For Asheville residents, 2021 was a relatively quiet year in politics. While a handful of candidates announced their runs for City Council — and one resident, Democratic Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, declared a run for the U.S. House — no voting took place. (A 2018 provision passed by the General Assembly at the behest of Mayor Esther Manheimer moved the city’s elections to even years.)
But beyond the city’s borders, Western North Carolina bustled with electoral intrigue. From Woodfin, Asheville’s neighbor to the north, to the Jackson County seat of Sylva in the west, challengers bested incumbents in many nonpartisan town council and commission races.
The results of these elections will help shape development, policing, tax and other issues for tens of thousands of people across WNC. Xpress, with help from Smoky Mountain News, looked at the numbers and reached out to winning candidates to understand what happened Nov. 2.
Vote totals for all races can be viewed on the N.C. State Board of Elections website at er.ncsbe.gov. All results remain unofficial until certification by the state board Tuesday, Nov. 23.
In the town’s mayoral race, 27-year-old Preston Blakely became Fletcher’s youngest-ever leader with 55% of the vote. The current Town Council member and registered Democrat beat Phillip Luther, a registered Republican and pastor of Boiling Springs Baptist Church.
Blakely, an Asheville High School grad and the grandson of longtime WNC civil rights leader Oralene Simmons, will also become Fletcher’s second consecutive Black mayor following the retirement of Mayor Rod Whiteside. “Fletcher residents can expect a mayor who is very open, listening and empathetic,” Blakely told Xpress. “I will strive to serve every resident to the best of my abilities and take my role as a public servant incredibly seriously.”
But Blakely’s popularity did not translate to success for fellow Democrats Brandon Olsen and Erik Weber, who lost their races for Council District 1 and District 4 to three-term Council incumbent Sheila Franklin and Skyland Fire Department Chief Trevor Lance, respectively. Both registered Republicans won by margins of less than 6 percentage points.
“I think my reelection represents a continued faith and satisfaction with how Fletcher has progressed in the last several years,” Franklin said. She listed growth and development, low tax rates and the need for a new emergency medical station and public library as top issues for residents.
And Lance said his first priority will be to connect with residents more. “I want the residents of Fletcher to have more input regarding how their tax dollars are spent and the decisions that are made for their town,” he explained. — Brooke Randle
Mayor Barbara Volk was easily reelected to a fourth term with roughly 64% of the vote over D.J. Harrington. Incumbent Hendersonville City Council member Jerry Smith also earned another term with a first-place finish in a three-way race for two seats.
The remaining place on Council, replacing retiring member Jeff Smith, went to community activist and Democratic Party precinct chair Debbie Roundtree. Earning 1,300 votes in the nonpartisan race, she bested Chelsea Walsh, a former chair of the Henderson County Republican Party who took 1,041 votes. (Raphael Morales also appeared on the ballot but had dropped out of the race in October to endorse Jerry Smith and Roundtree.)
“I want to see the council, with a new member, work together on the challenges facing us,” Volk told Xpress. She named the need for housing development at all price points, as well as pedestrian infrastructure and diversity in city hiring, as key focus areas.
Roundtree, who made unsuccessful bids for Council in 2017 and 2019, said her priorities include the environment, affordable housing, infrastructure and a living wage and diversity in government.
“I work two jobs to support my family, giving me a direct perspective on issues of low-income wage earners,” she said. “We are still in a pandemic, with small businesses closing doors and workers losing jobs. The city needs to work with local banks and investment firms to build the capacity of the people until this nightmare is over.” — Justin McGuire
Municipal elections in Maggie Valley drew a record number of voters in a contest that boiled down to growth and investment in the small mountain town.
John Hinton and Jim Owens secured seats on the Board of Aldermen, beating out incumbent member Twinkle Patel and former Planning Board Chair Jeff Lee. Residents cast a total of 943 votes for aldermen, compared with 598 in 2019 and 312 in 2017. Hinton was the top vote-getter with 326 votes, 34.57% of the ballots cast.
“It was about the issues. The people of Maggie Valley have spoken,” said Hinton following his win. “And the things that we ran on — the RV parks outside, the campgrounds outside the city limits, the Ghost Town issue, the zoning issues — that’s what it was about.”
The development of Ghost Town in the Sky, a former theme park in Maggie Valley, and other projects by developer Frankie Wood have divided the current board. While there is general enthusiasm about the possibility of revitalizing Ghost Town, Mayor Mike Eveland has not voted to approve any zoning requests by Wood and has openly criticized Wood’s plans.
Hinton has also expressed skepticism at some of Wood’s development prospects. And Owens has stressed the importance of Maggie Valley completing its first Unified Development Ordinance as the town balances the needs of new development and current residents. — Hannah McLeod, Smoky Mountain News
The Mills River Town Council races were small but fierce, with a majority of voters signaling that they were ready for change after political newcomers defeated established representatives.
