Charges and countercharges of partisan influence in Hendersonville's election were unsurprising. Both sides exercised or at least plotted to exercise influence over the election. It didn't make much difference because the tactics were poorly carried out and nonsensical.
As the Hendersonville Lightning reported last week, an Etowah precinct chair tried to recruit city council candidate Guri Andermann (who is registered as unaffiliated) to make get-out-the-vote calls for Ron Stephens. The link to Andermann was a decidedly nonpartisan one. Andermann wants the city to outlaw chaining dogs in yards, and Stephens says he supports such a law. Sounds a bit more like Democratic nanny-state interference with someone's right to let Buster out in the yard than the muscular pro-business drumbeat Stephens pounded in in his unsuccessful race for mayor.
Meanwhile, former GOP chairman Robert Danos provoked Democratic Party functionaries into blabbing the party's endorsement of three candidates — only one of whom is a Democrat. Danos conducted an experiment where, posing as a newcomer to Hendersonville, he called Democratic Party headquarters and asked who he should vote for. When I called Danos, he described the ruse, which he had recreated in front of reporters and editors for the Times-News, according to a Times-News account.
Danos said two separate people answered the phone at the Democratic Party office and in each case recommended Mayor Barbara Volk, a Democrat, and Jeff Collis and Jerry Smith, who are both unaffiliated. No mention of Diane Caldwell, the only registered Democrat in the council race. The Democratic Party phone answerers said Collis and Smith were the council candidates most aligned with Democratic views, according to Danos. No word on whether Caldwell went storming into the office and demanded to know why she, the only registered Democrat on the council ballot, didn't merit the party's endorsement.
Republican Party chairman Andrew Riddle strongly denied that the party had endorsed anyone in the city elections. Like Danos, Riddle said the city race was nonpartisan and should stay that way.
So, at least for public consumption, the Republican Party says that the nonpartisan Hendersonville city election is no place for partisan politics. Why then was a nonpartisan School Board race one year ago the right place to exercise partisan politics — openly and aggressively?
Last fall the Republican Party propelled former party treasurer Josh Houston into a School Board seat, and it openly endorses judicial candidates in nonpartisan judicial elections at the local and state level.
The Republican Party here and statewide has worked for Republican judges ever since Democrats in the state Legislature changed those races to nonpartisan, Danos said. Cases from District Court up to the state Supreme Court have a left and right leaning verdict — a right one and wrong one, depending on where you stand, Danos said.
"The School Board is the only one that was new and that was specifically made as a group decision because with the GOP taking over in Raleigh, we were going to have a real debate about school choice and school reform and we were looking at somebody not to just beat up on the Legislature," Danos said. Houston won. And if not for him, the public might not have learned that the School Board gave superintendent David Jones a $26,000 raise, Danos said.
Danos said School Board issues are partisan in nature; city issues are not.
That's hard to swallow, given that the very robust campaign that ended Tuesday focused so sharply on such standard Republican planks as low taxes, government debt, regulation and pro-growth policies.
Unlike Danos, Riddle did not even try to spin.
Republicans openly endorsed candidates in the nonpartisan county races because the numbers favor the GOP, he said. "Any logical person can see that," he said.
He's right, of course.
Party registration countywide is 39.8 percent Republican, 36 percent unaffiliated and 24 percent Democratic. Registration in the city is 37 percent unaffiliated, 32 percent Republican and 31 percent Democratic.
Republicans pushed back on the partisanship charge because Republicans don't dominate in the city as they do in the county. Any get-out-the-vote effort by the GOP, to be effective, had to be done quietly, so as not to alienate Democratic voters. In a county election that doesn't matter; Democrats are irrelevant.
Unfortunately we will see more partisanship, not less, going forward, in nonpartisan county and state elections. Why? Because it works. The 2013 Hendersonville election was the most partisan one in memory, whether people made phone calls, answered questions about who leaned what way or implied that they did or did not have an official D or R imprimatur.
To his credit, Jeff Miller stood strongly for the idea of keeping city politics nonpartisan even as the usual Republican donors stocked his campaign treasury. Miller's challenge once he takes the oath of office a month from now will be to govern as independently as he has run his campaign.
As for the Republican Party, it was delightfully shocking to see Republicans pretend like they were shocked — shocked! — when they caught Democratic fingers in the nonpartisan election pie. The Republican activists weren't quite so pure when they urged the party faithful to cast a single-shot vote for one of their own in the School Board race just a year ago.
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Bill Moss, editor of the Hendersonville Lightning, can be reached at 828.698.0407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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