Congressman Chuck Edwards speaks with audience members after the anticrime summit on Friday at A-B Tech. Some audience members were upset that Edwards didn’t allow time for questions. // Watchdog photo by John Boyle

The stage was set.

I thought I could reasonably expect some impressive fireworks, if not outright fisticuffs, at Friday’s “anti-crime summit” hosted by U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards. I mean, we have a very conservative congressman who’s antagonized Asheville’s liberal leaders with some real stingers of late, and it’s been great sport for conservatives to blast Buncombe County as a bastion of nitwitted bleeding hearts that have let downtown Asheville devolve into a den of debauchery and crime.

Edwards fueled the fire by issuing a pre-event press release with some especially saucy language:

“Everywhere I go in this district, I am approached by constituents imploring our leaders to do something about the lawlessness, vagrancy and public safety issues that seem to be centered on Asheville. The surging crime, homelessness and drugs are a threat to our people and our way of life here in the mountains, and are spilling over from Asheville to the surrounding areas of WNC.”

That was pretty tangy, but then Edwards upped the spice.

“So I’m doing something about it,” Edwards said. “I’m gathering together leaders and stakeholders in our area, getting them to sit down and actually talk to one another instead of at one another to define, name and find a solution to these problems before Buncombe County and WNC turn into another crime-ridden Chicago or San Francisco.”

Yeah, baby! A comparison to San Francisco, the real American cesspool of sin!

I do love a good political brouhaha, so I was actually kind of pumped about the gathering, scheduled for two hours at A-B Tech shortly after high noon. I was expecting some real heat, but instead, it was just kind of a lukewarm lovefest.

Honestly, it made me question my life choice of becoming a professional political irritant.

Edwards had stirred some poop not only with the press release but also truly inflammatory comments at a June 1 town hall appearance in Canton in which he disparaged Buncombe County. Several Buncombe officials, including State Rep. Caleb Rudow, D-Buncombe, had held their own meeting, offering assistance to Canton in the wake of Pactiv Evergreen’s decision to close its paper mill costing local residents 1,100 good-paying jobs, according to a report from the Smoky Mountain News.

“While I respectfully appreciate that a House member from Buncombe County is willing to have some conversation to see how they can help us over here in Haywood County, I’d suggest the best thing that the folks in Buncombe County could do to help Haywood County is to fix Buncombe County,” Edwards said at his town hall. “Clean Buncombe County up, get the needles off the streets, get a DA in place and prosecute criminals to reduce crime and not allow the spill-over into our haven over here.”

Yowza! Them’s fightin’ words!

Things were promising early on

While Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams did not attend Friday’s summit, Assistant District Attorney David Denninger did. Early on, Edwards fired a pretty good zinger at Denninger, and I thought we were on our way to the pyrotechnics.

Edwards asked Denninger, who had said the DA’s office needed more resources, a question about prioritizing spending and what role that plays.

Denninger opted to tell a story about one of Buncombe County’s more notorious criminals, Kenneth Dale White, who goes by “Lil’ Tennessee” and has been arrested more than 278 times, as Asheville Watchdog reported in our 12-part Down Town series. Denninger said it costs about $130 a day to house a county jail inmate, noting that White, who has addiction and mental health problems, mostly was arrested repeatedly for trespassing.

The point Denninger made was that once local nonprofits stepped in and got White permanent housing, Lil’ Tennessee stopped getting arrested. Edwards opted for a wisecrack.

“So, I would suspect that you’re preparing to run for some sort of political office judging by how effectively you dodged that question,” he said, drawing some applause and whoops from the crowd. “I’m not going to let you off the hook that easy. Where does prioritizing the money that we’re already spending come into play to get us the resources that we need?”

Audience members listen to an array of law enforcement officials and politicians discuss the challenges confronting Asheville at an anti-crime summit hosted by Republican congressman Chuck Edwards. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

I gotta admit, my professional agitation sensor started to tingle more than a little.

The stage was set for blastoff, and Edwards had lit Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer’s fuse. Before Denninger could respond, Manheimer snatched the microphone in front of her and delivered a fiery defense.

