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Ecusta supporters dismayed that Cawthorn calls trail organization 'super communist'

U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn posed with Brevard City Manager Jim Fatland, Mayor Jimmy Harris and Councilman Mac Morrow in a photo taken by state Sen. Chuck Edwards after the congressman expressed support for the Ecusta Trail last July. U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn posed with Brevard City Manager Jim Fatland, Mayor Jimmy Harris and Councilman Mac Morrow in a photo taken by state Sen. Chuck Edwards after the congressman expressed support for the Ecusta Trail last July.

Supporters of the Ecusta Trail, which has broad bipartisan support in Henderson and Transylvania counties and has been touted as a transformational economic development engine, were dismayed to hear that U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn is calling a national trail advocacy organization "super communist."


The setting for Cawthorn’s remark was a Buncombe County Republican Men’s Club meeting Tuesday night that included Cawthorn, state Sen. Chuck Edwards and two other challengers running for the 11th Congressional District seat.
Chad Nesbitt, a Republican activist from Asheville who broadcasts a conspiracy-oriented podcast, provoked the exchange.
Nesbitt asked, “Why are you supporting a communist organization, the Ecusta rails to trails, and I refuted that it was a communist organization,” Edwards said in an interview. “I was looking at (Cawthorn) in the eye when he said, ‘It is, it is. It’s super communist.’ I was looking at him in the eye as he said those words.
“I think it shows a misunderstanding of what is important to the people in his very own district. Maybe he doesn’t spend enough time in his district to know.”

After the Lightning published the story about the remark, Cawthorn's office said the congressman "criticized the organization 'Rails to Trails,' not the Ecusta Trail project."

"He is concerned at how private land has reportedly been confiscated from private citizens by this organization that is funded in part by the U.S. government," spokesman Luke Ball said in a statement referring to the nonprofit Rails to Trails Conservancy. "Congressman Cawthorn supports the construction of trails, parks, and bike paths. He does not, however, support the confiscation of private property for those projects."

Cawthorn’s remark shocked Edwards and three city of Brevard officials who traveled to Washington, D.C., last summer seeking support in Congress for a federal RAISE grant (Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity) to fund trail construction.
Mac Morrow, a Brevard City Council member who visited the Capitol along with Edwards, Brevard Mayor Jimmy Harris and City Manager Jim Fatland, recalled the meeting last July that included aides of Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr and Cawthorn himself.
“He was extremely excited about supporting the Ecusta Trail at that point,” Morrow said. “He pledged support for political endorsement and even for financial — if he were to get earmarks in the fall, he would send it on our way.”
Both Morrow and Edwards recalled that Cawthorn, who is confined to a wheelchair, said he looked forward to using the trail to train for a paraplegic competition.
“He actually said make sure that we let him know when there would be the ribbon cutting so he could be there and celebrate it,” Morrow said. “He was just animated about it, you know, the way he is.
“How can you trust somebody that tells you he’s all in, that Brevard and “Hendersonville are his two favorite places and connecting them with a trail was fantastic?” he said. “For him it’s just political theater. It’s performance politics against a project that’s going to be transformational for the region, so I don’t know where he’s going to go with that.”
“What gets me is he’s got to know and realize this is a federal transportation system project and it’s funded by federal dollars and supported by state government. It has nothing to do with the communist party. But I really admire serious politicians like Sen. Edwards, whose being there with us strengthened the application by showing that it had state support. And just recently getting that $7½ million (in a state appropriation) just confirms that we need that kind of support. Sen. Edwards is my hero these days.”
Chris Burns, a founding leader of the Friends of Ecusta Trail and current board member, defended the federal rails to trails program.
“I’d find it interesting that Madison Cawthorn just called Ronald Reagan a communist,” he said. “It’s a Ronald Reagan piece of legislation. As a matter of fact, if you’re calling Ronald Reagan a communist I guess you’re also calling the Henderson County commissioners, the Hendersonville City Council, the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce, the city of Brevard, town of Laurel Park, the Henderson County Tourism Development Authority (communist). We’ve got a list of over 30 businesses that support it because they understand it’s business development.”
Burns said as word got around this week, Ecusta Trail supporters expressed outrage at the remarks.
“To me this should absolutely enrage middle-of-the road Republicans,” he said. “This should enrage all voters. This rail-to-trail project has been one of the most bipartisan projects that I’ve seen across these two counties in the last 15 years. It has been massively supported on both sides of the aisle.”

Morrow, a Democrat serving in a non-partisan council seat, said he could not comprehend the political calculation in Cawthorn's remarks about a project that enjoys broad and passionate support across two counties.

The congressman's statement "certainly disrespects the many folks (who support the trail) and is a discourtesy to supporters like Sen. Edwards and it really dishonors all the many people who are working on this exciting project," he said.