[This article by Cory Vaillancourt was first published by The Smoky Mountain News and is republished here with permission.]
Western North Carolina’s last two Republican congressmen, Mark Meadows and Madison Cawthorn, have left behind them a combined decade-long legacy of deceit, inaction and possible criminal activity.
Now, as another hard-fought race in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District nears its end, voters across the region will not only have to weigh the predictable partisan positions and the life experience of the candidates, but also whether those candidates can actually be trusted to do the job they’re sent to Washington to do without attempting to overthrow the government while they’re there.
“This election is about very stark choices,” said Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a Buncombe County commissioner and Democratic nominee. “If there’s one thing that I could ask voters to think about as they prepare to make their decisions about who to vote for, it’s that Western North Carolina deserves someone in Congress who understands that their job is to fulfill their oath of office and to represent every single person in our district.”
Sandwich Shop to Congress
Meadows, a Florida native and former sandwich shop owner, burst onto the scene in 2012, entrusted by the voters of the 11th Congressional District to represent them after winning the General Election by nearly 15 points. In 2014 and 2016 he expanded those margins, with no opponent coming closer than 26 points. In 2018, his margin of victory slipped to a still-substantial 20 points.
Around that same time, Meadows had become something of a national figure, chairing the House Freedom Caucus and spending more time interacting with network TV talkers than with constituents and media in his own district.
In December 2018, it was revealed that Meadows had been somewhat less than truthful about his degree from the University of South Florida when his official bio was quietly edited to remove his bachelor’s degree and instead reflect the two-year associate’s degree he actually earned.
A year later, on Dec. 19, 2019, Meadows stunned the political establishment just hours before the candidate filing deadline by saying he wouldn’t seek a fifth term. The move was seen as a way to box out other Republicans in favor of his preferred candidate, Maggie Valley realtor Lynda Bennett, whose flash filing and spectacular campaign implosion led directly to the rise of Cawthorn.
President Donald Trump tweeted on March 6, 2020 that Meadows would soon become his chief of staff. Three weeks later, Meadows resigned his seat in Congress, leaving Western North Carolina without a voice on Capitol Hill just as the federal government passed some of the largest spending packages in American history while at the same time attempting to manage an unprecedented global pandemic.
By September 2020, Meadows and his wife Debbie had registered to vote in a ramshackle Macon County mobile home that he didn’t own and had probably never visited. Mark and Debbie Meadows have since been purged from the Macon County voter rolls, and the matter remains under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation.
After Trump’s 2020 General Election loss to President Joe Biden, Meadows floated conspiracy theories that he ultimately couldn’t prove — including that the Vatican and the U.S. embassy in Rome conspired to use satellites to change Trump votes to Biden votes. Acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue called the theory “pure insanity.”
Throughout 2022, the bipartisan House Select Committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol has shown Meadows to be a central figure in the insurrection. Former aide Cassidy Hutchins testified under oath that in the waning days of the Trump administration Meadows had unsuccessfully sought from the president a pardon for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Chick-fil-A to Congress
Meadows’ successor, Hendersonville native Madison Cawthorn, left a trail of deception, desertion and possible criminality similar to that of his predecessor.
Although he briefly worked in Meadows’ office, Cawthorn’s only real job experience prior to serving in Congress was at a Chick-fil-A in Hendersonville. When he ran in 2020, Cawthorn was a charismatic unknown who finished second in a Republican Primary Election field of 12 — just above Macon County Republican Sen. Jim Davis — to make it into a runoff with Bennett.
Cawthorn went on to beat Bennett in the runoff by a 2-to-1 margin and then defeated Democratic nominee Moe Davis by more than 12 points, even after accounts of sexual harassment were first reported in The Smoky Mountain News and, on the very same day, in Christian conservative magazine The World.
Like Meadows, Cawthorn wasn’t honest about his educational background, telling multiple sources his plan to attend the U.S. Naval Academy had been derailed after a devastating car wreck left him paralyzed. In reality, he’d been rejected by the USNA before the wreck.
Cawthorn’s college career was less than stellar; after earning poor grades, he dropped out of Patrick Henry College before completing his second semester. His classmates were so disturbed by his antics there that more than 150 of them — nearly half the school — signed on to a scornful letter calling out his character.
Just three days after Cawthorn was formally entrusted to represent the people of the 11th Congressional District in Congress, he spoke at Trump’s now infamous “Stop the Steal” rally at the ellipse in Washington, saying the crowd “has some fight in it.”
Later that day, Cawthorn sequestered himself in a secure location as a mob he called “disgusting and pathetic” broke windows, breached the Capitol and left feces and urine in hallways while disrupting an official proceeding of Congress.
