By Roger McCredie- As this week’s Tribune prepared to go to press, a crowded field of 15 candidates was about to be winnowed down to six, who will vie for three available city council seats on November 3, in a nonpartisan primary election.
And as that happened, local politicos and several media outlets managed to agree on one thing: that whatever the October 6 outcome, a good deal of repair work will need to be done if Asheville’s own political machine, as it has been dubbed, is to resume its well oiled effectiveness, retain control of city council and make the inroads it seeks to make at the county level in the 2016 elections.
October surprise number one was the revelation that the brother-in-law of present councilor and county commission candidate Gordon Smith oversaw the Eagle / Market Street restoration project and is also the project manager for the “gravel pit” lot across from St. Lawrence Basilica where heavy equipment for hotelier Tony Fraga’s Page Avenue contruction is being parked.
Cracks in the foundation of the Eagle/Market Street construction have sent that project back to the drawing board after an expenditure of $3.8 million. Also, the abandoned parking lot across from St. Lawrence Basilica has become a major campaign issue: a number of voters, spearheaded by Asheville People Advocating Real Change (PARC) are pushing to turn it into a public greenspace, a proposal that has now been championed by council member Cecil Bothwell, who has also announced his candidacy for county commission.
When the family connection between Smith and the Eagle Street project supervisor, Chris Bauer, became known, both Bothwell on one hand and candidate John Miall on the other immediately questioned why Smith had not recused himself on potential conflict of interest grounds but instead voted in 2013 for his brother-in-law’s appointment. According to public records, Smith initially mentioned the possibility of a conflict of interest but interim city attorney Martha McGlohon ruled that there was no conflict of interest and Smith promptly cast his vote accordingly. No question as to the implication Smith’s connection to Bauer was raised when the city leased the vacant lot to Bauer’s company for $5,000.
There followed a running fight between Bothwell and Smith, into which candidate Rich Lee, Bothwell’s protégé,, inserted himself by asking Smith, “Gordon, can we count on you to be the most negative campaigner of 2015?”
“The negative campaigner awards should probably go to the conspiratorial and character attacks regarding the gravel lot on Haywood Street,” Smith shot back, in an apparent reference to Bothwell. “That’s been some really nasty stuff,” he told Lee.
Lee’s own October surprise came in the form of the emergence last week of a November, 2014, e-mail exchange between city neighborhood volunteer coordinator Marsha Stickford and New Belgium Brewery communications specialist and neighborhood association coordinator Suzanne Hackett.
In that e-mail. Stickford asked “Who is the ‘official’ contact for EWANA [the East West Asheville Neighborhood Association, of which Lee served as treasurer and unofficial New Belgium liaison] ? We have been working with Rich Lee but ran into an interesting situation with the traffic calming that makes us a little less sure he was the right person to involve. Any suggestions?”
“Rich sometimes has his own agenda,” Hackett replied.
The exchange caused a double-take among local politics watchers, who were assuming that since Lee’s close involvement with New Belgium had in effect helped launch his political career, he could expect a certain amount of indirect support from the brewery and direct support from Asheville’s legions of craft beer devotees.
The strain of electioneering seemed to affect Lee’s political demeanor. He was endorsed by PARC, along with candidates Brian Haynes and Keith Young, as favoring the “St. Lawrence Green” park idea, but the endorsement seemed to make him uncomfortable; Lee said he did not like being endorsed for a position he had not been given an opportunity to review first, though he stopped short of saying he was not in favor of a park. And he told a social media group, “Let’s return Asheville to a city of 40,000 and 50 cent gas. Half of you will find it a much more enjoyable place to live.”
Meanwhile Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, who is seeking reelection, objected to a telephone poll undertaken by Bothwell, in which, Bothwell claimed, 86 per cent of those polled favor a park opposite the basilica. Hunt said the poll and Bothwell’s comments about it “misrepresented” Hunt’s own position as being anti-park, though he did not specify what his own position is; he said the issue was complex than was represented by what he considered a forced-choice poll.
Candidates Julie Mayfield said that she would favor a park if donations could be raised to cover the cost, without the city’s having to foot the bill; or,, failing that, she would favor a taxable building with “open space” – the same concept espoused by candidate Lindsey Simerly and her mentor, Smith.
Bothwell also objected to the Sierra Club’s endorsement of Hunt and Mayfield, noting that, in the first place, the Sierra Club as a 501 ( c ) 3 nonprofit cannot endorse political candidates and that it was the Sierra Club’s 501 ( c ) 4 PAC that did the endorsing, making the claim of a Sierra Club endorsement, per se, misleading.
“Sadly,” Bothwell said, “the local Sierra Club only endorses people it expects to win elections. They clearly did not evaluate the stances of candidates this year, but merely endorsed their friends.” Bothwell went ion to say that he had evidence the 2013 Sierra Club questionnaire was composed and printed at the Van Winkle Law firm which, along with the firm of McGuire, Wood and Bissette, he said earlier in the campaign, effectively “run” the city of Asheville.
Two social media posts just before story deadline stated that Bothwell’s picture has been removed from the wall of Buncombe County Democratic Headquarters. Party officials did not return the Tribune’s calls asking for confirmation.