District 2 candidate James Cantrell narrowly unseated incumbent Brian Kimball by a mere seven votes, garnering 425 votes to Kimball’s 418. Cantrell has a degree in horticulture from N.C. State University and has worked as a range manager at a greenhouse and nursery for the last 12 years. In an Oct. 24 story in the Hendersonville Times-News, Cantrell said that agricultural representation was among his top priorities.
“[Agriculture is] what this town was founded on, why I have a passion for farming and why many of the residents can enjoy a sense of small-town life,” Cantrell said.
In District 1, Sandra Goode bested incumbent and Mayor Pro Tempore Brian Caskey with over 53% of 895 votes cast. Caskey, the board’s only registered Democrat, has been serving as mayor pro tem since 2019 and mounted an unsuccessful campaign for state Senate in 2020. Goode says her priorities are keeping taxes low, maintaining public parks, supporting local businesses and agriculture and keeping public school standards high.
And Shanon Gonce will represent District 3 after running unopposed for the seat; Mayor Chae Davis didn’t seek re-election. The Council will elect its mayor and mayor pro tempore from its members after Cantrell, Goode and Gonce are sworn in Thursday, Dec. 9. — Brooke Randle
Beating two incumbent board members, Natalie Newman took the top spot with 141 votes in the Sylva Board of Commissioners election, with incumbent Mary Kelley Gelbaugh coming in second. Mayor Lynda Sossamon ran unopposed and will also remain on the board.
Newman will become the first woman of color to hold elected office in Sylva. At 29, she is also one of the youngest — if not the youngest — people to win the position.
Gelbaugh secured 125 votes, edging fellow incumbent Barbara Hamilton by just five votes, according to unofficial results. Carrie McBane and Luther Jones, who withdrew from the race after the deadline to remove his name from the ballot, finished fourth and fifth, respectively.
While narrow, the results are infinitely more decisive than those of Sylva’s 2015 and 2019 elections: In both years, a coin toss was required to decide between two tied candidates.
The next four years could well prove pivotal for the small town, not least due to the N.C. 107 road project. The new commissioners will see Sylva through a hugely disruptive right-of-way process and the first year and a half of a construction process estimated to last three to four years.
The new board will also inherit the deep divisions left behind following last year’s debates about the proper framing of Confederate history and an ongoing conversation about law enforcement’s role. — Holly Kays, Smoky Mountain News
A hotly contested election for the Woodfin Board of Commissioners ended with a striking rebuke of the town’s current officials. Newcomers Eric Edgerton, Jim McAllister and Hazel Thornton all earned at least 615 votes — more than quadruple the total ballots cast for any of incumbents Jackie Bryson, Debra Giezentanner and Don Hensley.
Turnout in the town of roughly 8,000 exceeded that for any previous Woodfin municipal election. McAllister attributed that result to an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort by the three winning candidates and their supporters, who together knocked on nearly 800 doors and reached thousands of residents by phone. Interest in town politics had already been high due to a proposed 1,400-unit residential project, The Bluffs at River Bend, which many residents strongly oppose.
“I learned during the campaign that residents feel like the town is not listening to them and that it makes decisions privately and quietly, and they are angry about it,” McAllister said. “I met so many young voters who asked me, ‘How can I get involved?’ So we’re going to put them to work on committees and boards to bring fresh ideas and energy to Town Hall.”
Mayor Jerry Vehaun, who hasn’t faced a challenger since first winning office in 2003, said he was surprised by the results. “Woodfin is changing, with a lot of new residents coming in,” he noted. “I don’t see any problems with having new people on the board, although it will take some time from them to become familiar with everything going on, such as the greenway and blueway project”
For his part, McAllister said he was “100% confident” that the board would “work in lockstep to make Woodfin a better place to live.” — Daniel Walton
Al Root, a longtime fixture of Weaverville civic leadership, announced this summer that he would not seek reelection as the town’s mayor. In August, he resigned, and Council members promoted one of their own — Patrick Fitzsimmons, a registered Democrat who has served on Council since 2017 and had been the only person to register for the mayoral race — to fill Root’s shoes.
On Election Day, voters cast 898 votes for their sitting mayor, electing him decisively. But the race also saw 350 write-in votes, most likely for Randy Cox, a photographer and videographer who waged an off-ballot campaign to unseat Fitzsimmons. A registered Republican, Cox told Tribune Papers he had been inspired by Franklin Graham’s challenge for conservative Christians to seek public office.
Meanwhile, Thomas P. Veasey, another Republican, also fell short on his bid for a Council seat. His 430 votes were less than half the total received by each of three moderate left candidates: Vice Mayor Doug Jackson (D) and newcomers Catherine Cordell (I) and Michele Wood (D). The unaffiliated Cordell was the top vote getter with 934 votes.
Fitzsimmons called his new board “a sound governing body of balanced thinkers that will enable us to manage the significant growth and development issues facing us,” including a proposed $13 million water plant expansion. “Our aim,” the mayor underscored, “is to preserve what we love about our hometown while preparing for the future and growth as well.” — Able Allen