Late that night, Cawthorn voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election and subsequently repeated many of the debunked election fraud claims offered by Trump and Meadows.
During Biden’s inauguration two weeks later, Cawthorn told The Smoky Mountain News that in hindsight he wouldn’t have changed much about his ellipse speech, as some of his most ardent supporters began to distance themselves from him.
Throughout his first term, Cawthorn was criticized for his attendance record by nonprofit government watchdog ProPublica, which called him one of the most absent members of Congress.
He also carried a gun into an airport twice, received a number of traffic citations including for driving while revoked, brought knives onto school property, ran into FEC troubles, faced an ethics investigation over a cryptocurrency scheme and called Jan. 6 rioters “patriots.”
This past spring, Cawthorn’s own spectacular campaign implosion was reminiscent of Bennett’s as a nonstop barrage of salacious scandals provided near-daily speculation about his fitness for office.
A Nov. 11, 2021, statement from Cawthorn, premature in retrospect, announced that he would run in a different congressional district in 2022. The decision was based on proposed maps that were still under court scrutiny. When the maps were struck down, Cawthorn had little choice but to return to the 11th and face the growing primary field, which included his former NC-11 GOP district director and apparent hand-picked successor Michele Woodhouse, along with a powerful three-term Republican senator from Hendersonville, Chuck Edwards.
McDonald’s to Congressional Election
All told, it wasn’t a huge surprise when Edwards slid past Cawthorn by 1.6% in the May 17 Republican Primary Election and avoided a runoff to become the Republican nominee from a field of eight.
Edwards shares more in common with Cawthorn and Meadows than just the “R” behind their names.
In August, Edwards refused to attend a forum hosted by The Smoky Mountain News and Blue Ridge Public Radio, choosing rather to spend the time with donors in Brevard. Edwards maintains he’d only agreed to do one forum throughout the entirety of the General Election campaign, after appearing at nearly a dozen during the Primary Election — during which he called out Cawthorn’s multiple absences.
Instead, Edwards chose to participate in a different forum hosted by a Sinclair-owned television station that didn’t even bother to invite the third candidate, Libertarian David Coatney. Up to that point, Edwards had previously spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising with the station.
Like Meadows and Cawthorn, Edwards hasn’t exactly been clear about his educational attainment. His campaign website says he “studied business at Blue Ridge Community College,” but doesn’t elaborate. Emails sent by The Smoky Mountain News to Edwards’ campaign on Sept. 1 and Sept. 16, asking for a detailed academic history, both went unanswered.
Fellow candidates Beach-Ferrara (BA, Brown University 1998; MFA Warren Wilson College 2001; M.Div Harvard University 2010) and Coatney (BA and MA, Arkansas Tech 1999-2006) both responded to SMN’s inquiry the day it was sent.
During an Oct. 14 interview, Edwards said he didn’t receive any sort of degree from BRCC, but that he had gone on to take various business classes with UNC-Asheville and other colleges on online.
Like Meadows and Cawthorn, Edwards’ life experience has its roots in selling sandwiches.
“My education came from behind the counter at McDonald’s, and knowing how to operate a business and learning how to serve people,” he said. Edwards began working at the fast-food establishment at the age of 16 and now owns several Western North Carolina franchises.
It was for those franchises that Edwards took a $1.12 million PPP loan in 2020.
Edwards came out strongly against Biden’s student loan forgiveness measure, telling The Smoky Mountain News on Sept. 7 that Biden’s proposal was “unfair to the millions of Americans who have paid back their debt and to the taxpayers who will now pay the debts of those who haven’t.”
Two weeks prior, the GOP House Judiciary Committee’s official Twitter account said, “If you take out a loan, you pay it back. Period.”
But Edwards didn’t pay it back. He didn’t have to. His seven-figure loan was forgiven, along with all accrued interest.
After loan forgiveness, Edwards and other legislators managed to carve themselves out a tax break on the loan proceeds, which were to have been counted as taxable income until the 2021 Appropriations Act passed. WBT-TV reported that the measure would net Edwards $40,000 to $50,000 in savings.
Similar to remarks made by House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), Edwards brushed aside ethical concerns of the tax break by telling WBT’s Nick Ochsner that he “wasn’t — and have not been — acting on my behalf” and that he “came here to Raleigh to represent the interests of business.”
Meanwhile, Edwards and fellow legislators in the Republican-dominated General Assembly did nothing when Gov. Roy Cooper called on them to waive state income taxes on student loan debt that would soon be forgiven.
Like Meadows and Cawthorn, Edwards holds a more benign view of the threat to democracy faced by Americans during the Jan. 6 insurrection.
