” he says. “I myself am not what many would picture as the ‘typical politician,’ yet I firmly believe that with hard work, a compelling message and a sincere heart, anyone can run for office — and should — if they feel called to it.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.