“This is not an invalid point, and it’s not dodging the question,” Manheimer said. “Money is money. You want to pay to incarcerate people for their short term, their lifetime. Money is money. We know what causes the problems we’re seeing on the streets, and it’s because we’re failing to address the very basic root causes: quality, safe housing, health care, quality health care, quality education. The state’s not investing in education anymore.”

I held my breath for a theatrical, Will Smith-style slap. I thought it was on, baby! Asheville liberals in a cage match against the right-wing congressman in a fight to the, well, not to the death, but maybe to the crowd’s exhaustion?

Alas, Edwards smoothly defused the moment. He said we’re not going to solve the problem at this meeting, that we don’t have unlimited resources, that taxpayers can be stretched only so much, that zzzzzz….

When I awoke, Edwards was telling Denninger he “meant no disrespect” but was only trying “to add a little levity to the situation here.” The auditorium was full, and several folks scoffed.

“Yeah, right,” one said. “Sure.”

But really, that was about it for fireworks.

Sheriff Miller was a total pro

Even Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller was fairly subdued. He had issued a press release just a couple of hours before the event, citing Edwards’ “Chicago” remarks.

“I expect that type of commentary from Fox News, however, his statement is not supported by the crime statistics from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and it’s irresponsible to have a conversation about public safety that is not rooted in data,” Miller said.

Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin E. Miller

The sheriff’s release stated that as of Friday, Buncombe County has had two homicides (that’s the unincorporated area of Buncombe County), and that the county’s homicide rate is well below the state rate of 9.7 per 100,000 people. Miller cited homicide measures for Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore and others, which are all dramatically higher than here.

“To suggest that crime in Asheville or Buncombe County is anywhere near what is plaguing our largest cities makes for great politics, (that) simply isn’t based in reality,” Miller said in the release.

So, I held out hope for maybe a body slam. But during the summit, Edwards thanked Buncombe County for providing deputies for security for the event, and Miller struck a conciliatory tone. He even thanked Edwards for holding the event, and all the panelists for their input.

Outside, a pair of doves cooed softly.

Miller again stressed that he relies on data but also asks community members when he’s out and about, “What are you willing to do?

“It’s easy for us to point fingers,” Miller said. “But we have to do this collectively, as a community.”

I will note that Miller, who’s African American, added the only diversity to the panel. It consisted of Miller, 12 white men and two white women — Manheimer and Helen Hyatt, with the Asheville Coalition for Public Safety.

It wasn’t exactly a rainbow of diversity, but I also noticed that Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell, who is African American, appeared to remove herself from the panel. Shortly before it kicked off, Campbell removed her name placard from the dais and sat in the audience.

I asked her about it afterward, and she said she hadn’t been asked ahead of time to be on the panel. Her name was not listed in the press release among those on the panel.

“I didn’t see any other city or county managers up there, so I chose not to be on it,” Campbell said.

A sharp exchange on needles

Other than the brief flareup with Manheimer, the event remained pretty tame, although Hyatt expressed a strong belief that local needle exchange programs aren’t working.

“They’re just not run correctly,” Hyatt said. “They’re not exchange programs — you get as many as you want, and then you leave them all over the city for somebody else to pick up.”

That drew a hearty round of applause, and when Edwards turned to Rudow for a followup on needles, I thought something hot might be forthcoming.

But Rudow took the high road, too, opting to tell a story about doing a ridealong with the Sheriff’s Office and hearing a lot about opioid overdoses. They went on a call that night for an overdose, and the person died.

Families want solutions, Rudow said. And yes, we need more resources for drug abuse prevention and treatment programs. He did come back to needles, though.

“I’m sure there are ways that we can run things better, like we can run everything better,” Rudow said. “But I think we should start with the background that these kinds of programs save lives. They’re proven to help people, and we can improve them, like we can improve everything else.”

