Community Owned. Local News. Burke County, NC.

Winds of electoral change sweep Burke

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The divisions in Burke County’s Republican Party were evident both on the ballot and in where candidates awaited the primary election results Tuesday evening.

In the county commission race, three Republican challengers, running as a team, squared off against three Republican incumbents.

In the school board race, a team of three Republican challengers ran against two Republican incumbents and another candidate who had allied herself with the incumbents.

Incumbent candidates on both boards chose to await the results at a private home in Morganton, hosted by Commissioner Scott Mulwee. Meanwhile, challengers for both boards huddled at Republican headquarters on Main Street in Valdese.

The incumbents were invited to go to Republican headquarters. They chose not to do so.

Some surprises were in store for both factions. 

Two of the three commission incumbents, longtime board stalwarts Mulwee and Johnnie Carswell, were ousted by newcomers Mike Stroud and Brian Barrier. A third incumbent, Jeff Brittain, retained his seat.

In the school board race, challengers went 3-for-3: Jamey Wycoff toppled Seth Hunt; Jeffrey Reid Beck held off Wendi Craven; and Brad Camp defeated Susan Jones.

— Marty Queen and Bill Poteat

Two commissioners lose to challengers

 

The Burke County Board of Commissioners will look quite a bit different in November after a pair of longtime Republican incumbents were defeated in the primary Tuesday.

Current Board Chair Jeff Brittain was the only one of three Republican incumbents on the ballot to win, and will vie for his fourth term on the board in the general election this fall. 

Meanwhile, board stalwarts Johnnie Carswell and Scott Mulwee fell short as challengers Mike Stroud and Brian Barrier joined Brittain in the top three.

The trio of Republicans will appear on the November ballot alongside the lone Democrat, Wesley Hendrix.

Stroud was the top vote-getter overall, garnering 18.51% (5,382) of the vote. Brittain (18.31%; 5,325) and Barrier (18.14%; 5,276) followed closely behind. The top three held a relatively substantial advantage on the rest of the pack. 

Carswell, who was seeking his fifth term overall and fourth full term, and is the President of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC), finished fourth (15.81%; 4,598). Challenger Shawn Freeman (15.21%; 4,423) and previous Board Chair Mulwee (14.02%; 4,077) – who was vying for his third term – placed fifth and sixth respectively. 

Neither Stroud nor Barrier returned The Paper’s phone calls.

Brittain, however, said he appreciates the support he received.

“I’d like to express my appreciation to the voters for their confidence in me once again,” said Brittain, 62. “I felt like we had a good team. The team has changed. I will certainly continue to do my best to work with our new guys and try to develop a strategy that will keep our county moving forward. That’s been my whole objective since I began this journey.”

Mulwee was gracious in defeat. 

“I’m just proud of what we’ve accomplished over the last eight years,” said Mulwee. “I have reached out to my opponents and congratulated them, and I’m here to help them in any way possible, because what’s most important is the citizens of Burke County.”

Carswell echoed that sentiment.

“The people had their voice,” he said. “The people of Burke County have had their say. I would have liked to have won, because I think we’ve done a tremendous job over the last 12 years. I’m not upset with anything that I’ve done.

“I just appreciate everybody that voted for me and I appreciate their support over the years. I’ve done what I was supposed to do, what the people elected me to do. They put their trust in me. Now, they have a different vision, so when the other folks get in, I hope they do a good job. That’s my desire.”

Quietly contentious contest

The election was quietly contentious, but neither team of Republicans launched barbed attacks against the other.

Among the issues that emerged in the months leading up to the primary was the proposed Great Meadows Megasite on the border of Burke and McDowell. The project, which officials have repeatedly touted as a one-of-a-kind opportunity for Western North Carolina, has drawn vocal and organized opposition from residents who are concerned about a possible industrial site in the Lake James area. 

Last fall, the General Assembly allocated nearly $36 million for land acquisition and infrastructure on the 1,353-acre site located at Exit 94 off I-40. Before the deal can go through, however, a portion of the site must be rezoned as Industrial. The matter is tentatively scheduled to come before the Planning Board at its next meeting March 28. If it’s approved there, the request would go to the commission for approval. A significant amount of the land has already been zoned Industrial for two decades. 

