By Able Allen and Virginia Daffron
Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality Jasmine Beach-Ferrara is slated to become the first openly LGBT Buncombe County Commissioner. To get there, she had strong competition in the District 1 Democratic primary from City Councilman Gordon Smith and from another civil rights activist, Isaac Coleman. Since no Republican filed to run for the District 1 seat, as winner of the primary, Beach-Ferrara is almost certain to take office after the General Election.
If Coleman had won, it also would have been historic. He would have been the first African-American on the Commission. Coleman ran a smaller campaign but still captured 17 percent of the vote. The more charged campaign battle, however, was between Smith and Beach-Ferrara. Though the results stayed close as they came in, she won in the end by a 5 percent margin.
Beach-Ferrara says her winning campaign was built on several core principles: “We’re going to start conversations by listening, we’re gonna stay positive and we’re gonna take some risks like talking about the politics of empathy which I think matter a lot in our political moment right now.” She says that her work with the Campaign for Southern Equality is “based in a commitment to empathy. We will always be empathic towards those who oppose our rights, towards those who condemn us. For me that comes from a place of faith, ultimately. I’ve learned so much about the power of what happens when you stay true to that commitment. I think this is a political moment in our country when empathy and love are the most powerful ways that we can combat the fear that’s out there. I think that starts in our local politics and I’ve found that a lot of people were really engaged with that because it rang true to how they try to live their life.”
In her victory speech, Beach-Ferrara gave strong credit to her campaign team and network of supporters and volunteers. She lauded their willingness to “believe in this kind of race, that if we were 100 percent positive and worked as hard as we knew how to, something special could happen.” She also spelled out the beliefs she credits with inspiring her supporters: “We believe in a Buncombe County where every person can thrive and every person can be treated with respect and dignity. And even when we disagree politically, which we surely will, we can treat each other with empathy and civility.”
Beach-Ferrara celebrated her supporters’ embrace of an openly gay candidate: “And you also were ready to say, ‘We believe Buncombe County can elect an openly LGBT County Commissioner for the first time.'”
She strongly stressed the importance of broad inclusion in the political process and the big tent nature of her party, saying, “We are stronger when we’re inclusive. Our democracy is what it’s meant to be when we say ‘Come on in, be who you are, you’re welcome here.’ That’s what the Democratic party is about.”
Her supporters are quick to credit Beach-Ferrara’s own hard work. Following the speech, one of her campaign coordinators, Aaron Sarver, enthusiastically chimed in, “Jasmine worked her ass off and she earned this. When it snowed 14 inches in January, she was out knocking on doors for six hours.”
Among those attendance for Beach-Ferrara’s victory speech was Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer. While she and others on City Council campaigned for Smith, she said, “Jasmine is a wonderful person, and she’ll be a great representative of Buncombe County. She’s really worked hard and she obviously has a strong constituency. And the city is still lucky because we get to keep Gordon Smith on Council and he has always been a hard worker, especially on issues like affordable housing. So I think it’s really a win-win for Buncombe County and the city of Asheville.”
Councilwoman Gwen Wisler shared the sentiment: “The choices we had among the three candidates in District 1 were fabulous. We couldn’t make a mistake. Gordon would have done very well, but I congratulate Jasmine.” Councilwoman Julie Mayfield expressed a mix of feelings: “I’m happy to not be losing Gordon to Commission, but I’m sad that he won’t be there to be a partner at the County on housing and transportation.”
Smith, meanwhile, was caught off guard by his first campaign loss. “I’m surprised and disappointed, that’s my only analysis of the results,” he said. But he doesn’t begrudge Beach-Ferrara her win: “I congratulate Jasmine Beach-Ferrara on her victory and I look forward to working with her. We share a lot of the same values, so after the dust has settled, we will get together and get to work.”
Smith also stressed that he is ready to keep devoting himself to his current position: “Now I have a lot of time left on my term on City Council. There is so much work still to be done, and I look forward to working with all the Commissioners to make Buncombe County a better place. I also want to thank all the voters, the volunteers and the contributors.”
Beach-Ferrara said she felt grateful to both of her opponents. “I look forward to saying to them in person: ‘Thank you for running such strong races.’ This is what we hope for in primaries; we get to talk about policy and we see an array of candidates and I just thank them both for all their incredible work and service to the community,” she commented.
So what will day one look like after she takes office?
“One of the main reasons that I wanted to run was to work on how we can help the one in four kids in our county who are living in poverty and bring as many people as we can to the table. There is incredible work that’s underway, but as County Commissioner I’m excited to talk about how we can expand pre-K, and how we can expand the way that services reach kids in schools. So those are some of the first things. But also: keep listening to community members who are, day in and day out, feeling the impact of policies and feeling the impact of an affordable housing crisis and not enough living wage jobs,” Beach-Ferrara said.