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Voters oust O'Connor

Peggy O'Connor watches as husband Bill O'Connor scans election numbers. Peggy O'Connor watches as husband Bill O'Connor scans election numbers.

Henderson County voters on Tuesday granted former County Commission chairman Grady Hawkins a new term in office as they voted overwhelmingly to fire Commissioner Bill O'Connor after less than 18 months in office.

O'Connor, who was appointed to the seat in December 2010 and had never been on the ballot in the county, won just one in five voters in a heavy primary election turnout. The statewide gay marriage amendment and ballot questions on sales of beer, wine, liquor and mixed drinks generated interest beyond the usual nuts and bolts of politics.


In the District 2 election, voters returned incumbent Commissioner Charlie Messer to the board for a fourth term. Messer, a convenience store owner from Hoopers Creek, easily turned back a challenge from Dennis Justice of Fletcher.

Both Messer and Hawkins will take the seats because no Democrat filed in either district.

Messer said he thought the election turned on a couple of high-profile issues.

"I was for the marriage amendment and he was against it," he said. "I was for the (Mission-Pardee) joint venture. He is against it. Park Ridge sent out letters and stuff saying to support Justice. They campaigned in the Fletcher area from what I understand pretty hard."

O'Connor fell behind by a wide margin as soon as absentee and one-stop votes came in. Only four people were attending the District 5 commissioner's gathering to follow the returns at Two Guys pizza restaurant in downtown Hendersonville at 9 Tuesday night.

Early voting, which attracted almost 11,000 county residents, had Hawkins in the lead 46 to 23 percent. Just two hours later, with 33 of 35 precincts reporting, Hawkins had put the contest away, 45 to 20 percent. Jeff McKinney, the most active campaigner among three lesser-known candidates, drew 16 percent of the vote.

Whacked by soccer and solar

A former Tea Party leader from Etowah, O'Connor won the nod of the Republican Executive Committee over Hawkins in December 2010 when precinct leaders picked a replacement for Chuck McGrady, who won a state House seat in the November election.

O'Connor was the most vocal opponent on the board of the joint venture. Allied with Commissioner Larry Young, O'Connor has sided with Park Ridge in arguing that the partnership could eventually lead to a Mission takeover of county-owned Pardee.

If the joint venture was proxy in the election then the election showed that Pardee's position was favored by a wide margin over Park Ridge's.

But the hospital war was not the only issue that tended to cut into O'Connor's support. His vote to support the proposal to buy the Highland Lake Golf Course and turn it into soccer fields infuriated his Tea Party base. His vote against solar farms, when an Edneyville farm family requested a zoning change to allow them, caused him to lose support in the apple growing ridge in northern Henderson County. And his leading role in demanding a 7½ percent cut in schools and across all county departments also meant a loss of public employee support.

"The voters make their choices," O'Connor said. "I sincerely hope that Grady Hawkins and the people of Henderson County get the most out of each other over the next four yers."

Hawkins said a statewide issue might have been a more major factor than the local ones. "I think that the marriage amendment drew a lot of people out to vote and I think a lot of them were very conservative," Hawkins said. He said he thought the joint venture did not matter. Hawkins did not take a strong position on the question either way but did say in a debate that he thought commissioners should defer to the decisions made by the hospital trustees they appoint.

The soccer field vote was "a matter of record and it seemed to be not the direction that most of the county thought we needed to be taking," he said.

Amendment 1 passes

Amendment 1, the constitutional amendment declaring that marriage and civil unions are legal only between one man and one woman, was approved overwhelmingly by Henderson County voters, 66 to 34 percent with all but two precincts reporting.

But if the gay marriage amendment brought out a strong conservative Christian vote, those same voters did not rally to drive out alcohol. Voters approved ballot questions on on-premise and off-premise beer sales, on-premise sales of beer by motels and restaurants, on- and off-premise sales of wine, ABC stores and mixed drinks countywide. Voters only turned down ballot questions that restricted sales to beer-only or wine-only.

Meadows-Patterson face runoff

In the closely watched Republican primary for the 11th Congressional District, Mark Meadows carried Henderson County by 48 to21 percent over District Attorney Jeff Hunt, followed by Vance Patterson with 16 percent.

But with 16 of 17 counties reporting, it appeared that Patterson had rallied to prevent Meadows from sewing up the nomination without a runoff. Meadows led Patterson 38 to 24 percent but fell short of the 40 points needed to avoid a runoff.

"We're excited that we won the overwhelming majority of the counties throughout the 11th District," Meadows said. "In terms of a runoff, it would be with Vance Patterson, who won I guess two counties." Meadows thanked Henderson County supporters for his wide margin of victory.