Brittain, who has come out in favor of the site, said the issue played a role in the campaign, but wasn’t the only factor.

“I think there’s more issues than that,” said Brittain. “I heard several issues that the new guys brought forward. I personally think that some of their reasoning or thought processes, particularly with the megasite, picked up on a lot of simply false information and they proliferated that. I think that once perhaps they hear all the information about the megasite, and realize the positive economic opportunity it can bring to our people and our county in many different ways, I just can’t help but believe that they’ll think differently about the opportunity we have.”

Freeman said the megasite was one of several points of contention, but not the only one.

“A lot of the complaints I heard from folks about them (the board) concerned things like a lack of transparency and communication, and taxes and spending,” Freeman said. “But I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I said I didn’t think it (the megasite) played a part. You’d be crazy to think it wasn’t a factor.”

Freeman added he doesn’t think opponents of the site are against an influx of high-paying new jobs, but most of the folks he has talked to disagree with placing an industrial zone so close to Lake James.

Although the proposed megasite engendered a groundswell of opposition, none of the current board’s other policies have drawn much pushback.

Property tax rate

There was only a modicum of public dissension during the 2023-24 budget process, even though taxes went up across the board. Property values in the entire state shot up dramatically after the last revaluation in January 2023 and were 47% higher in Burke County than in the previous revaluation in 2019. As a result – even though the commission reduced the tax rate from 69.5 cents per 100 dollars of value to 56 cents – many residents saw a tax increase. 

The board’s sweeping capital improvement plan, which included, among other things, replacing the aged-out Health and Human Services and Animal Services buildings, as well as the construction of a new EMS base, was a target for the challengers but wasn’t a hotly debated topic at board meetings. 

There were clear-cut victories for the group as well.

Last September, the commissioners and school board were lauded when they buried decades of contention and combined their efforts to reverse an outdated piece of state legislation that limited the way school system funds could be spent.

The hiring of County Manager Brian Epley has also been a point in the board’s favor, as has its focus on efforts to stop the opioid epidemic in an era when overdose death rates in the county are among the worst in the state. 

Brittain said he hopes to act as a unifier after the changeover, which will occur in December. 

“I just want to see the best for all our people – all of our folks in Burke County,” said Brittain. “It’s a team effort all the way around. I look forward, once the time comes, to try and bring folks together. I think during the campaign, we heard a lot of misinformation, and I hope the guys will come in with open minds and be willing to take all the information that they’ll be receiving and we can come up with some goals to keep our county going on a forward trajectory.”

In the meantime, Brittain said it will be business as usual for himself, Carswell, Mulwee, and remaining board members Randy Burns and Phil Smith.

“These guys have nine months to work, and I think we’ll continue the good work that we’ve already done, and we’ll just stay on that same path and do all that we can to keep the things on track that we’ve worked on, and hopefully, that can happen,” Brittain said.

Carswell said he’s determined to finish the job he was elected to do.

“I’ve got a job to do and I’m going to continue to do my job just like I’m supposed to; just like the people elected me to do – that’s what I’m going to do,” said Carswell, whose term as NCACC President ends Aug. 1.

Marty Queen is the senior reporter for The Paper. He may be reached at 828-445-8595 or at marty@thepaper.media.

 

School board incumbents voted from office

Burke County voters spoke loud and clear on Tuesday, via their votes in the primary election: They are ready for a change on the county’s Board of Education.

Two incumbents, Board Chairman Seth Hunt and former chairwoman Wendi Craven, both lost their reelection bids. Their fellow board member, Jane Sohovich, chose not to run for reelection.

Brad Camp (5,685 votes; 55%) defeated fellow Republican Susan Jones (4,604 votes; 45%) for the board’s Western seat, formerly occupied by Sohovich. “It will be nice to have a little rest, a little breather,” Camp said Wednesday morning. “But now, the time for the real work begins.”

According to Camp, although he won’t be sworn in until December, he plans to be a presence in the schools before he’s an official board member. “I want to start getting to know and start meeting with the principals at all of the schools in Burke County,” he said. “I want to spend this time visiting each school, getting to know where they are, what the schools are like, and visiting with and introducing myself to the principals.” 

