Western NC conservatives Page Lemel and Mike Hawkins on their rejection of Trumpism, and whether or not it cost them re-election.
In the heart of a western North Carolina county that overwhelmingly votes for Republicans, two seasoned county commissioners made national news for leaving the GOP and campaigning as independents.
Along with David Guice, a Brevard restaurant owner serving in his second stint as county commissioner, Page Lemel and Mike Hawkins left the Republican Party late last year. It didn’t go over well with voters.
Despite a combined 20 years of service in Transylvania County, Lemel and Hawkins were defeated by three Republicans and a Democrat for seats on the Board of Commissioners. Guice is not up for re-election until 2022. Transylvania County is 93.4% white with a population of a little over 34,000. It’s a hotbed of Trump support that overwhelmingly voted to send Madison Cawthorn, a polarizing 25-year-old right-winger from Hendersonville, to Congress.
Lemel is a Duke graduate, and aside from serving as a county commissioner for eight years, she has worked as the president and director of Keystone Camp, Inc., a four-generation family business that says it’s the oldest private summer camp in the Southeast.
Hawkins was first elected to the Transylvania County board in 2008. He chaired the board from 2010-2016, and from 2018 until now. The Brevard resident is currently on the executive board of several local and state organizations, and is or has been active in numerous local civic organizations.
Cardinal & Pine spoke to Lemel and Hawkins about their ill-fated campaigns, and if they regret their departure from the GOP.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
C&P: If you could go back in time, would you have changed anything about your campaign?
Page: I would not have. I think our decision that we made was one based on our principles, and our integrity and our values. I think that’s what the problem is right now, the majority of people don’t seem to be holding on to their values and their morals and their ethics and their integrity.
Long ago, I learned that there are days that you stand really tall on your principles and succeed beautifully and there are other days that you die hard on those principles.
I am really proud of my ethics and my principles, my integrity, and I would not want to do this any differently.
Mike: I don’t think that from our perspective, it was ever about an election it was about doing what we thought was the right thing. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.
C&P: Did you ever consider using your platform to speak out against Trump without leaving the Republican Party?
Page: The struggle is that there’s no gray area. (The GOP) is completely in (favor of) Donald Trump in this neck of the woods and there’s no “halfway” around here, at least I never felt like it. There is no shaking the dedication to Donald Trump in this county. How do you possibly think that you’re going to be able to change minds when you cannot find one iota of common ground to start that conversation?
Part of our campaign slogan was courage. It takes a lot of courage to buck the system. It takes a lot of courage to be that independent voice, but I can honestly tell you, I am really at peace with my decision. I sleep at night because I did the right thing.
Mike: I would argue that I did try to change things. I regularly talked with state-level legislators and we wouldn’t get anywhere. Nobody’s willing to do anything about it. If you’ve got an “R” or a “D” by your name, it doesn’t matter if you publicly support it–you’re attached to it.
So for me, I said, “I’m going to have grandchildren one day, and I want them to know that I did not support this.”
C&P: How much does partisanship really matter in local government?
Page: In my personal opinion, zero. County commissioners have little control over the primary issues that rile people up. Our work is around public health, trash and social services. Our work is around making sure the schools are funded and around parks and recreation. There’s so many services that really impact a quality of life, regardless of your party affiliation.
I think we don’t understand enough about our government. We don’t learn how the government really works in this country anymore. Because of all of the excitement on the national and state levels, local government just gets overlooked.
Mike: My opinion is that many county commissioners across the state see themselves not in an administrative role, but rather they think of themselves as miniature Lindsey Grahams or miniature Mitch McConnells, or miniature Nancy Pelosis. They misuse the office of county commissioners to fight partisan political battles. Your role locally should be to bring people together, not pit them against each other.
There’s nothing wrong with partisanship, there’s nothing wrong with political parties, I think it’s useful. There are different approaches for solving problems. That’s what politics is, a way to look for solutions to public problems. And there are different approaches, our contention has always been that good and bad ideas come from across the spectrum.