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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Cawthorn defames area's version of apple pie

If everyone who supports the Ecusta Trail votes against Madison Cawthorn in the May 17 primary, maybe that’ll mean curtains for the 26-year-old’s audacious performance as a congressman.

The latest startling statement by our colorful freshman came last week at a Buncombe County Republican gathering when he suggested the Hendersonville-to-Brevard greenway is some kind of communist plot. The comment came after Chad Nesbitt, a right-wing podcaster from Asheville, surprised state Sen. Chuck Edwards with a question about why he supports a “communist organization."

“I refuted that it was a communist organization,” Edwards said in an interview. That sparked Cawthorn’s unsolicited seconding of Nesbitt’s baseless assertion.

“I was looking at (Cawthorn) in the eye when he said, ‘It is, it is. It’s super communist,’” Edwards told the Lightning. “I was looking at him in the eye as he said those words.”

(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. His office said he supports bike paths and parks but is concerned about a report alleging that the rail-trail program confiscates private land.)

Wild comments and conspiracy theories are not unusual from the mouth of Cawthorn, a Trump champion for the Turning Point USA demographic. At Saturday’s Republican forum for the 11th Congressional District, Cawthorn pledged that his party when it retakes the House will use the Jan. 6 committee’s investigative power to expose the FBI’s role in fomenting the insurrection, promised to throw Anthony Fauci in jail and vowed to work for a forensic audit to figure out what really happened in the 2020 election.

A serial violator of state laws against carrying weapons on school property — in Cawthorn’s case a hunting knife — the congressman draws headlines but no negative consequences from his loyal base for his unorthodox behavior. He announced in November he was moving east to run in a newly draw district that was even safer than the reliably red 11th Congressional District, then demurred when the Legislature transformed it into a swing seat. Next, a state Supreme Court-ordered map eliminated it altogether.

In saner times Cawthorn’s flipflop would be a risk but in our hyper-partisan era probably won’t matter. His loony condemnation of the rails to trails program was all the more startling because it, too, marked a flipflop. Last July, Cawthorn pledged his support for the trail during a meeting with Brevard’s city manager, its mayor and a council member and Sen. Edwards.

“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,” Mac Morrow, the council member, told the Lightning. “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?”

Contrary to being a communist project, the Ecusta Trail is starting to look more like a capitalist plot to generate economic development. Major signs are emerging already that the trail is going to draw bigtime private investment in Henderson and Transylvania counties, as this week’s Page 1 story reveals. The greenway is endorsed by many businesses and business organizations in the two counties and by the all-Republican Henderson County Board of Commissioners and has support in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

By needlessly casting it in a false light, Cawthorn doesn’t help himself in any way we can fathom. What’s more, by making the spurious comment he ill-serves the economic interest of the 11th District and disrespects the many constituents across party lines who have worked hard to make the trail a reality.