Camp said once he is sworn in, his priorities will include working on school board policies, “where they can be improved and changed” and assuring the board is transparent with parents, being “more proactive instead of reactive.” He said he would also like to establish regular meetings with parents, teachers and school staff members where they can voice any concerns to board members

Did partisan election matter?

Jones expressed her frustration with the law passed in 2021 (NC Senate Bill 288), making board of education races in Burke and Caldwell counties partisan. She said she felt that issue made her candidacy a challenge.

“We told people, ‘If you’re registered unaffiliated, you can vote for us,’ (by requesting a Republican ballot for the primary election) she said, ‘but if you’re registered Democrat, you’re not going to be able to vote for us.’ And I think that reality hit. People were like, ‘I couldn’t vote for y’all.’ I’ve said from the beginning, I don't think a school board race should be partisan.” A retired educator, Jones said despite her defeat, she will continue to be involved with the schools through volunteering.

Jeffrey Reid Beck (5,644 votes; 54%) claimed victory over Craven (4,717 votes; 46%) for the Eastern seat. He said,  “I think the people in Burke County made their voice pretty clear – the taxpayers and the teachers and the parents – that they want a Board of Education that will listen to them, and that’s what we’ve built all three of our campaigns on.” (Beck ran as part of a team with Wycoff and Camp.)

Beck said as a member of the board, his priorities will include addressing discipline issues and improving academic proficiency. “What I’m hearing is teachers crying out for help,” he stated, referring to educators who spoke to the board recently referencing discipline issues in classrooms. Beck envisions a committee of teachers from every school, chosen by their peers, that will advise board members about their classroom needs. “I want to hear from teachers, what can I do to help you?” he said. “I want to be visible in the schools. I’m not going to be there for photo ops. I’m going to be there so teachers know if they have a problem, they can reach out to me directly." 

Beck also said he hopes to help school employees find ways to increase student proficiency rates. “I don’t know all the answers,” he stated, “but what I’m really good at is listening. I want to make sure the taxpayers in Burke County see that this board works for them.”

Craven, who was elected to the board in 2019, said she thinks misinformation about a state law that took effect during this election cycle may have contributed to her defeat.

In 2020, the NC General Assembly passed legislation making local school board elections partisan affairs. She also said the public doesn’t have a clear picture of changes the board made in the books/media policy.

“People still didn't understand that this was a partisan election,” Craven stated. “I think that was the biggest factor (in her loss). And I feel like some of the information about our media policy has been incorrect.”

Jamey Wycoff (5,517 votes; 52%) defeated Hunt (5,040 votes; 48%), who held the county’s At-Large seat. Wycoff is the only primary winner who will face opposition in November’s general election, when he will take on Democrat Sharon Ivester Everhart. 

Work is just beginning

A regular attendee and frequent speaker at recent board meetings, Wycoff said he knows his work is just beginning.  “I’m not going to slow down,” he said. “I’m going to keep advocating for parents. I’ve got to start working toward November.” 

Wycoff has been a vocal proponent for changes in the district’s policy regarding the availability to students of materials that may be labeled explicit. Administrators consulted with the North Carolina Values Coalition, and the board recently amended the guidelines. “I like the new policy that they've put in,” Wycoff stated. 

Hunt said while he was disappointed in the election’s outcome, he believes in and supports the system. “I put a great deal of faith in what the voters decide,” Hunt said. “I always have. But I do have a sense that I’ve let our students and teachers down.

“I can honestly say, had I been able to do anything differently, I would not,” he added. “I’ve always prided myself on being honest and having a high degree of integrity and I believe that’s still intact.”

Speaking of the winners, Hunt said, “I hope they understand that their job, by design, is to support and defend our public schools.”

Sonya Rockett did not face opposition for the county’s Central Seat in the primary election. She will face Dr. Don Hemstreet, for the position in November’s election. The unaffiliated Hemstreet currently represents the central district on the board.

He recently waged a successful campaign to have his name placed on the ballot in November. As an unaffiliated candidate, Hemstreet was required to collect at least 2,341 verified signatures to place his name on the ballot for the general election.

Sandra Wilkerson Queen is the education and business reporter for The Paper. She may be reached at 828-445-8595, Ext. 2002, or via email at sandra@thepaper.media.