Candidates Need “Game,” Not A Machine


At a Democratic campaign rally back in 2008, an established Buncombe politician began a halfhearted stump speech with, “Well, y’all know me.”

Looking at all the new North Carolinians in the crowd both young and old who had lived in the area only a few years, it was clear many did not.

Decades of marketing efforts inviting Ausländers to vacation and retire in western North Carolina had succeeded beyond local officials’ wildest dreams — and in spite of some of their efforts. Asheville landed on top ten list after top ten list. Now, for local power brokers that dream was becoming a nightmare. Their marketing success had shifted the political landscape under their feet.

Mr. “Ya’ll know me” was going to have to do more to win votes than have a D behind his name or hope voters had known him since childhood. Luckily, that year several local officials rode Barack Obama’s coattails.

Not so for District Attorney Ron Moore in 2014. John Boyle’s Asheville Citizen-Times commentary on Sunday chalked up Moore’s May 6 primary loss to Todd Williams to running into a progressive “machine.” What he ran into was the 21st century.

Former NC state Rep. Bruce Goforth likewise got chewed up in the 2010 Democratic primary against Patsy Keever.

I’d seen Goforth “campaign” in 2006. During Heath Shuler’s first run for Congress that year, Shuler’s field office at Democratic headquarters was abuzz with volunteers. There were daily canvasses, nightly phone banks and long signup sheets hung on the walls and covered with names. In a back office one afternoon, Goforth sat quietly stuffing envelopes with two longtime friends. Apparently, that and a few yard signs was his campaign.

In 2010, however, Goforth asked Drew Reisinger about running his campaign. But then, so did Keever. Reisinger, now Buncombe County’s Register of Deeds, had been a star Obama field organizer in 2008. He signed on with Keever.

If Keever entered the race, Reisinger knew, Goforth was done. Goforth could raise tons of money, true, but as was obvious from 2006, he had few friends. Leftover from her unsuccessful 2004 congressional race, Keever still had a volunteer list with 800 names on it. Goforth outspent Keever in the primary several times over and lost almost as badly as Moore did last week. Sometimes, boots on the ground trump money in the bank.

The problem for Ron Moore and a few other seasoned Democrats is that they campaign for office as though they still have a base and don’t really have to campaign. The late Sen. Martin Nesbitt could get away with that, but few others.

Boyle almost got it right. He mentioned how Ron Moore unexpectedly friended him on Facebook and how unusual that was for the un-chummy Moore. Facing a primary challenge after decades in office and multiple reelection wins, Moore suddenly had to work harder for it. He needed a campaign and he needed to get out his base. Like Goforth, he found out too late he no longer had one.

What Boyle dubbed a political machine is not simply ideological. It is generational, however. You have an older generation of politicos whose idea of campaigning is fundraising letters, a couple of ads, and putting out a few yard signs every couple of years. You might still find a pickle barrel around where you can chat up voters, but they’re less likely to be Democratic voters.

Meanwhile, moving up the local political ladder are tech-savvy Obama campaign veterans who cut their political teeth turning North Carolina blue in 2008. They learned to run modern, volunteer-driven campaigns. They’ve got the tools. They’ve got the talent. They’re good at it. And they enjoy doing what they’re good at.

Boyle and political scientist Bill Sabo had great fun invoking Buncombe’s former Democratic party boss, Weldon Weir, to characterize these activists as an ideologically driven political machine. But they missed two important points.

First: Todd Williams didn’t just win. He won by over a two-to-one margin. Ron Moore didn’t just lose. He lost decisively across the county. For the first time in years, Democrats got a choice in the DA race. Nobody offered primary voters patronage jobs or twisted their arms or demanded loyalty oaths. All county Democrats were offered was a choice. They made one.

Second: Boyle and Sabo declared a “New Progressive Democratic Machine,” suggesting the reason behind the primary challenge to Moore was Machiavellian and about loyalty to their ideology.

Yet, Boyle and Sabo noted that Ron Moore had a well-deserved reputation for being “brusque.” Plus a lot of baggage and “some serious problems.”

Did it not occur to them that as opposed to blind party or ideological loyalty, this new generation of party activists might be concerned with self-policing and cleaning their own house? Was that the real motivation behind the primary challenge to Moore, and why Democratic voters rejected him overwhelmingly?

Plus, if you want to win elections in the 21st century and you don‘t have deep-pocketed patrons, you either better have unassailable favorables or you better have “game.” Moore had neither. Nor did Goforth.

Besides, money cannot buy volunteers. They need to want to work for you. Some of that is ideological, but not all. Expecting your party brand to do your work for you no longer cuts it. You need to cultivate and inspire friends. As a politician, you need them more than they need you.

