Town Hall

After accusing N.C. Rep. Mike Clampitt of fascist behavior, Rick Gorton made a Nazi-like salute when the legislator told police to remove him.

“No, no, you can’t do that – it’s illegal,” a few people in the large crowd shouted (inaccurately) when N.C. Rep. Mike Clampitt, R-Swain County, told them his Friday Town Hall meeting would start with prayer and a pledge to the North Carolina flag.

“If you have heartburn, you may leave,” the newly minted House member shot back. He sidled across the room to his left, the better to loom, somewhat menacingly, it seemed to me, over some women who had challenged him.

Clampitt pointed toward uniformed police officers who were standing sentry at the back of the Jackson County Library’s Community Room. He’d requested their presence. I suppose it’s a sign of our times that seven law enforcement officers were assigned to the event: some were seated in the crowd, wearing plain clothes.

“One more outburst from either of you, and you’ll be asked to leave, and these gentlemen will escort you out, and you will not come back,” Clampitt told the hostile crowd members.

“Why are you a fascist?” a man called out.

“I’m going to give you the ground rules,” Clampitt responded. “If you can’t abide by those, leave. OK? I’m not wasting my time or wasting these people’s time.” He said that with a wave of his hand toward a small cluster of Republican loyalists.

“We pay for that time,” the man said.

More back and forth. Finally, Clampitt responded: “Our conversation is done. No more talk.” He demanded police action. Sylva Chief Davis Woodard stepped in, however, and successfully defused the situation.

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Friday’s drama was distasteful, disturbing and demoralizing. I’m surely not the only one who left feeling sad and unhappy. Regardless of individual political ideology, most of the 100 or so people who attended Clampitt’s meeting were clearly hoping for respectful dialogue, not confrontation.

A few individuals, however, came armed for battle, primed to club Clampitt with their metaphorical peace signs. Those progressives who feigned outrage over his call for prayer, and, later in the meeting, heckled Clampitt about HB2, the so-called Bathroom Bill, were inexcusably rude.

If, as some later claimed, Clampitt used an opening prayer to bait people … well then, guess what? You fell for it. Know the law: In that forum, the man’s got the right to pray if he wants to pray. Losing credibility, as you did, little was accomplished; except, perhaps, to deepen the growing political divide in this community and country.

•••

That said, I found Clampitt’s mix of pomposity and aggression repellent. He acted like a schoolyard bully spoiling for a fight; a banty rooster with hackles raised, eager to impress the lady hens.

His answers to questions were, more often than not, simplistic ... at best.

There are plenty of jobs, Clampitt declared grandly at one point. The problem? “People can’t pass their drug tests.”

My, my, Mr. Representative, what a broad-brush stroke to sweep across a segment of your constituency. To unilaterally declare Western North Carolina’s unemployed a bunch of druggies? That’s an incredible assertion to make. Sure, some people can’t pass drug tests, but that’s hardly “all” people.

Given Clampitt’s response to the question of what he’ll do to add jobs – blame those without them, apparently – we were left to infer that he feels zero responsibility about working on regional economic development.

Equally troubling: I’m not convinced our new legislator is prepared to represent more than Swain County’s interests while in Raleigh, despite being elected to office by voters in Jackson County, and some in Haywood County, too.

Last week, Clampitt announced his intention to introduce legislation for his home community that directly competes with Jackson County.

The legislation, as Clampitt wrote in a constituent update that alerted local leaders to his bumbling, would “establish Swain County as the Trout Fishing Capital of North Carolina; in reality, the bill is written in the form of a resolution with various ‘whereas’ stating why the best trout fishing in North Carolina has got to be Swain County.”

For years, decades even, the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce has worked to position this community as exactly that – the Trout Fishing Capital of North Carolina.

It’s paying off.

The fruits of the Chamber’s labor can be seen during spring, summer and fall, by simply driving along the Tuckaseigee River and observing the growing numbers of anglers. There’s now enough trout-related business to support multiple fly-fishing stores in downtown Sylva.

The Trout Capital designation is a big deal, economically, for Jackson County.

In an interview, Clampitt seemed oblivious to such obvious fact. He indicated tourism leaders in this community were overwrought about his counter-productive action. The two counties could market trout fishing together, he said.

It doesn’t work like that.

Marketing must be targeted and sharply defined: two Trout Capitals cannot cohabitate in the world of advertising.

There are ample designations Swain County might seek: Rafting Capital, Catfish Capital, Bass Capital, Train Capital, to name a few.

Thanks in large part to Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon County, Jackson last year gained state designation as the Premier Trout Fishing Destination. The next step? This year, becoming the Trout Fishing Capital.

Clampitt was either unaware of the senator’s efforts (showing ignorance) or didn’t care (showing partiality to his home county, not to mention rendering his fellow Republican’s efforts pointless).

“I can introduce what I want, and he can introduce what he wants,” he said.

But, didn’t we learn in kindergarten that working together is better for everyone?

By the time Friday’s meeting rolled around, Clampitt clearly had gotten the word to back off.

He went into full saving-face mode, telling the crowd that he’ll introduce substitute legislation for Swain County, naming it “Home of the Fly-Fishing Museum.”

Local leaders tell me Clampitt also has agreed to file companion legislation to Davis’ push to crown Jackson County the Trout Fishing Capital of North Carolina.

Quintin Ellison is editor of the Herald. She grew up in Swain County.