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Half of Western North Carolina mayoral candidates run unopposed

Photos by Lilly Knoepp and courtesy of town websites and candidates
The towns of Franklin, Bryson City and Hot Springs are all dealing with the balance of updating aging infrastructure and developing to provide services for their growing populations. The incumbent mayors in all three towns are running unopposed in 2023 election.

During this year’s municipal elections, 11 mayoral races are up for votes in Western North Carolina, but only about half are contested.

About half of this year’s 937 municipal races across 84 counties are competitive. Western North Carolina follows the statewide trend with 6 of the 11 mayoral races unopposed, according to publicly available statewide Board of Elections data analyzed by political expert and WCU professor Chris Cooper.

Bryson City Mayor Tom Sutton has been in office since 2011 when he won as a write-in candidate.

“It seems like a long time to me. I didn't really have an end goal in mind. It's just kind of turned into something I do,” Sutton said.

Sutton is one of five uncontested incumbents in the mayoral races in Western North Carolina towns. Assuming no write-in candidate defeats him, he will serve his fourth term as Mayor of the Swain County seat. He ran unopposed in the last election for his job in 2019.

Although he retired from his fulltime job as a parole officer in early 2022, he stayed on as mayor.

"It's been more time here, but I'm just not rushed on things and that's a huge benefit. I think that's why so many retired people do well in politics here,” Sutton said.

Sutton said one reason he stayed on is to see through projects that he started. Like many Western North Carolina towns, Bryson City is busy updating the water and sewer infrastructure downtown.

In 2022, the town put together a new land use plan with a vision for what Bryson City will look like in 2045. Sutton said balancing growth and development is one of the biggest challenges of being mayor.

“We're just trying to manage growth right now. We have been in 10-year growth cycle, so we have less problems with developing and more problems with trying to accommodate the people that want to be here,” Sutton said.

Broadband and housing are priorities for Sutton. He said it is a challenge to accommodate all the new people including a lack of buildable property in town for new projects and affordable housing and the growth of short-term housing like AirBnBs.

“We have well over 1,000 short-term rentals in the county and that number is growing daily, so I'm not even sure how accurate is anymore,” Sutton said.

Growth is a top issue for another incumbent mayor in the region. Jack Horton is also running unopposed for his second term as mayor of Franklin.

“My philosophy has basically been in a local government, city or county, you're either growing or you're dying," Horton said. "You can't stay the same and so we're going to grow we're going to continue to grow and expand and so forth. But what we'd like to see is growth with a positive effect on the people who live here, not change things just for the sake of change."

When it comes to housing, the town council looked at the possibility of turning the Old Angel Medical Hospital building into senior housing but it turned out to be too expensive. Horton said he hasn’t given up on the idea of using the building for housing to meet community needs.

“I thought that that area could be developed into some sort of a residential area. If it's not that building, maybe it's something else on that site, but there's a big housing need here for all sectors of our of our town from young people who are starting out who need a place to live all the way to people who retire here who don't want 10 acres in a barn to take care,” Horton said.

Horton was first elected in 2021 and was surprised to find he has no challengers this time around.

“We have a lot of good things going on. So I filed to run for a reelection. And I guess I assumed maybe some other folks would but obviously they didn't so I'm running on opposed again for the second time,” Horton said.

One reason Horton and others may face no competition is that positions in local government offer relatively low pay. A 2021 survey by the NC League of Municipalities explained that mayor’s salaries range from $0 to more than $14,000 depending on the size and wealth of the city. The low compensation may also explain why so many mayors – like Horton are retired.

In one Western North Carolina county, the mayor’s day job was impacted by a new law. Rep. Mark Pless (R-119) filed a new law to make Madison County municipal elections partisan.

The mayor of Hot Springs, Abigail Norton, is also an incumbent running unopposed.

Until recently she was a federal employee.

“Because of the Hatch Act a federal employee cannot run in a partisan election,” Norton said.

There will now be a partisan designation on the ballot beside the town alderman and mayor running for election in the town of Marshall. The change will happen in Hot Springs in 2025.

Norton said the delay was, in part, to accommodate her candidacy. She retired in July so she will be able to run next year.

However, she doesn’t think local elections should be partisan.

“[I think] It's going to create a division in the community. I really do. as I expressed to Representative Pless. You know, you can't know my values or my ideals based on how I'm registered. You just can't,” Norton said.

Partisan races can impact election turnout. A report from the Brookings institute showed that the 2022 election saw an increase in turn out that they attribute to the increased political tension and partisan divide.

While Norton is retired, she said there still isn’t enough time or resources to work on all of the development projects.

Hot Springs developed a unique solution to get help working on projects: a newly-formed citizen’s committee. Norton said the committee is considering becoming a nonprofit in order to raise money to update the community center.

“This committee is going to get started on that because the board, I guess we're like every where else, board members have full-time jobs and governing the town is while it's not really part-time, it is,” Norton said.

So far during early voting, more than 54,000 people across North Carolina have voted. Turn out isn’t expected to exceed 25 percent for this year’s municipal elections, according to Western Carolina University's Cooper.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.