Last year, the North Carolina General Assembly sliced most of Asheville out of its longtime home in the 11th Congressional District and spliced it into the 10th, which stretches southeast all the way to Gaston County. Since 2004, that district has been the home turf of Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry, who's seeking his fifth term.
The move, part of a redistricting designed by the state Legislature’s first Republican majority in more than a century, was widely perceived as an attempt to maintain McHenry's 10th District stronghold while making the 11th District more vulnerable to a Republican candidate.
But Democratic challenger Patsy Keever hopes the infusion of Asheville voters will help turn the 10th blue. And McHenry doesn't seem to be taking victory for granted: He's been barnstorming the new parts of his district, introducing himself to voters less familiar with his record.
Only 37 years old, McHenry has already made a name for himself as a national conservative leader, earning accolades from such organizations as the National Journal, Americans for Tax Reform and the National Federation of Independent Business. McHenry serves on the powerful House Financial Services Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform — two positions he says he'd like to keep.
In those roles, McHenry deals with legislation related to the securities market, banking, insurance and real estate. "It's complex, it's interesting — it's maddening at times, but it's also intellectually stimulating," the candidate notes. This gives him a say in everything from the rules governing checking accounts and credit cards to the "interest rates you get for a mortgage or a home loan, the disclosure forms you get when you buy a house, and whether or not you're able to participate in [helping fund] a new business," he explains, adding, "It's also impactful on jobs."
McHenry says one of his proudest legislative accomplishments was helping author a "crowd funding" bill that passed last year with bipartisan support. The law allows entrepreneurs to raise up to $1 million in capital from an unlimited number of small investors who then gain equity in the business. The idea, similar to the one behind the popular website Kickstarter, is "particularly interesting in an environment like Asheville, where you've got enormous creativity, small-business folks, whether it's an art gallery or a brewery or farming ... or manufacturing, technology," says McHenry.
The congressman says he's visited the area frequently during the past year-and-a-half and has enjoyed getting to know Asheville's issues and eccentricities. Despite the town's tendency to vote Democratic, the Denver, N.C., resident hopes "people will be willing to see past the partisan label and actually work with me" if he's re-elected. "I work with local elected officials, regardless of party or any of the politics," he maintains, saying he'll be happy to help them identify federal grant opportunities, much as 11th District Rep. Heath Shuler (who’s not seeking re-election) has.
McHenry also says he would "have a staff presence" in Buncombe County in "some way, shape or form," cautioning that whether he establishes a local office for constituent services would depend on his budget.
Having taught in the public schools for 25 years and served as a Buncombe County commissioner for 12, Keever says she has a better handle on the issues facing area residents than her opponent does.
"As long as he's been alive, I've been working directly with people on issues from race relations to bicycle paths to big issues like education and health," Keever reports. "We know that when you live in that tight environment, then you don't really know what the real world is like. That's the biggest thing that I bring: He doesn't have the right experience to be able to relate to your normal, everyday working person."
Keever is completing her first term in the Statehouse, representing Buncombe County's 115th District. But after the redistricting moved her into the same district as fellow Democratic Rep. Susan Fisher, Keever opted to bow out rather than face her colleague in the primary. Soon after Keever declared her intention to run for Congress in the 10th District, however, the GOP leadership moved her south Asheville home just over the boundary into the 11th.
On the campaign trail, McHenry has criticized Keever for running in a district she doesn't live in. But the law does not require it, and Keever says she's determined not to let GOP leaders "get rid of me."
"Clearly, they're going after the women," she charges, likening the Republican party's style of governance to a "good old boys club."
If elected, Keever says she'd be interested in serving on committees that deal with agricultural and health issues, but public education would be her top priority. The school system, she believes, serves as "the foundation of our democracy," and strengthening it will help fuel the economy.
"If Republicans take over everything, public education will be just trashed,” Keever predicts. “As an educator, I find that a horrifying thought, that Republicans would voucherize education and Medicare — things that really matter to people. Whatever I do, it's going to be very people-oriented and constituent-oriented."
A fundamental question in this election, continues Keever, is "Are we in this together, or is it just for the rich few? I think we're in it together."
In terms of how that translates into policy decisions, Keever says she supports raising taxes on those who make more than $250,000 a year in order to help fund services and infrastructure improvements and reduce the national debt. She also supports the so-called "Buffett Rule," which would require people earning $1 million or more per year to pay at least 30 percent of their income in federal taxes.
"You want it to be an equitable system, a fair system,” says Keever. “And schools cost money. Roads cost money. Keeping our environment clean costs money.”
Throughout the campaign, both candidates have painted their opponent as a partisan extremist. Both also echo their respective parties’ talking points concerning health care and other issues.
Keever maintains that the 2010 Affordable Care Act takes the country in the right direction, saying she strongly supports the provisions barring insurance companies from denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions and allowing children up to age 26 to stay on their parents' health-insurance plan.
McHenry, meanwhile, says that while maintaining those popular provisions should be a priority in any alternative proposal, he wants to repeal the entire bill and replace it with "free-market health-care solutions." The congressman says he favors a more "patient-centered direction for health care," adding that allowing consumers to buy health insurance across state lines would help bring down costs.
In Congress, McHenry supported Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's proposal to give Medicare enrollees the option of receiving government vouchers they could apply to the cost of private health insurance. Without such steps, says McHenry, Medicare is in danger of going broke.
Keever, however, opposes such a move, which she maintains would result in higher costs for seniors and amounts to "an end to Medicare as we know it." To rein in spending, Keever favors investing in preventive programs that help avert chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity, which are costly to treat.
On abortion, Keever is pro-choice, while McHenry's website touts his co-sponsorship of the proposed Sanctity of Human Life Act. Defining life as beginning at “fertilization, cloning or its functional equivalent,” the bill would empower federal and state governments to pass laws protecting life from that point on, with no exception for rape — effectively banning abortion. On another controversial social issue — gay marriage — McHenry voices support for the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act; Keever says she'd vote to repeal it.
As for the environment, McHenry says he supports North Carolina’s 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act, which was passed before he was elected to the General Assembly. "I absolutely think that in Western North Carolina, our clean air, our clean views, equal economic prosperity and growth,” the candidate declares. “So we have to preserve that, because people want to come here because of that."
Nonetheless, the League of Conservation Voters gave the legislator’s environmental record this year an abysmal 6 percent score (out of 100). In contrast, the nonprofit advocacy organization, which produces an environmental scorecard each year based on each lawmaker’s voting record on key legislation, hailed Keever as one of the greenest members of N.C.’s Statehouse, with a 92 percent score. Keever also won the national Sierra Club’s endorsement.
“Patsy is someone who will do more than just say the right things; she will deliver results on the issues important to families,” proclaimed Ken Brame, the group’s national political chair, according to a Keever press release.
On another front, Keever has slammed McHenry for accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the very banking interests he's charged with regulating. The challenger also says she supports the DISCLOSE Act, which would require independent political groups to be more transparent about where their money comes from.
“If folks contribute to me,” counters McHenry, “It's because people support my agenda, not the other way around. If you look at the financial-services industry, the biggest bill they wanted was the bailout," or Troubled Asset Relief Program, which he voted against. McHenry opposes the DISCLOSE Act, calling it an attempt to stifle free speech and the "open market of ideas that the framers intended." Keever, he points out, "hasn't stopped trying to raise money — she's just been less successful at it."
McHenry also laments the fact that "so much of our political discourse is on a few hot-button issues. Election Day,” he adds, “happens once every two years for me. Every other day of the year is serving the people as they are, where they are."