Summit hits on common themes

Common threads, which we’ve heard before, did emerge:

  • Everybody needs more resources: Whether it’s for more police, deputies, assistant district attorneys, state and federal agents, mental health treatment facilities or drug addiction treatment programs, everybody needs more money.
  • Recidivism is a real problem. The same repeat offenders create huge problems for law enforcement and prosecutors, and better mental health and substance abuse treatment programs can help with these less serious crimes. But violent offenders need to be locked up.
  • We’re not going to arrest our way out of the problem. We have to provide more help for the addicted, the mentally ill, the unhoused.
  • Police presence matters. Crime goes down when more cops are visible on the streets.
  • Our area, like most of the country, is flooded with drugs. Atlanta is a hub for cartel distribution, and the cartels are active throughout North Carolina in bringing in hard drugs like heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine.
  • It’s harder than ever to recruit and retain police. North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Director Bob Schurmeier pointed out that the state is simply not producing enough new cops. “In a state of 10.7 million people, 1,723 new law enforcement officers completed Basic Law Enforcement training (in 2021),” Schurmeier said. “One year later, it went from 1,723 to 1,406, a drop of over 300. So the pipeline feeding all our agencies represented here is drying up. Meanwhile, in those same two years, the number of law enforcement officers in 2021 that left the profession: 2,182. So you can see that the numbers are trending in the wrong direction. People are not wanting to become law enforcement officers.

That’s been a huge problem for the Asheville Police Department, which remains about 40% below full staffing, according to Chief David Zack.

The anti-crime summit hosted by Chuck Edwards had little diversity in its panelists. It consisted of It consisted of 12 white men, two white women and one African American man. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

When Edwards asked Zack how the department is doing as far as community support, the chief said Asheville has come a long way since the demonstrations of June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Asheville had its share, including a notorious moment in which APD officers punctured water bottles at a citizen support tent downtown during a protest.

“I think we can all acknowledge 2020 was a particularly difficult year, nationwide, obviously with COVID,” Zack said. “But then nationwide civil unrest hit home. You know, something happens thousands of miles away in Minneapolis and suddenly people in Asheville think it’s justifiable to start throwing rocks and bottles at their local police department’s heads.”

That drew audible scoffing from the audience, which, by the way, wasn’t given the chance to ask questions during the session. Zack pressed on.

“So if you would have asked me this question in 2020, I would have said it’s (morale) very low,” Zack said “But I think the city, I think the police department, our community or city leaders have realized that we all made mistakes in 2020 — we all could have done things differently. And all of the relationships have been improving drastically, and the support has been there and continues to be there.”

He said downtown police presence has improved, along with inappropriate behavior, and the city will continue to pay attention to the city’s core.

But we have a long way to go, for sure. A shooting Saturday night in downtown Asheville at the Juneteenth Festival prompted the city to cancel the second day of the event. Two juveniles were wounded, and Asheville police charged a 16-year-old with two counts of felonious assault with deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury.

One last chance for a Manheimer eruption?

I still held out hope for another bottle rocket or two from Manheimer. But when Edwards finally came around to her official turn more than 90 minutes into the event, she was all conciliation and sunshine.

She thanked Edwards for convening the meeting.

“I had my doubts,” Manheimer said. “We talked about that, and I scolded you for your press release, because I thought it was terribly partisan. But I’m really heartened to hear this informed discussion today.”

I swear, it’s getting harder and harder to find a good old fashioned donnybrook in these parts anymore. It actually got even more kumbaya-ish.

“What’s happened during this discussion happens pretty much every time I get together with people with differences of opinions — we find a lot of common ground,” Manheimer said.

Rudow was my last hope. So imagine my disappointment when he took a big ol’ bite out of the Manheimer’s kumbaya cake.

“I would like to echo the mayor’s comments that this has been a refreshing break out of partisan politics,” he said. “And I think it’s been a fruitful discussion.”

Somewhere, a lion lay down with a lamb.

Edwards thanked everybody for coming out, and vowed to continue the effort with future breakout meetings to address the various needs brought up.

“But I don’t want us to lose focus on what’s important here,” he said. “I applaud the fact that we seem to be taking steps to get better but our work is not done.”