A tourist walked in off Patton Avenue into Patsy Keever’s congressional campaign office one sunny afternoon in the summer of 2004. He was visiting from California. Through the windows he’d seen a bustle of volunteers and stopped in to see what was up.

“So this is a Senate race?” he asked, surveying the headquarters space.

“No, it’s a House race,” I told him.

“Huh?” the Californian replied, surprised. “It looks like a Senate race.”

Somewhat an outsider in a then more conservative Democratic party, Keever did not win that year. But she had lots of friends and cultivated more. Ten years later, some of her outsider friends are now insiders.


  1. Mark Hufford says:

    Well said, Tom.
    The “machine” of today is an organically-grown interest — getting involved in politics to create a better life for people and a better place to live. To support real Democratic values. I’m so proud and impressed by the direction things have gone in Asheville since 2004. Now if the rest of the state would just wake up!

  2. Doug Gibson says:

    Glad someone took the time to respond to Boyle’s column, Tom.

    I think Martin Nesbitt was the exception that proves your rule. It wasn’t simply that no “progressive” with a high enough profile ever challenged him—it was that nobody with a real chance would ever have been able to draw a clear enough distinction between herself and Nesbitt on policy to make a primary worth her volunteers’ time and energy.

    It seems to me that there’s an ideological “machine” only to the extent that if you continue to do unpopular things, eventually enough people will get mad at you to staff a primary campaign.

    Oh, and if you’re looking to get appointed to a vacant seat, it helps to know a lot of party activists—and it helps especially to have met them while running an effective and popular campaign.

  3. Jason Bugg says:

    It’s not a machine so much as it is a clique that is organized.

    Gordo and his buddies are efficient at organizing. They are still obnoxious, however.

    I’m posting this from Spain! Another country! There is light rail outside of my hotel room! Jeff McClarty just jizzed himself!

  4. RHS says:

    My vote for Todd Williams had nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with being tired of a quarter of a century of arrogance, contemptuousness, and smugness flying out of the DA’s office. I remember when Ron Moore was elected in 1990 by defeating an incumbent in the primary. The key theme of his campaign was that this incumbent, who had been in office for 16 years had been there too long. Moore was now asking that his 24 years be extended to 28.

    I have never voted for Moore. Although I am firmly a Democrat I cast a vote for his Republican opponent in 1998 after reading the Mountain Xpress article on him (this was back when MX had solid local news coverage and was not just pages and pages of a calendar and umpteen food articles.)

    I could not bring myself to vote for his opponent in 2010 but was willing to vote for any opponent who passed the sniff test. That, Todd Williams did.

    And he did it for a LOT of people. Boyle is correct in that there is a well organized progressive wing of the Democratic party in Buncombe County. To call it a “machine” is going a bit overboard though as Williams trounced Moore in all areas of the county — urban, suburban, and rural. Moore won only 4 or 5 precincts and most of them by very, very narrow margins. This was not machine work, this was exasperation and anger at an incumbent was 24 years of rubbing people the wrong way and his feelings of entitlement and of being untouchable.

    Bruce Goforth would still be in office today had he not always conveyed the impression that every single vote he made in the NC House and every single policy position he took was highly calculated to line up with his own personal interests and those of his fellow developers. Had he at least thrown the more progressive wing the occasional bone that would have gone a long way to protect his seat.

    That he ended up being challenged by Patsy Keever only secured his defeat given her proven popularity with Buncombe voters. She may have lost in 2004 Congressional bid but she held Charles Taylor to the lowest margin of his career other than the two runs he ran against incumbent Jamie Clarke and that softened him up for the Shuler challenge in 2006

  5. nick s says:

    It seems to me that there’s an ideological “machine” only to the extent that if you continue to do unpopular things, eventually enough people will get mad at you to staff a primary campaign.

    This. Nesbitt was an old-school mountain Democrat, but he had a base because if you called his office or wrote a letter, you heard back with more than just form responses and platitudes. The test for incumbents is “what have you done to earn our votes lately?” and Moore hadn’t done much other than act like he was entitled to his job for life.

    Boyle’s piece just felt silly, and is a reflection of how fundamentally disengaged the C-T is with local politics, whether it’s the elected/party side or the equally significant domain of unelected boards and non-profits; we all know that Sabo’s sole purpose is to supply quotes in the guise of “political science”. You’d get no less banal a writeup from USA Today, which I suppose is the same thing these days.

  6. RHS says:

    I would also add that I think Moore had gotten very complacent and did not take Williams’ challenge seriously until it was too late — if even then.

