A political action committee is trying this year to influence the Sylva town board race.
Left-leaning Down Home N.C., a PAC based in Burlington, has a chapter in Jackson County with about 65 people paying annual $25 dues, regional coordinator Chelsea Hoglen said.
Two full-time, paid canvassers are making the rounds of Sylva’s town limits to knock on doors and talk with voters, she said.
Sylva town board elections, unlike county commissioners, are nonpartisan, as are school board elections.
The canvassers are carrying waxed, 4 1/2-inch by 11-inch rack cards, explaining who they are and urging voters to vote for three town board member candidates. The group’s choices are incumbents David Nestler and Greg McPherson and Down Home staff member Carrie McBane. The other candidates for town board are Ben Guiney and Luther Jones.
Former board member Danny Allen’s name will appear on the ballot, too. But this week, he took himself out of the race, citing health concerns.
PAC involvement at the municipal level is unprecedented in local municipal elections. Sylva’s town board election is part of a nationwide trend that will see more partisanship – and money – trickling down from higher levels of government, according to political experts.
Hoglen grew up in Jackson County, attending Smoky Mountain High School and Western Carolina University. She oversees Down Home’s actions in Haywood and Jackson counties, she said. It’s her full-time job.
All board candidates were interviewed by three Down Home members, but the decision on who to endorse was a team decision, she said.
“We run a democratic endorsement process that is totally led by our members,” she said. “We have a team that I call ‘Team Democracy’ who are members of our community, who are very passionate about adequate fair representation at all levels of our government.”
The team puts together a platform outlining the issues and policies that they want to see put into place on every level of government, she said.
“Once they interviewed the candidates and decided who was most aligned with our platform based on their answers, they brought that back to our whole membership and the members voted on each candidate whether or not they agreed with that endorsement,” she said.
The three candidates were the unanimous choice, she said.
The 2018 mid-term elections were the group’s first foray into supporting candidates.
Down Home in 2018 targeted N.C. House races. They worked to defeat Republican incumbent Mike Clampitt in District 119, which includes Jackson County, and to elect Democrat Rhonda Schandeval in District 118, Hoglen said. Democrat Joe Sam Queen defeated Clampitt, but Schandeval lost to Republican incumbent Michele Presnell.
“Our members decided to get involved in the House races (only) because of the time,” she said. “This year is our first year of getting involved in the local level races.”
This represents a new chapter in local politics, said Kirk Stephens, vice chair of the Jackson County Board of Elections.
“The political parties usually don’t get heavily involved in town board elections, because they are nonpartisan. I think some of these groups that are issue-oriented, I can see why they might say, ‘Well, we feel like this candidate represents our interests and they would want to endorse that,” he said.
Chris Cooper, professor and department head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, was surprised to hear of the PAC’s involvement.
“If it is a trend, it’s a developing one,” he said. “What this could be is the nationalization of local politics and the professionalization of local politics. And by professionalizaton, I mean they are more likely to have the professional apparatus of a campaign, like a campaign manager and PACs and larger donation pools. We like to think of local politics as being a place where you can kind of be an amateur and run.”
State elections have gotten more expensive and that is trickling down to the local level, he said. Still, Cooper said he hasn’t heard of a PAC getting involved in an election in a small town like Sylva, with a population of about 2,700 and 1,561 registered voters.
“It’s not a PAC, but we did have local Tea Party chapters that kind of got involved, so that would be the most analogous group that I can think of in my 18 years here,” he said. “So I don’t want to call it unprecedented, but I will call it unusual.”
Cooper said he was unsure if Down Home’s involvement makes a difference.
“We know that endorsements can matter, but they have to be from a credible source,” he said. “So the question is, does this signal to some local Democrats who they should support? I think it will matter if Down Home N.C. has some credibility with local liberal politicos.
“If it ends up giving candidates free advertising, that is to their benefit, especially in a race that will probably have low turnout and is a little bit easier to move voters.”