Sam Neill, the people’s candidate

In 1968, I served with Sam Neill on the Student Council at Hendersonville High School and supported his successful campaign for treasurer of the student body. I remember him as a conscientious student and a workhorse when it came to school activities. More than 30 years later, I’m helping him to replace Charles Taylor as the U.S. congressman for Western North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District.

Like many voters, I’ve grown weary of duplicitous politicians operating like corporate power brokers, so I pressed Sam Neill for the nuts and bolts of his political philosophy and asked him to explain why he considers himself a viable candidate.

Paraphrasing his favorite professor at Wake Forest University, he underscores the cornerstone of his political philosophy, which, I believe, delineates the difference between him and Taylor: “The classic definition of politics is the manipulation of power. The second definition of politics is the way in which people put their values into practice through human institutions. I believe in the second, but I never forget the first,” Neill explains.

As a former member of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors (16 campuses) and a past chairman, Neill honed the skills that qualify him to put his solid values into practice. “The way you help a community become sustainable is you look for consensus,” he allows. “And how you do that is you bring everybody to the table. You give their positions validity. You listen to them. Then you try to figure out a common solution, in which everybody has an interest in the proposed solution, and all can work towards it. That’s how you build a community, instead of tearing it apart.”

Neill echoes the sentiments of many WNC voters who see Congressman Taylor as a wealthy business tycoon who caters to corporate power and commercial interests, at the expense of the common people and our natural resources. Neill criticizes Taylor for his “fundamental failure in leadership.” He claims that, instead of seeking consensus, Taylor is “the epitome of wedge politics” — which only serves to alienate, divide and manipulate.

Neill emphasizes the gravity of choosing a trustworthy representative, explaining that, “the U.S. Congress basically is 535 people who divide a trillion dollars in a two-year period. That’s the bottom line. The congressman here will have a big impact on what funding is available for programs and how our natural resources are treated.”

At the July 27 public hearing about ways to reduce nitrogen-oxide emissions from coal-burning power plants — attended by more than 500 people — Neill delivered an impassioned speech stressing the urgency of grappling with the air-pollution crisis that is threatening all phases of life in our mountains.

He shared the words of an old farmer from Robbinsville, who stood up at a political meeting and said, “I used to think environmentalists were something you hunted. But the trees on the ridge above my house are dying. I don’t have any education, but it dawned on me if that dirty air is killing the trees, it might not be good for you and me.”

The poignant words of the wise farmer compel Neill to seek aggressive legislation to restore the quality of our air. Since wind currents carry polluted air from other states, such as the government-controlled TVA power plants, Neill points to the necessity of change at the federal level.

Neill’s initial plan is to co-sponsor the Clean Smokestacks Act. “There was a loophole in the Clean Air Act,” he explains. “Power plants built before 1985 were not required to meet the environmental standards. Since they didn’t have to meet pollution standards, [the operators] started buying high-sulfur coal, then they raised the smokestacks so that the smoke didn’t stay in Tennessee. It got in the higher air currents and came to North Carolina.”

Neill promises to close that loophole, and insists that, “in a short period of time, all power companies [will] have to meet the environmental standards.”

The success of stringent measures to control corporate abusers lies in the hands of the voters. Neill begs the question, “Are people willing to bother to go vote?

“Taylor will never, ever do anything that adversely affects power plants or industry, because they’re his source of revenue,” he continues. “If people are serious about air quality, they will vote for Sam Neill, because I will make a difference.”

Neill is as passionate about addressing our crisis in medical care as he is about pollution. He understands the anguish many people experience when they have to choose between budgeting their money for medicine to relieve chronic pain, or eating. He minced no words in assigning the cause of the problem to the rampant greed in the pharmaceutical industry and the politicians who pander to them.

Equivalent medicines can be purchased in Mexico for 10 percent of what they cost in this country — and for half-price in Canada — yet the Pharmaceutical Benefit Plan prohibits the importation of these cheaper versions. This is a travesty, according to Neill. “The pharmaceutical companies in America are three times more profitable than any other [major] industry in America and pay half the taxes,” he claims. “We’ve had a Congress that has allowed this to happen.”

The House and the Senate will be fighting like cats and dogs for the budget surplus in the upcoming months. This is the taxpayers’ money — belonging to the elderly, the children and the sick, as well as the rich — and Neill aims to make sure everyone gets their share. He plans to vote for paying down the $6 trillion national debt and shoring up Social Security. In addition, he believes that “there will be sufficient funds for the cost of prescriptions drugs through Medicare, particularly for our elderly citizens. This is a major problem. It’s got to be addressed.”

When it comes to educational matters, Neill boasts an impressive resume. He knows it’s imperative that our schools receive closer attention. He’s had his ear close to the school system at all levels — raising his own children through the public-school system in Hendersonville, while serving as chairman of the Methodist Nursery School in his hometown. Besides being the past chair and a former member of the UNC Board of Governors, he also sits on the Board of Trustees at the N.C. School of the Arts.

There’s a consensus among politicos, administrators, teachers and parents, alike, that reducing classroom size is the single most important improvement we can make to our schools. First, Neill plans to ask for Congress to focus on grades K-3. “If you give kids the basics and give them a good solid core, they’re going to do well the rest of their lives,” he believes. “About 15 percent of the dollars spent on education come from the federal government. So my top priority will be additional funding to hire teachers, to reduce classroom sizes for K-3. Charles Taylor voted against it.”

Secondly, Neill relishes the opportunity to continue his work to put advanced education within reach of everyone. As a former member of the UNC Board of Governors, Neill is proud of his work that helped to make tuition in the state the second lowest in the nation. Still, 70 percent of the students in the state need financial assistance, and Neill wants to ensure that more funds are readily available for all those who want to further their education.

Perhaps the most pressing challenge facing Neill is the public’s growing disgust with elitist politics and the resultant apathy toward the voting process, especially at the federal level. Congressional offices in Washington may seem far removed from our daily lives. However, after talking to Neill, I’m convinced the decisions made there on our behalf are very important.

I encourage you to go to the polls. Under a new state law, voters can cast their ballots as early as Oct. 17. Buncombe County voters can do this at the Buncombe County Board of Elections (located on College Street, just behind the County Courthouse; for info, call 250-4200 or visit their Web site at http://www.bcboe.org). Pending approval by the State Board of Elections, Buncombe voters will be able to vote early in four locations around the county — in addition to the local Board of Elections office downtown.Watch the news for details.

The stakes are higher than they were at Hendersonville High School in 1968, when we met after school to make campaign posters — but the principles of true representative government are the same. I don’t agree with Sam’s thinking on all the issues. He doesn’t expect me to. But he promises to work toward consensus, across the board, and to refuse to allow corporate greed and self-interest to rule the day. In the current race for Congress, we do have a choice between a corporate power broker and a man who will work to protect the interests of all our people and our natural resources.

In an era of “boom-time” economics, our educational system remains strapped by fiscal shortages; medical care and insurance coverage are out of reach for a growing number of our people; and the welfare of our natural resources is at a critical point.

From the streets of downtown Asheville to the furthest reaches of Graham County, numbers of proactive volunteers are rolling up their sleeves to work toward common solutions. We need an honest and dedicated partner in Washington who believes in representative government.

At the close of our interview, Sam Neill made this promise to the people of WNC: “I’m going to tell the truth, and I’m going to portray a different approach to leadership. That’s what will make the difference.”

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