During a Primary Election forum in February on WTQZ-AM, Edwards said, “It clearly was not an insurrection, it was a riot not brought under control by Nancy Pelosi when she would have had the opportunity to do that. It was a dark day for America but it was not an insurrection.”
Fact checking by the Associated Press shows that Edwards’ claim about Pelosi, also advanced by Trump, Indiana Rep. Jim Banks and Minority Leader McCarthy, is demonstrably false.
Footage recently screened by the Jan. 6 committee shows Pelosi, along with Sen. Chuck Schumer, desperately phoning Trump administration officials, pleading with them for help to stop the violence. Pelosi also called Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, asking for National Guard troops.
After 10 televised hearings from the Jan. 6 committee and the conviction of two Oath Keepers on charges of seditious conspiracy, Edwards still doesn’t think it was an insurrection.
“I’ve said many times that Jan. 6 was not an insurrection. Jan. 6, began as a peaceful protest by hundreds of thousands of people exercising their First Amendment rights, and there were a few folks in the crowd that broke out into a riot,” he told The Smoky Mountain News on Oct. 14.
A running list of people charged in conjunction with the Jan. 6 insurrection shows that more than a few people, 928 to be exact, broke out into a riot.
Instead of focusing on the very real crimes committed by rioters, which have resulted in sentences ranging from probation to 10 years in the case of a man who assaulted a police officer, Edwards pointed a finger at the left.
“I don’t condone violence from anyone, including the groups that we’ve seen from the radical left side, such as Antifa and others that are never challenged and never held accountable and certainly should be,” he said.
If he’s elected and Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, Edwards recommends doing away with the Jan. 6 committee altogether.
“I would propose that it’s time for the U.S. House to turn its attention towards the future and make life better for the folks in America,” he said. “My intention is to help improve the lives of folks here in these mountains by reducing inflation, by unleashing American energy, by making America a safe place to live again and by reforming our education systems.”
A GOP-led House could, if it wished, rejigger or replace the committee under new Republican leadership, offering its own rebuttals and evidence. Edwards isn’t interested in presenting the GOP’s version of events.
“I’m looking in the windshield. We’ve got problems here in America that are affecting working families, particularly here in Western North Carolina,” he said. “My focus is going to be on serving the folks of these mountains and making sure that they’ve got a voice in Washington D.C.”
Beach-Ferrara has maintained a consistent position on the insurrection, which she reiterated during an Oct. 15 interview.
“Jan. 6 was an insurrection. it was one of the darkest days in our country’s history and we have to ensure that it never happens again. What we have learned through the Jan. 6 committee’s work is that the planning of that event and the coordination around it went all the way to the White House, including the involvement of Mark Meadows, a former representative from this district,” she said. “People lost their lives on that day. Brave members of the Capitol Police Force are still recovering from what happened that day. It was a direct assault on our democracy. The fact that Sen. Edwards fails to acknowledge that lives were lost, that members of law enforcement were injured, that it breached fundamental promises and how we protect our democracy tells us exactly what we need to know about his priorities. He is part of the same extremist movement we’ve gotten from Madison Cawthorn and Mark Meadows and Western North Carolina needs and deserves a clean break.”
During the Aug. 31 forum that Edwards chose not to attend, Libertarian candidate Coatney offered his own view of the insurrection.
“I would call it an insurrection as well. And I would also like to point out the difference between a riot and a protest — it is not dependent on your political persuasion. What I saw on Jan. 6 was I saw Trump supporters standing around the sidewalks just waving flags. Those are not rioters, those are protestors. At that exact same time, I also saw individuals breaking windows, busting through doors and storming government facilities. Those are rioters. This may be hard for some people to reconcile, but those two can coexist at the exact same time,” he said. “I witnessed the exact same thing in the summer of 2020 during the BLM protests. I saw individuals marching down the streets chanting. Those are not rioters, those are protestors. But at the exact same time I witnessed individuals that were burning down black-owned businesses and that were victimizing innocent people. Those are rioters. If it’s a riot when the other team does it, but a protest when your team does it, then perhaps it’s time to take the partisan goggles off.”
Despite the apparent similarities between Meadows, Cawthorn and himself, Edwards wants voters to trust him with the sacred duty of representing a mostly rural, somewhat impoverished district that’s lacked stable, transparent, efficient leadership for the last four years, if not more.
“I’ve clearly got a record. I’ve served in the North Carolina Senate for the last six years, and I’ve done exactly what the voters trusted me to do,” he said. “I think that’s why they’re ultimately going to make a decision to trust me with yet another public office.”
Cory Vaillancourt is the politics reporter at The Smoky Mountain News, which has offices in Waynesville and Sylva. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.