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GOP forum signals bid to control School Board

Voters get the opportunity this week to hear how a Henderson County School Board under Republican control would run the schools.

The Henderson County Republican Party is hosting a candidate forum Thursday night for the four registered Republicans on the Nov. 8 ballot for the nonpartisan election. That means they’ve excluded four other candidates, including three incumbents who are registered as unaffiliated.
Ervin Bazzle, the longtime chair of the board, chuckled when asked if had received an invitation.
“I think they can invite anyone they want to,” he said. “It’s a nonpartisan race and should be nonpartisan. I think from the their point of view it’s obviously not. As far as I know, up until at least last time I ran, they had a forum for everybody.”
Bazzle, Mary Louise Corn and Rick Wood recalled being invited to forums hosted by the Republican Men’s Club that included all candidates in the nonpartisan election. Those three, along with Jared Bellmund, a challenger from Etowah, won’t be on the platform when the Republican Party opens the forum on Thursday night.
Wood, who was the Democratic nominee in the 48th State Senate District against Sen. Tom Apodaca in 2014, switched to unaffiliated a few weeks ago. His switch marked the end of an era for the Democratic Party. Wood was the last Democrat elected countywide to a county position. Before that, Terry Lyda, the former tax collector, was the last Democrat elected in a partisan race in Henderson County.
“I switched from registered Democrat to registered unaffiliated because I have seen much more partisanism creeping into our School Board elections the last two or three cycles,” Wood said. “This is an official nonpartisan race and I feel like I should run a nonpartisan campaign and serve in a nonpartisan way and continue to serve in a nonpartisan way as a School Board member if re-elected. So people would understand I’m very serious about doing that I felt like it was important for me to change from registered Democrat to registered unaffiliated.”


Henderson County Republican Party
Features Republican candidates
6:30 p.m. Thursday
Opportunity House, 1411 Asheville Highway

Wood said he was frustrated that he and the other three candidates were excluded from the Republican-sponsored forums, including one by the Republican Women’s Club and the one this week.
“How do I feel about not being invited to the forums? It really bothers me because as a School Board candidate trying to get your message out, especially in a presidential and gubernatorial election cycle, there’s sometimes not a lot of opportunities for School Board candidates to make their case to continue to serve or for new person to be elected,” he said. “I can remember in the past, even the Republican Men’s Club, inviting all candidates, regardless of their party affiliation to appear and make their case and answer questions. There’s seemingly been a change in that approach and it does bother me.”

Straw poll to guide party leaders

Republican Party Chair Glen Englram said party leaders wanted to showcase the Republicans, even though it is officially a nonpartisan contest. Those expected to attend are incumbent Josh Houston and challengers Michael Absher, Blair Craven and Burt Harris.
“These are all registered Republicans,” he said. “We wanted to feature them as candidates. Second we anticipate that our audience is going to be predominantly Republican and when we have something like that as an event I don’t have the flexibility to present unaffiliated candidates or in the case of Rick Wood a Democratic candidate.”
Told that Wood had changed to unaffiliated, Englram laughed and said, “I guess he goes from embracing the Democratic platform to embracing the platform of the unaffiliated.”
Englram acknowledged that the party’s interest is in allowing Republicans to make their platforms known and its goal is to identify which of those party regulars should support.
“Our thinking is simple,. People are going to know Josh and not so much the other three. The idea is getting candidates out in front of the audience and see how they perform in an environment like that. We do take a straw poll and the intent of that is get a read” on who the party should endorse.
In the 2012 election, the party used palm cards to endorse Republicans with a “single-shot” vote, which has the effect of increasing the power of each vote by denying a vote to other candidate. The strategy worked, electing Houston in 2012 and Colby Coren in 2014.
The Republican Party does plan to endorse fairly soon, Englram said.
“I suppose in the realm of possibility that if you’ve got four seats you could endorse one, endorse two, endorse three or four,” he said. “We think Josh has been doing a great job and I think I can say without objection that we’d like to see him re-elected.” Thursday night’s event could influence the party’s final call.
“That’s a decision that’s going to be made probably the week following the forum,” he said.
Englram said he senses an appetite among Republican voters for a change of the School Board.
“Four of the seven seats on the school board will be on the ballot in this ‘nonpartisan’ contest,” the GOP said in a news release. “In an election cycle where voters are expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo, this contest is no exception.”

GOP could win 5-2 control

If the GOP successfully pushes all four Republicans to victory on Nov. 8, the School Board will be under majority Republican control for the first time in memory —five Republicans and two unaffiliated members, Amy Holt and Lisa Edwards.
“They’re trying very hard to make it partisan race,” Bazzle said of the county Republican leaders. “Certainly it appears to me that they’re pushing a slate of candidates.”
Corn said it’s clear that Republican-only forums tilt the campaign against independent candidates.
“Back in the day the Republican men invited everybody and certainly I think if the press is going to cover these events they should invite all the candidates because I feel very strongly it should be nonpartisan,” she said.
An attempt to win majority control of the School Board “would be my observation and conclusion but what the real intent is only they know,” she said. “It certainly is the appearance and makes those unaffiliated folks like me have less exposure. I don’t know what other conclusion you could reach.”