As Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville prepared to resign his seat in the state House of Representatives on Oct. 5, people on both sides of the aisle said they were sorry to see him go.
McGrady describes himself as an “environmental Republican” who’s secured significant funding and protections for natural resources in Western North Carolina. He’s also been a champion for the burgeoning local brewing and distilling industries as chair of the House Alcoholic Beverage Control Committee.
“We really appreciated Chuck McGrady’s service,” said Merry Guy, chair of the Henderson County Republican Party. “We will miss him. He served us very well and honorably and has been a great benefit to Henderson County and the state.”
Julie Mayfield, a member of Asheville City Council, co-director of nonprofit MountainTrue and the Democratic candidate for state Senate District 49, told Xpress that McGrady not only pursued sound environmental policy, “he also kept many environmentally damaging bills from moving forward.” While Mayfield hasn’t agreed with McGrady on every issue (“Certainly we had polar opposite stances on the Asheville water system fight”), she credited the former camp director with knowing “what was possible within a Republican-led legislature.” In the process, McGrady plowed a “difficult middle ground,” she said.
The Republican nominee to fill McGrady’s District 117 seat, Tim Moffitt, generates less enthusiasm among local Democrats. Moffitt grew up in Henderson County and now lives in its Bearwallow community, but he is also modestly famous — to some, infamous — in Buncombe County, where he served as representative for state House District 116 for two terms beginning in 2010. Democrat Brian Turner has held that seat since besting Moffitt in the 2014 general election.
Many Buncombe residents associate Moffitt with legislation he filed to wrest control of Asheville’s water system from the city. After a five-year battle, the state’s Supreme Court returned ownership and control over the system to Asheville on Dec. 21, 2016.
And Moffitt also championed a 2011 bill that created election districts for seats on the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, a move David Gantt, then-chair of the all-Democratic board, said “blindsided” him.
Buncombe Republicans appointed Moffitt to a brief term on the board in 2016 after the resignation of former Commissioner Miranda DeBruhl.
With Moffitt now also the presumptive candidate to replace McGrady until the Tuesday, Nov. 3, general election, how might his brief incumbency affect the outcome of the race and the new legislative session set to start in January?
Change of plan
While McGrady says he initially expected to retire from active public service after wrapping up his fifth term in the state legislature on Thursday, Dec. 31, plans changed when House Republicans selected him to fill an at-large seat on the N.C. Board of Transportation in August.
As a budget chair in the state House, McGrady says he felt an obligation to stay on until the legislature had completed spending bills for the year. Because separation-of-powers rules prohibit an official from working in more than one branch of state government simultaneously, McGrady then resigned his House seat on Oct. 5 ahead of his swearing-in as a member of the transportation board, which next meets Thursday, Oct. 8.
According to Guy, the vote to appoint McGrady’s replacement will also take place Oct. 8. The decision will include county Republican precinct chairs and other party executives who live in District 117. Sometime after that vote, Governor Roy Cooper will appoint the local pick.
Guy says Moffitt has confirmed that he will be present for the vote and that he’s ready and willing to accept the appointment.
Even before McGrady’s resignation became a factor in the race, Moffitt appeared to hold an advantage over his Democratic opponent, Josh Remillard. In the primary, Moffitt received 79.4% of the Republican vote (8,713 ballots); his primary opponent, Dennis Justice, took 20.6%.
Remillard had faced Democrat Danae Aicher in the primary, but Aicher withdrew before the election. Her name still appeared on the ballot, however, and received 45.8% of the vote, compared to Remillard’s 54.2%. Between the two candidates, Democratic primary voters cast 9,007 votes, just 294 more than Moffitt’s vote total.
Unaffiliated voters make up the plurality — 26,008 — of registered voters in state House District 117, which covers northern Henderson County and encompasses Hendersonville, Fletcher, Laurel Park and Mills River. Republicans account for 22,443 district voters, while registered Democrats total 13,240.
In addition to his numerical advantage, Moffitt has greater name recognition than Remillard, an Army veteran who moved to the area two years ago. But Remillard says he’s not sure Henderson County voters know much about the Republican.
While Remillard says he’s had several conversations with McGrady, he’s yet to meet his opponent. He argues that Moffitt hasn’t been an active presence in Henderson County during the campaign: Save for attending President Donald Trump’s August rally in Mills River, Remillard says he’s not aware of any public appearances this year by Moffitt.
“My guess is they don’t run in the same circles,” responds Guy, when asked about Remillard’s assertion. “Tim’s been very active with the party for several years, so there’s a whole lot of folks who have met him through that,” she adds.
Moffitt did not respond to several phone and email requests for comment submitted by Xpress.
Taking office prior to the election could give Moffitt “a little bit of a head start, potentially, serving in that capacity,” says McGrady. “It’s sort of traditional that the party will nominate whoever the nominee is at this point. He’s already won a primary, so there’s not a lot of point in appointing somebody else.”
Guy agrees but adds that “I don’t know that running as an incumbent will help at this late date. Should [Moffitt] win the general, which we’re hopeful, he’ll already have things in place.”
Chris Cooper, professor of political science at Western Carolina University, also thinks the advantages of incumbency will be minimal “given that Moffitt has already served, has relatively high name recognition and this appointment will only be for a very short period of time.”
District 117 is “considered a fairly safe Republican district,” Cooper notes.
Still, a Moffitt victory isn’t a foregone conclusion: “Every now and again, there are upsets in the General Assembly. Remillard has shown some ability to fundraise and is running a professional campaign,” Cooper says. Early absentee voting-by-mail returns in the district tilt heavily in Democrats’ direction, with only 20% of the 7,657 votes accepted as of Oct. 5 coming from registered Republicans. That asymmetry, however, isn’t expected to hold throughout early and Election Day voting, says Cooper.
Moffitt’s campaign website states that his prior stints in office will count toward his seniority in the state legislature. “His experience with the machinery of government and the players involved puts him in a unique position: He can really hit the ground running,” the site says.
For his part, McGrady is tying up loose ends on initiatives near and dear to his heart — chief among them the Ecusta Trail, a proposed 19-mile walking and biking greenway.
McGrady notes he was laying groundwork for the project years before taking state office. Of the four municipalities and two counties the corridor connects, “Laurel Park, Hendersonville, Henderson County and Brevard are all on board,” McGrady says; Transylvania County and Pisgah Forest have yet to approve their roles in the trail. “It’s still a work in progress.”
With semiretirement on the horizon, McGrady adds, he’s been on a health kick and feels in his best shape in years.
“I’m not going to completely leave the public policy area, obviously now because of this [Board of Transportation] appointment,” McGrady says. “But I do intend to spend a lot more time visiting some of those places that I had some responsibility for protecting.”