    During the entire primary I got several mailings from the Williams campaign and at least one phone call. I got none of either from the Moore campaign. None. Zilch. Nada. Zero.

    I usually actually like Boyle’s pieces, but yeah, this one felt silly, lazy, and as just an excuse to hint at some sort of vague, sinister conspiracy over the fact that after a quarter of a century people were ready for someone new.

  7. TJ says:

    I noticed that Moore campaign signs were primarily located on public property, while Williams had many more on private, including our yard.

    I didn’t think TOO much on it, until the results came in, and I reflected back.

  8. Jeff Mclarty says:

    So I guess the rain in Spain this week falls mainly on the inane.

  9. Excellent discussion. I’d include Ellen Frost’s trouncing of Carol Weir Peterson to the list of 20th century pols being picked off by the new guard.

    This is particularly apropos Boyle’s references because Peterson is a direct political heir to Weldon Weir.

    And Tom mentioned Reisinger’s link to the Obama campaign, but didn’t make the larger point that the 2008 Obama organizing effort was broadly educational to local activists.

    Looking further, three other organizing efforts were critical at the local level.

    The 2004 Howard Dean campaign was well organized here (in summer and fall of 2003, before Dean was taken down by big media after he suggested reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine – with major misrepresentation of his “scream”).

    Following that, a group of us, led by Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, formed the Progressive Project which was active in the 2004 campaigns of Patsy Keever and to a lesser extent, John Kerry. (The Progressive Project went on to to national organizing on LGBT issues, and more recently birthed Beach-Ferrara’s Campaign for Southern Equality.)

    Prior to that, there was the May 2003 event I kicked off in June 2002, the Asheville iteration of Jim Hightower’s Rolling Thunder Downhome Democracy Movement. About 50 nonprofit and decidedly progressive groups came together not just for the one day chatauqua, but for an ongoing online interaction (a still active list-serve) and occasional follow up events. (Including fundraisers featuring Hightower, which enabled the group to repay me for my initial expenditure in reserving the Civic Center and paying a band. Thanks to all who helped on that score.) Not trying to claim huge credit here, but simply trace back the 21st Century movement in Buncombe.

  10. Tom Sullivan says:

    Thanks for sharing the secret handshake, Cecil! You know where to send the decoder ring.

  11. The Rolling Thunder event was definitely a big moment in the emerging progressive scene in Asheville. Thanks for reminding us of that, Cecil.

  12. Slightly off topic – in a legislative committee that apparently hasn’t held a single meeting in 15 years, members of the NCGA today passed a bill that would all but shut down the Moral Monday protests.

    New General Assembly rules would limit Moral Monday protests

    And oh, the poor babies:

    “The new rules further prohibit signs on handsticks and say that signs that disturb members will be confiscated.”

    Don’t want to upset the oh-so-sensitive “representatives” by saying things that might disturb them.

    Sieg Heil, y’all.

  13. “Be civil”, Jason.

    Is this site even moderated anymore? A commenter who routinely posts vulgar sexual insults, or things like “Fuck you, Jeff” never gets reprimanded, much less banned?

    Trying to discuss serious issues is difficult enough without a giant pooh-flinging baby in the room.

  14. RHS says:

    Trolls are best left unfed.

  15. Nothing says news like a blog posting of a reporter’s commentary on a bloggers response to a columnists error-filled speculation about politicians, one of whom founded the aforementioned blog.

  16. Tom Sullivan says:

    What was I saying about our leaders’ marketing success bringing in furriners?

    “It will bring in jobs, it will bring in tourists and it will bring in money,” said Mike Miller, co-owner of Town and Mountain Realty. At the same time, he is concerned that Asheville will be “loved to death,” as he said, with new arrivals driving up property prices and causing future home buyers to look elsewhere. Mr. Miller said that in the past most buyers came from the New York area and Florida, but he is now getting calls from across the country, as well as Canada and Japan.

    Thinking, “Sure, we wanted their business, but we didn’t want them, you know, in our business” is unrealistic. Don’t expect people to bring their money here without also bringing their politics. You don’t get one without the other.

    The notion that being here by accident of birth confers some special privilege over people who chose to live here has been a reliable political wedge that, at this rate, will soon lose its bite despite some politicians’ efforts to wield it at every opportunity.

  17. RHS says:

    “The notion that being here by accident of birth confers some special privilege over people who chose to live here has been a reliable political wedge that, at this rate, will soon lose its bite despite some politicians’ efforts to wield it at every opportunity.”

    Maybe. But that works both ways. I read many letters to the editor, and hear many comments at City Council and County Commission, that begin with “I moved here from (fill in the blank)…” with the implication being that this is in anyway relevant to the issue being discussed and that somehow his/her views should carry more wight because the letter writer/speaker chose to live here.

