National attention to Western North Carolina’s politics may have reached its high-water mark May 17, when Republican U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn conceded his primary reelection race to Chuck Edwards. With the controversial freshman congressman for North Carolina’s District 11 no longer in the running, WNC seemed to lose its allure for those outside the region.
But for people actually living in WNC, the year continued to bring a bevy of meaningful political developments. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners turned entirely blue with the replacement of Republican Robert Pressley with Democrat Martin Moore. The county’s state House delegation turned over completely, with three new Democratic representatives winning their first elections in the wake of three veteran lawmaker retirements. Voters chose four new representatives in the first election for the Asheville City Board of Education.
Those local politics likely matter more for the daily lives of WNC residents than goings-on in Washington — especially given the gridlock that’s expected to result from polarized parties in a divided Congress. Xpress reached out to the area’s elected officials, activists and community leaders to learn more about what they took away from 2022’s political action.
What was the most meaningful electoral result in WNC this year and why?
“I was energized by the overwhelmingly positive response to the Buncombe County bonds for open space and affordable housing. Employers have shared with me that the three biggest challenges to recruiting and keeping talented employees are the preservation of the natural beauty of WNC, access to outdoor recreation and housing that’s affordable for their employees. I am thrilled that my neighbors voted to fund solutions to these challenges, and I am eager to see the results.” — Jennifer Caldwell-Billstrom, founder, Velo Girl Rides
“After discussing the question of the most meaningful electoral result in WNC this year with the Asheville Food and Beverage United steering committee, we feel it’s significant that two of the candidates endorsed by the Central Labor Council — Maggie Ullman and Antanette Mosely — were elected to City Council. While AFBU did not endorse candidates in this election, we look forward to working with elected officials who are committed to advancing the interests of workers and organized labor in Asheville.” — Jen Hampton, organizer, Asheville Food and Beverage United
“For the Asheville City Schools Board of Education, even the process was meaningful, since this is the first time the board has had elected members. Those who were elected seem excellent and, for the most part, were the candidates endorsed by the local teachers association. I am always glad when people listen to teachers.” — Sarah Boddy Norris, activist and teacher
“[The most meaningful results included] Buncombe County having the second-highest percentage of votes for Democrats in the state behind only Durham County, and the vote for continuity on the Asheville City Council with the reelection of the mayor and two City Council members.” — Ken Brame, political chair, WNC Sierra Club
“I think it was the turnout of voters, not just in WNC but statewide. With all the important issues that affect people, it appears that in North Carolina only 51% of eligible voters actually voted, compared to 53% in the last midterm election in 2018. That shows there is a long way to go to get people engaged in elections and in our democracy.” — Ron Katz, social justice advocate
On what political issue do you think the local conversation is most misguided, and how does your approach differ from commonly held perspectives?
“I think there is a misconception of what the Asheville City Council can and can’t do. Many people expect them to be able to ban hotels and eliminate homelessness. The first can’t be legally done, and the second is far more complex and requires far more resources than the city has.” — Ken Brame
“Our conversations and actions addressing our currently unhoused neighbors need swift improvement. It is easy for us to ‘other’ these folks, but compassion is always the right first step. I think that we as a community need to address our not-in-my-backyard mindset and be more open to radically rethinking the way we talk about and solve these problems. I’m grateful for local organizations like BeLoved Asheville and Homeward Bound for leading the way on this.” — Drew Reisinger, Buncombe County Register of Deeds
“I think the political issue that is most misguided is the perception that an insurmountable divide exists between Buncombe County and her rural neighbors that prevents cooperation and progress. As mayor of Canton, Buncombe County’s neighbor, there is ample ground to find practical solutions concerning infrastructure, economic development and public safety. As we have accomplished in Papertown, we can welcome new ideas, new people and new interests without sacrificing our soul and what makes WNC special.” — Zeb Smathers, Canton mayor
“How I differ is, rather than focusing on symptoms, I encourage us all to look to the causes that are causing community suffering. This requires open, active communication. We elect folks to represent us, and then we never hear from them again unless we have the privilege to attend meetings. It’s more important for us to be in relationship and get to know each other’s needs than to be right.” — Robyn Josephs, admin/community manager, Black Mountain Exchange and Asheville Politics
How do you think local politicians could best work to regain the trust of those they serve?
“Some ways I work to establish and retain trust include: advocating for an open meetings policy to advance participatory democracy and address barriers to public participation; sharing information regarding upcoming decisions; communicating how I arrive at my positions; and maintaining my public record — my votes, my communication in meetings and the press and my correspondence. As an elected member of City Council, I also make regular recommendations to improve accessibility and transparency in our organizational processes.” — Kim Roney, Asheville City Council member
“Local politicians’ unique position affords them institutional power and local recognition. They need to recognize their power, maintain local presence, empathize with constituents and implement locally beneficial policies. To know what will benefit their constituents, they must listen. This includes offering multiple options for public input on local programs and policies (e.g., climate action plans) and appreciating constituents’ feedback, whether the feedback takes the form of an email or a protest.” — Erica Meier, hub coordinator, Sunrise Movement Asheville
“Trust is hard to gain but easy to lose. Being a servant to the community comes with a lot of work and sacrifice. The biggest piece of advice I can give is ‘steady wins the race.’ I am more interested in seeing a consistent leader with integrity than a shiny leader hoping to be seen. Stability is what our community needs: not another ‘new happening,’ but unfolding the treasure that is already here.” — Bruce Waller, executive director, Black Wall Street AVL
“Politicians could best regain the trust of the public by engaging on a personal level at events that are most meaningful in our lives. As a father of two, it is concerning that I have yet to see any Council members show support at any elementary or middle school events. As a leader of the Native rights movement in Asheville, it is interesting that Council members have never engaged our community while performing land acknowledgments.” — Jared Wheatley, founder, Indigenous Walls Project
What’s the best example you saw locally this year of people with different political beliefs working together toward a common goal?
“Bipartisan efforts successfully changed the allocation of Buncombe County’s lodging tax after years of advocacy by local hotel leaders and elected officials. A bill jointly filed by Sens. Chuck Edwards, Warren Daniel and Julie Mayfield passed in July, changing the allocation of the lodging tax paid by visitors who stay in hotels, vacation rentals and B&Bs in Buncombe County. This was a hard-won result for our community.” — Vic Isley, president and CEO, Explore Asheville
“Two Indigenous women, Lavita Hill and Mary Crowe, from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have been working to restore the ancestral name of the mountain we know as Clingmans Dome to its historical name, Kuwohi. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners was the first government entity outside of Cherokee to support their effort, followed soon thereafter by the town of Andrews, the city of Asheville and Swain County. This bipartisan effort is inspiring.” — Drew Reisinger
“Water is life, and I’ve seen time and time again people and communities come together to reach commonsense solutions to right environmental injustices and reconnect habitat for species to thrive in the face of climate change, like in the coalition the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians established to reconnect the Oconaluftee River. Rivers connect us, and my hope is we can all continue to work together for clean water for everyone everywhere.” — Erin McCombs, Southeast conservation director, American Rivers
“AFBU’s reduced price parking campaign built a large block of support. Our campaign demonstrated the power of workers, business owners and community leaders coming together with elected officials to advance our common interests, regardless of our small political differences.” — Jen Hampton