Fifteen minutes. That’s how long the League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County candidate forum ran on Oct. 2 at the Leicester Public Library.
“I guess you could say this is the world’s shortest candidate forum,” said moderator and Citizen Times Opinion Editor Casey Blake with a shrug.
According to league policy, candidates without an opponent present are limited to a two-minute opening statement. They are not allowed to take questions from the moderator or the audience during the forum.
Four candidates showed up to the event. Democratic candidates included N.C. Senate District 48 hopeful Norm Bossert, N.C. House District 116 Rep. Brian Turner and Buncombe County Commission District 3 candidate Donna Ensley, as well as Buncombe County Board of Education Enka District representative Max Queen, who’s running unopposed in the nonpartisan contest. The candidates briefly introduced themselves, then stayed after the forum to chat with attendees, consisting mostly of league volunteers.
The three Republicans in the contested races — Sen. Chuck Edwards, House candidate Marilyn Brown and Commissioner Robert Pressley — didn’t appear. While Pressley was attending a meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, the other two candidates had not responded to Xpress’ requests for comment on their absence by press time.
“It’s always disappointing, but it’s not unheard of,” said league board President Alana Pierce. “The league has often had to deal with forums where a lot of the opposing candidates, specifically Republicans, won’t show up. It’s usually with the state House and state Senate seats that we have issues.”
As a nonpartisan organization, the league’s stated mission is to encourage informed and active participation in government. However, the group is increasingly perceived as liberal by groups such as the Capital Research Center, a conservative-leaning, Washington-based think tank.
The league does weigh in on issues it feels threaten voting rights and democracy. As recently as Sept. 28, the national organization critiqued the hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who is a Republican, and demanded a full FBI investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct. In a joint press statement, league President Chris Carson and CEO Virginia Kase wrote, “This hearing was an appalling display of inequity for women’s voices.”
Whether such statements discouraged Republicans from turning out in Leicester, Pierce said, is hard to tell. But she suggested that the absent candidates took “an easy way out” of public scrutiny.
“They’re counting on people to say, ‘I’m going to vote Democrat, I’m going to vote Republican,’ and not doing the work to get to know people,” Pierce said. “As candidates, they don’t have to do as much work.”
While the league typically hosts its candidate forums in the city, it staged two of this year’s events in neighboring Black Mountain and Leicester. The group hoped to give more rural constituents an opportunity to speak directly to candidates about issues pertaining to their communities, such as a long-awaited road-widening project to relieve congestion on Leicester Highway.
Turner touched on some of those concerns in his statement. Rural areas such as Leicester, he said, lack options for public transit and face challenges to high-speed internet access. He added that different areas of the county often get overshadowed by the city of Asheville on issues like education spending and clean water.
The absent candidates, Turner said, may have wanted to skirt around these problems. “A big part of this job is showing up,” he said. “If you’re avoiding these conversations, to me it says, ‘You don’t want to speak seriously about policy issues. You just want to hide behind your paid media.’”
Xpress has also covered the league’s previous forums in Black Mountain (avl.mx/5cl) and West Asheville (avl.mx/5cm). The next league event is a public discussion about proposed amendments to the North Carolina Constitution on Thursday, Oct. 11, at 7 p.m., at the Buncombe County Courthouse in Courtroom 1A. More information can be found at LWVAB.org.