    Native vs. newcomer tensions exist in any community where there are both native and newcomers and both play their own role in fanning those tensions.

    As for the article itself, well it is just further evidence that we have not learned any lessons from the crash and, as the cliche goes, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

  18. RHS says:

    I would also add that the most voracious complaining I hear about people moving here is not from natives but people who have themselves moved here.

    They found their Shangra-la and by damn they don’t want anyone else moving here messing it up. Thus, they grouse about people doing exactly what they did — causing the area to grow by moving here.

  19. Tom Sullivan says:

    That “I moved here from” preface isn’t invocation of privilege so much as shorthand for “We did it differently where I used to live,” often followed by the suggestion that, as Foghorn Leghorn might say, “You’re doing it all wrong, son.” Which doesn’t play well.

    I had a conversation yesterday with someone who retired here from near Raleigh and who is perplexed by the regular invocation of “mountain values,” as if they’re somehow special or superior — to coastal values or Midwest values or western values or New England values or plains values, or whatever. Every region does this, to be sure. I’m just pointing out that it’s a silly invocation of special privilege based on … what? That by chance you were born there?

    When Keever ran for Congress in 2004, she got Othered, attacked as “not one of us,” as “ain’t from around here, are ya?” because she’s originally from Charlotte!

  20. Jake says:

    Anyone who refers to this active generation of politicos in Buncombe as a machine hasn’t studied their history. There are no ward heelers doling out the spoils and sinecures of City or County largesse.

    Calling it a machine is a smear, and purports quid pro quo that does not exist.

  21. My take on how this concept spun out of control into our current water wars.

    “Asheyille’s financial crisis was a classic ”boom and bust.” In the 1920s, land developers, taking note of the lush beauty of the land, talked unabashedly of creating “the Miami Beach of the mountains,” transforming the tranquil region into a haven for Florida retirees…”

    Also, really fine summary of the water issue by Mark Barrett in today’s AC-T.

  22. Jeff Mclarty says:

    It’s really more of a consortium than a machine.

  23. It’s really more of a consortium than a machine.

    Other possible names?

    Soft Machine
    Wetware Interface
    Bag of Hammers

    or my personal favorite:

    Pre-Zombie Apocalypse

  24. Jeff Mclarty says:

    I think “soft movement” says it best.

  25. Apropos “how we did it back in Kalamazoo:”

    One of the funniest things about the frequently heard comment “We don’t care how you did it in … (insert city name)” is that whenever the City (and one assumes “most cities”) confronts a new situation, the first thing we do is look to other cities in NC, and then across the country, to see if someone has already concocted a likely solution. So, as a practical matter, we care immensely how you did it in Kalamazoo!

  26. RHS says:

    That “I moved here from” preface isn’t invocation of privilege so much as shorthand for “We did it differently where I used to live,” often followed by the suggestion that, as Foghorn Leghorn might say, “You’re doing it all wrong, son.” Which doesn’t play well. ”

    I don’t know. I certainly hear a lot of “this is how we did it in Boston, or Miami, etc. and in those cases there is never anything but the message implied that “you ignorant hillbillies need to be enlightened.”

    What I am referring too is the “I moved here from (insert place)” being used as a prefix when it is totally irrelevant to the issue at hand. In some cases it is in opposition to a new development (I heard it a lot when Grove Park Inn wanted to build the Ellington downtown) and there is a decided implication that “because I chose to move here out of all the other places I could have moved you owe it to me to listen to me more.” There is also a definite tone among some that conveys a sense of wanting to move here and then complain about the growth the results from people, well, moving here.

    Any community that does not attract new comers will become stagnant and risks dying. Any community that cannot keep its natives will lose its sense of place and history. We need both in Asheville and it is both that have helped make it what it is today.

    I agree with Councilman Bothwell’s comments above. We SHOULD care how things are done elsewhere because no community can find all the answers to the problems it faces at home. What needs to be avoided is the arrogance that comes with the “you’re doing it wrong” that shows up a lot of times and us asking ourselves how other places have dealt with the problems we face. There is a difference between “this is how we did it in Philadelphia” and “how did they do it in Chicago?”

  27. I think that’s all well said, RHS, and I agree about the need to avoid implying a superiority.

    One thing I would add, though, is that the “I moved here from…” preface is sometimes followed by, “…and I’d hate for Asheville to turn into the place I just left.” For example, I moved here from Greensboro, which once had the distinction of having the highest amount of pavement per capita of any small-to-medium-sized city in America. Yuck.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes the message isn’t “do it the way we did it”, it’s “don’t make the mistake of doing it the way we did it”.