It’s unusual for local elections in Transylvania County to attract national attention.
Transylvania is the state’s 69th largest county, a densely forested pocket of Western North Carolina, known more for hiking and waterfalls than campaigns.
Until recently, its five-member board of commissioners was comprised entirely of Republicans, most of whom, after surviving primaries, ran unopposed. In the past, Democrats and independents aspiring for public office have been told to switch parties if they wanted a realistic shot in this GOP stronghold.
Yet late last year, three Transylvania County Commissioners, Page Lemel, Mike Hawkins and David Guice, left the Republican Party, dismayed by the party’s direction and its leader, President Donald Trump.
They became unaffiliated, believing their day-to-day duties — managing water services, expanding recreational programs, and stimulating economic development — were disconnected from hot-button partisan issues like abortion and gun rights.
“We’ve gotten so whipped up on the federal level that we forget to pay attention locally,” said Lemel, who works as a camp director in Brevard, the county seat. “They’re very different types of governance.”
While Guice’s term goes until 2022, Lemel and Hawkins are up for re-election this fall. They’re running as a team, their first names sharing space on lawn signs, ads and a website URL. Their campaign has been one of superlatives: the most difficult, the most heartening, and by far the most expensive of their political careers.
“It’s far beyond what either of us have ever experienced,” said Hawkins, a local restaurant owner.
People from across the country and down the street have sent messages of gratitude. Others have called them traitors.
Lemel and Hawkins acknowledge a lofty goal that along with Guice, the majority of Transylvania Commissioners will serve without an “R” or “D” next to their names.
The three commissioners are ready for this to happen, but is Transylvania?
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In December, the three commissioners – who together had won 20 elections as Republicans – announced they were parting from the GOP. The president, at least in part, hovered over their decision.
“I’m not upset with Mr. Trump because he is who he is,” Hawkins said. “I’m upset with all the people in the Republican Party who have allowed him to be this person and who have not had the courage to say, ‘This is not what’s best for America.’”
The commissioners said the decision wasn’t easy. Lemel, for example, had lifelong ties to the GOP.
Her father was a six-term state representative and the first Republican Transylvania voters elected in the 20th century. She grew up surrounded by the party and won her first commissioners’ race in 2012 as a proud Republican.
“In leaving the party, I immediately became a persona non grata with many of the party faithful,” she said. “So, I’m not being judged by my work, or my character, or my integrity. I’m being judged by the letter next to my name. And that hurts.”
Campaigning without a major party in North Carolina presents challenges, as Hawkins and Lemel soon discovered. Whereas running under a party affiliation simply requires candidates file with the N.C. State Board of Elections, unaffiliated candidates must meet a threshold of signatures to appear on ballots.
Lemel, who at first didn’t commit to running again, was uplifted when local volunteers went out and obtained all the necessary signatures.
“The most striking thing for me has been the incredible outpouring of support and investment in us,” she said. “We’ve just truly been overwhelmed.”
Around town, Brevard residents began approaching Hawkins to discuss his new affiliation. Some were critical but civil. Harsher words, he knows, have been posted online. Still, he said the overall feedback has been positive.
“A lot of people are supporting us because they’ve known us over the years, they think we’re reasonable people and they trust us,” said Hawkins, who is running for his fourth term. “Then there are other people who are supporting us because they liked that we were willing to go out on our own and disassociate from political parties.”
Community members have backed up their vocal support with cash.
While their fundraising is a pittance compared to the millions sloshing around national races, Lemel and Hawkins have seen a steady stream of donations from area residents. In total, they’ve raised $37,500 — more than three times what either candidate has received in a past campaign.
With this relative war chest, they upgraded from a political Facebook page to a polished campaign website. They took out regular ads in local newspapers and for the first time, starting advertising directly to voters on Facebook and through mailers.
In August, The New Yorker magazine profiled the three commissioners, springing their split from the Republican Party into the national spotlight. Messages soon poured in, by the hundreds, from readers coast-to-coast who saw courage in their defection.
“You’d be amazed by the number of emails we got,” Hawkins said. “Many of them were just emotional, just a catharsis for those people to write to us.”
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Bucking a red tide
Winning this fall would make Lemel and Hawkins outliers.
In North Carolina’s 100 counties, only seven commissioners serve as something other than Democrats or Republicans according to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners. Even in local elections, many voters rely on party affiliations to offer quick and valuable information. Split-ticket voting has grown less common as partisanship increases.
“Party is helpful to structure a person’s vote,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, when discussing the Transylvania Commissioners in December. “It gives us this little shorthand.”
Some in Transylvania believe it’ll be a challenge to break the Republican grip on area politics.
“Both (Lemel and Hawkins) have experience, but at the same time, I think that affiliating yourself as a conservative or independent or liberal, makes a huge difference here in the mountains,” said Jimmy Harris, mayor of Brevard.
This year, the Transylvania County Commissioners race includes seven candidates vying for three at-large positions. Competing against Lemel and Hawkins is another unaffiliated candidate, a Democrat, and three Republicans.
One of those Republican opponents, incumbent Commissioner Jason Chappell, pushed back on Lemel and Hawkin’s assertion that national policies have nothing to do with the commissioners’ positions.
“All politics is local,” he said. “Local government affects you more directly quicker than any level of government.”
He also noted the unprecedented amount of cash his two unaffiliated opponents have raised. On his campaign’s Facebook page, he posted, “This election we are being outspent 10 to 1, with totals I would have never imagined for a local county commissioner race.”
Ruth Harris, chair of the Transylvania County Republican Party, contended the commissioners’ stances on broader issues, like gun rights, should matter. She gave the example of how many Western North Carolina counties decided last February to pass “Second Amendment Sanctuary” resolutions, stating county leaders wouldn’t cooperate with gun laws they deemed unconstitutional.
Transylvania’s Board of Commissioners never voted on any similar second amendment resolution. (Hawkins and Lemel called the resolutions toothless and needlessly divisive.)
Harris has lived in Transylvania for a decade and can’t recall a non-Republican winning a partisan election (Brevard City Council elections are nonpartisan.) She said many people consider the three commissioners’ choice to jump from the GOP a betrayal.
“People did vote them in as Republicans, and they did say that they were conservative when they were elected,” she said.
In 2016, Trump won Transylvania County by more than 20 percentage points, and Harris believes his sustained popularity in the region favors local GOP candidates.
“There’s just a lot more people who are saying, ‘I’m just going red all the way down the ballot,’ and when they do that, they might not even know who’s in the county commissioners’ race,” she said.
But with unaffiliated voter registration up countywide, there may be an appetite for independent commissioners. The unprecedented number of letters, emails, and donations Lemel and Hawkins received bolster their belief that Transylvanian residents, and Americans overall, are prepared to ditch partisanship — at least in local offices.
No matter what happens in November, Lemel and Hawkins say they won’t regret their decision to eschew the Republican Party and an easier path to re-election. They know their campaign has left a mark on people across the mountains and beyond who desire something different.
Brian Gordon is a statewide reporter for the USA Today Network in North Carolina. Reach him at [email protected] or follow on Twitter @briansamuel92.