The men who chair the local Democratic and Republican Party organizations are a study in contrasts. Charles Carter and Chad Nesbitt couldn’t be more different — in their manner and their respective approaches to this year’s campaigns. But in many ways, both have come to personify the organizations they lead. Here’s a closer look at each of them.
Tall, lean and with movie-star good looks, Carter seems relaxed as we talk politics at Mountain Java, the Merrimon Avenue coffee shop he owns.
Born and raised in Buncombe County, Carter grew up on the campus of the Asheville School, where his father was athletic director for 40 years and his mother still serves as part-time librarian. Carter played various sports there and at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. After a year-and-a-half in Barcelona, he came home in 1993 to teach Spanish at North Buncombe High School.
Although Carter grew up in a bipartisan, politically aware home, it was his classroom experience that pushed him into politics. Believing that his state senators weren’t addressing his students’ needs, Carter challenged Republicans RL Clark and Jesse Ledbetter himself. After narrowly losing in 1996, he outpolled both men in 1998, at age 31. He won a second Senate term two years later.
Carter tries to focus on the basics: “You put education and business first, and you take care of your environment. I want everyone to buy into those [principles]; I want to help everyone see why those are so important to the candidates who are running under the Democratic Party.”
The campaign trail taught Carter the value of a sound party structure. Teaching school all day and traveling the expansive district at night and on weekends, the candidate relied on the party to carry his message when he himself couldn’t. He’s been active ever since and, after the Democratic landslide of 2008, sought the post of party chair.
With no presidential contest on the ballot in midterm elections, “You have to put so much more effort into voter turnout,” he notes. “That takes a lot of effort in terms of canvassing, phone-banking and organizing ... so the whole party is moving in one direction.”
Carter says he’s proud of how the party’s sometimes disparate factions have largely put aside their differences to focus on electing Democratic candidates. He’s also quick to give credit to everyone except himself.
“I think we recognized after this last election ... that we have a broad range of philosophies. The bigger your tent, the wider your views: You’re going to have progressives, you’re going to have conservatives. But at the end of the day, you bring everyone together to help one another win.”
Will a progressive defection hurt Democrats’ prospects and, specifically, help Jeff Miller eke out a victory in the 11th Congressional District race, as many Republicans predict?
“I hope that’s their strategy, because that’ll fail,” Carter says confidently. “I think progressives here recognize that while Congressman Shuler may not have voted on health-care reform the way they might have liked, he voted the right way on issues that are very important to them, particularly ‘cap and trade’ and the environment. Congressman Shuler has been a champion of keeping our region beautiful and clean … and that’s not something we’d get under Miller.”
Are any local races a lock for the Democrats? “I consider every one of them as valuable as the next,” Carter says earnestly. “We’ve got to fight like we’re going to lose it — you never want to take any district for granted.”
The one subject that seems to get Carter noticeably irked is his Republican counterpart’s tactics. It’s Sept. 12 — the day after Nesbitt staged a controversial GOP fundraiser. “When you see a party chairman who uses the memory of 9/11 and the memory of the people who passed away to raise money for a partisan effort … I’m curious if the Republicans in Buncombe County really believe that’s a proper way to communicate with the voters and to participate in our democracy,” says Carter.
Nesbitt, he continues, is “a great opponent for us. Is that really what you’re going to run on? That somehow if you continually drive wedges between people and between groups of people instead of working with people and building bridges … I’ll take that any day. ... Basically, the Carolina Stompers [a conservative activist group Nesbitt founded in 2007] have hijacked the Republican Party. It’s a pretty scary thing.”
After devastating losses in both the 2008 and 2009 elections, the local GOP turned to the former Carolina Stompers boss to lead the party to victory this fall. And true to form, he’s been stirring the pot.
Xpress got a taste of Nesbitt’s combative style while preparing this article. After assuring us for days that he’d be glad to talk with us, Nesbitt turned a camera on this reporter and started making accusations before abruptly refusing to be interviewed. In the wake of that incident, Nesbitt assured another Xpress reporter that he’d be happy to talk but never returned repeated calls, leaving the paper to cobble together this portrait from other sources.
Carter isn't alone in condemning Nesbitt’s 9/11 fundraiser: Both Shuler and his Republican challenger, Miller, have criticized the self-proclaimed “street-fighting promoter” for it. Rather than apologizing, however, Nesbitt fired back on his party’s website, calling both men’s judgment and maturity into question and saying he’d taken “special delight in our Saturday event and will repeat the effort next year.”
And if Carter shuns the limelight, Nesbitt apparently relishes the attention that seems to swirl around him constantly. With his trademark oily locks, country twang and cowboy boots, the squat, pugnacious GOP chairman pulls no punches in his frequent public appearances and YouTube videos — part of a “guerilla marketing campaign” that he hopes will bring Republican voters to the polls come November.
Nesbitt appears to have his work cut out for him, however. Just over 27 percent of Buncombe County’s 175,209 registered voters are Republicans; about 44 percent are Democrats. The rest are unaffiliated. The last time a Republican was elected locally in a race in which all Buncombe County voters could weigh in was in 2004, but those hard realities don’t seem to faze Nesbitt, who’s betting on total victory for the GOP at all levels. In an interview last spring, he told then Xpress Managing Editor Jon Elliston that “Every race will be won” (see “From Stomper to Political Strongman,” April 7 Xpress).
To Nesbitt, the fight seems to be more akin to a moral crusade: A recent ad he ran in the Asheville Daily Planet proclaims, “Politics is not about Republicans vs. Democrats, it’s about Good vs. Evil,” calling on the county’s registered Republicans to pony up $10 each to “fight this evil” so the party can “rescue Buncombe and stop the destruction of America.” And in a recent video, Nesbitt declared, “In order to defend ourselves against socialistic terrorism, we [Republicans] must have a large turnout of Buncombe County voters that believe in God and America.”
Although his 9/11 event apparently failed to raise much money, Nesbitt, undaunted, is planning a cable-TV telethon for the crucial final weeks leading up to the election. “My goal,” he told Elliston, “is to make us $250,000 to $300,000 for the Buncombe County GOP.”
The estranged stepson of veteran state Sen. Martin Nesbitt, Chad grew up a Democrat but changed his affiliation a few years back, feeling the party had drifted too far to the left.
He lives in Leicester with his wife and teenage daughter, whom he's sometimes enlisted in pursuing his political goals. In a YouTube video timed to coincide with President Obama's Asheville visit last April, Savannah Nesbitt says she “believes in the traditions of this country,” going on to ask Obama, “Why do you want to change it?”
Former Asheville City Council member Carl Mumpower, a longtime friend, called Chad “a creative, well-intended and courageous GOP county chair.”
Another prominent local Republican, however, made his dissatisfaction known in dramatic fashion: Asheville City Council member Bill Russell told Xpress last week that he’s leaving the party, which he said “shouldn’t engage in these kind of antics that demonize people.
“It seems to me that some people are doing things to promote themselves over the party’s candidates, and they’re not bringing people together,” Russell explained. “None of that does anything to help the party, the process or the community in which we all live.”
— Michael Muller can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 154, or at email@example.com.