Gwen Albers/Carolina Public Press

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Even in age of social networks, new media, ‘every billboard booked’ in some areas

In some, more rural portions of Western North Carolina, nearly every billboard is filled with a message from a candidate running for office. Gwen Albers/Carolina Public Press

Hot races in some Western North Carolina counties are creating a profitable election year for billboard account executive Jeff Bryson.

Employed by Allison Outdoor Advertising in Sylva, Bryson said every billboard in Swain and Jackson counties is booked through the May 6 primary. He credits candidates running for county offices in contested races.

“Even during the off (election) season, we stay at 80 percent occupancy,” he said. “Because of the political response, we’re probably at 99.9 percent up to the May primary, which is very atypical.”

Chris Cooper, head of the political science and public affairs department at Western Carolina University, believes billboards are a good way to get out the candidates’ names, especially in races with more than one candidate.

“They tend to work pretty well to give name recognition,” Cooper said. “They let the people know you are running for sheriff.”

Bryson noted that during non-presidential election years, local politicians will use billboards to campaign.

“This year we are seeing even more because there are incumbents seated for a long time not running,” he said.

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One of those incumbents not seeking re-election is two-term Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe. The six Democrats running in the primary are Glen Biller, 50, a deputy at the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office; Douglas Farmer, 50, an officer with the Sylva Police Department; Michael Gosnell, 58, a security guard at Old Edwards Club at Highlands Cove; Robin Gunnels, 49, owner of Custom Truck Covers; Chip Hall, 46, chief deputy with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office; and Steven Lillard, 43, assistant police chief at Western Carolina University.

The Republican ticket includes Jim Hodgins, 62, a retired logger; Curtis Lambert, 44, a former officer at Sylva Police Department; and Mary Alice Rock, 46, a bail bondsman.

Bryson also cited the Swain County sheriff’s race, where four Democrats are running in the primary in hopes of unseating two-term Republican Sheriff Curtis Cochran in the fall. Democrat candidates include Chuck McMahan, 53, a retired North Carolina Highway Patrol sergeant; George Powell, 47, who works in logistics for Caterpillar; Larry Roland, 53, a night bookkeeper at Microtel Hotel; and Rocky Sampson, 54, who is retired from the Tennessee Valley Authority Police. Curtis is unopposed in the primary.

“We’re getting atypical high billboard usage because rurally, speaking in Jackson County and Swain County, the newspapers are effective, but only (come out) once a week,” Bryson said. “With the radio stations, the ratings don’t measure up to what we can offer.”

He noted that most local highways see an average daily traffic count of 22,000 or higher.

“When talking about reaching people on that average and for what you can get for your dollar, I think getting your name out is much easier,” Bryson said.

Billboards are sold on a monthly basis at $375 for the space with additional costs for production. The political advertising season for the primary typically starts in January.

In Swain County, most of the billboards are occupied by Clerk of Courts Hester Sitton and challenger Opal Barker, branch manager for Jackson Savings Bank in Bryson City. Both are Democrats, so the decision will be made in the primary since there are no Republicans on the ballot. The job pays $83,390 annually.

The Committee to Elect Opal Barker will spend $1,439 in billboards in the 59-year-old’s attempt to unseat Sitton for a second time. The committee covered the cost with proceeds raised during a fundraising dinner.

Barker said she has been getting public response from her billboards.

“I think people can see your name and picture, and they realize who you are,” she said. “(I have people say) ‘I saw you on the billboard, and now I get to meet you.’”

Sitton, 65, will spend $2,700 on billboards. Seeking her second full term, Sitton in 2009 was appointed after clerk of courts Helen Styles retired mid-term.

Sitton, who has worked in the office for 24 years, has billboards on U.S. Highways 74 and 441 and U.S. Highway 19 near Ingles in Bryson City.

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“I want to hit each part of the county,” she said. “I want constituents to be reminded of who I am and put a face to the name. (I hope they will say) ‘that’s the lady who helped me with my mother and father’s estate.’”

Joan Weeks, director of elections for Swain County, said billboards have been used throughout the 30 years she has been with the office.

“If the competition is up, the advertising goes up,” Weeks said.

She will not know how much has been spent on billboards for the May primary because candidates will not file expense reports until April 19. Four years ago, candidates were not required to file detailed reports if they spent less than $3,000; no one reached the minimum in Swain.

The law has been changed to $1,000, so she expects to see reports detailing advertising expenses for this primary.

While popular for this primary, billboards are not the most effective form of campaigning, Cooper noted.

“Door-to-door has the most bang for the buck,” he said. “It makes the biggest difference. I think you can explain your position, and it almost humanizes the candidate.”

Gwen Albers

Gwen Albers is a contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press. Contact her at galbers_reporter@yahoo.com.

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