No matter one’s political affiliation, it is difficult to deny that recent politicking at the national level has departed from traditional norms. Based on the Sept. 26 League of Women Voters of Asheville-Buncombe County candidate forum at the West Asheville Library, local races are sharing in that unconventionality as well.
Libertarian candidate for Buncombe County sheriff Tracey DeBruhl arrived with a number of campaign signs bearing the message “Paid For By Christ” and shared his experience “on both sides of the fence” in jail after a recent arrest in Madison County on stalking charges he said were related to a custody battle. Meanwhile, unaffiliated Soil & Water Conservation district supervisor candidate Alan Ditmore said the district was “doing everything wrong” and called for contraception funding as the only viable path to environmental protection.
The forum pitted DeBruhl against only Democratic candidate Quentin Miller, as Republican Shad Higgins did not attend the forum. Ditmore faced incumbent Democrat William Hamilton and challenger Democrat Aaron Sarver, with incumbent Elise Israel and challenger Karina Lizotte, both unaffiliated, absent from the event.
With her Republican challenger Kris Lindstam not in attendance, seven-term Rep. Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe) was permitted to give only a two-minute statement. Buncombe County District 1 Commissioner Al Whitesides, a Democrat, is running unopposed and likewise delivered only a short introduction. Pat Bryant, the unaffiliated three-term incumbent school board member for the Erwin district, also faces no challenger but was not present.
Buncombe County Sheriff
Asked about the most important issue facing the sheriff’s department, DeBruhl named accountability. He alleged that outgoing Sheriff Van Duncan had tampered with court cases and claimed that the department had mishandled evidence. In contrast to that alleged corruption, DeBruhl said, “What you see is what you get from me.”
Miller spoke to a much-needed change in mindset among law enforcement, proposing a focus on relationship building and community policing. “Recent events here in Asheville have shown that we can do body cameras, we can do a change of policies, and we’re still in the same place that we started,” he said.
Applying that community orientation to the area’s ongoing opioid crisis, Miller said, the problem should be treated primarily as a health issue rather than a law enforcement concern. “We’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of this,” he explained. Instead, he called for more training to help officers become more “sensitive” to the underlying causes.
DeBruhl, by contrast, took a considerably harder line. He recounted leading a needle cleanup effort with Asheville Fire Department personnel and Boy Scouts — and then asking the Sheriff’s Department to dust and swab the needles for evidence. The department is currently discarding the needles, the candidate believes, but he would direct his officers to identify users based on this analysis.
“We’re going to find out where this trash is coming from, and we’re going to track you down,” DeBruhl said. “Step one: psychological warfare.”
Multiple questions from the audience — which included several members listening to simultaneous Spanish interpretation of the forum — asked how the candidates would handle interactions with the Latino community and with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Miller reiterated his commitment to refuse signing a 287(g) agreement with ICE, the legal framework that allows local officers to enforce federal immigration statutes.
Voicing his disagreement with ICE tactics, DeBruhl said the agency does have legitimate aims, such as reducing drug and human trafficking. “I would actually prefer to turn around and be the sheriff that approaches ICE and shows them how we can work for the greater good together,” he explained.
Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor
When asked to describe the duties of his desired role, Ditmore noted its oversight of cost-share programs to control erosion on farmland and install cattle fencing around creeks. As a former beef cattle farmer for 10 years, he deadpanned, “I know what they do in creeks too.”
But Ditmore’s shirt spelled out his primary reason for seeking the job, handwritten in large capital letters: “Only birth control can save the world.” The conservation district’s current programs, he argued, don’t consider externalities such as the pollution caused by the production of cattle fencing. In contrast, he said, the environmental benefits of contraception programs are “orders of magnitude” beyond the costs of production and management.
Hamilton, the only incumbent supervisor at the forum, spoke of the conservation district’s origins in the Dust Bowl era and the importance of building relationships with farmers. He said the main responsibilities of its supervisors are guiding county staff in fund priorities and coordinating with other area officials in “a miniature form of democracy” to request federal money.
Sarver pointed to the board’s environmental education and farmland preservation programs as key to its mission. He said he was inspired to run after his friends Kevin Toomey and Christina Carter, the operators of Ten Mile Farm in Old Fort, lost their original land in Candler due to development.
The biggest disagreement among the candidates arose on the topic of conservation easements, legal constructs that compensate landowners for giving up development rights. Hamilton said such easements strike a desirable balance between “the great American concept of private land” and the public benefits of avoiding development, such as supporting wildlife habitat and clean water.
Ditmore, however, contended that preserving land in Buncombe County would exacerbate the area’s current lack of affordable housing and force people working in Asheville to make longer, more carbon-intensive trips by car. “Conservation easements are definitely raising rents, causing a housing crisis, causing homelessness, causing long commutes [and] destroying the environment through those long commutes,” he said.
Sarver struck a balance between the two positions. He agreed with Ditmore that the Asheville area needs denser development, particularly along transit corridors. But quality-of-life concerns, Sarver added, demand some land conservation so development doesn’t “go out to the shadow of Mt. Pisgah.”
In other races
The unopposed Whitesides jokingly called himself “the most lonely man around” in his campaign for re-election to his county commission seat. His statement emphasized Buncombe’s strong fiscal position, despite the alleged embezzlement by former high-level county officials, and promised to not raise taxes.
After complimenting her District 114 constituents — including the majority of Asheville, Woodfin and part of Swannanoa — as “the best third” of the county, Fisher touted her long experience in the state legislature. She also obliquely criticized the General Assembly’s current domination by Republicans.
“I have to say that the last eight years has been very difficult, I think, in terms of being able to get any kind of collaborating to happen,” Fisher said. “What I’m looking forward to is balance in the legislature, and I think that we are on our way toward that.”
The biggest message for both candidates was the importance of voting itself. “In the times we’re living in now, please vote,” said Whitesides, and Fisher concurred. “Do not sit this election out,” she said. “We must all show up to vote this election.”