Dear god. I just got a news alert that hell has frozen over.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at

12 replies on “Opinion: Sure, Chuck Edward’s crime summit was political theater, but where were the fireworks?”

  1. The republicans have been selling fear to the masses and cutting the taxes of the wealthy ever since RR said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” Edward’s is just another iteration after the clown Cawthorn and Meadows, a man involved in an attempted overthrow of our democracy.

    1. Just for Edwards to show the world what a bully he is. Doing his Republican damndest to be rude and insulting. In my day, people like Edwards were dismissed as being nothing but a smart A–.

  2. Were any specific prioritized plans that require Congressman Edwards’ support presented or generated or at least future scheduled events to do so? I’m glad that the summit was conducted in a somewhat civilized manner; petty political politics won’t solve the problems — the Donkeys and the Elephants have to all pull in the same direction.

  3. Edwards was elected to represent WNC’s congressional district, not Buncombe County or Asheville specifically. He is supposed to advocate for our (not his) district’s progress through legislation. That’s what a legislator does. A national legislator does NOT attack specific jurisdictions within his district, esp. the largest one. If he keeps on, he’ll be no better that Cawthorn.

  4. I went to the summit and after Denniniger spoke, I thought, he didn’t answer the question, not even close, so I thought Congressman Edward’s response was on point and it was said in a very light hearted way. As far as Edwards being very conservative, maybe he is to a very left of center Asheville, but have you looked at what a very conservative House Republican looks like or our two previous representatives. Edwards strikes me as reasonable and moderate compared to Gaetz, Jordan and Cawthorne. And it’s interesting that Asheville doesn’t like being compared to progressive San Francisco or that crime is now not such a problem when we have downtown shop owners sleeping in their stores because of repeated break-ins and employees afraid to walk to their cars – which has been greatly helped by a program to put more officers on the street. It’s really important for local media to report on what’s happening in our city is a neutral, factual, unbiased way so citizens can get an accurate idea of the conditions in our city. The media are our eyes and ears after all.

  5. My neighbor and I attended the “summit” and I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t two hours of political bashing. The panel discussed some of the issues that they (the Asheville Police Department, the Buncombe County Sherriff’s office and the prosecutors) deal with on a regular basis, issues that stand in the way of significantly reducing crime. Unfortunately, no solutions and commitments were made. Hopefully a follow up meeting will be scheduled soon where solutions and commitments can be presented.

    1. agreed evan, I also attended and was happy to see it was constructive in bringing the parties together. I wish John Boyle had included the double digit increases in several crime categories yr. over yr. that chief Zach provided. As for solutions, I was expecting this to be more of a here is where we all are on the problem, now let’s meet again at some other point and talk some solutions. At least a conversation has been started.

  6. Asheville Citizen-Times is like the blind leading the blind on public safety… and the public health component as to What’s Next.

    Rep. Edwards organizing this event is something none of the other people who should have made that move at the Asheville-Buncombe level years ago did. So, everyone has to accept that reality now. I’m a progressive Democrat who happens to have been born in San Francisco and I track some of what’s happening there… like SFPD not shooting Paul Pelosi’s attacker.

    The death and disability here in Asheville from Illegally Manufactured Fentanyl, and to a lesser degree the death element with ‘Super Meth’, is what’s next. The BCG Opioid Settlement Plan is barely half the solution. It’s not all about harm reduction.

  7. Maybe it’s time to invite the actual criminals and the unhoused non-criminals to a Community Wide anti-crime summit. Screen everyone for drugs and weapons at the door. Offer refreshments. Get their personal details and find out who’s on drugs, who’s a felon, who simply needs a chance to get a roof over their head. Make no arrests on this day, but advise everyone who attends this summit that this is our city and that if they want extra chances and help (and if they want to be part of our city), we’re working on getting them all sorts of assistance at great taxpayer expense, but that it’s a two-way street; those seeking help must agree to make concerted efforts and/or at least no longer contribute to this city’s various crises. Offer a clean slate if need be, but be clear that things must change going forward. Consider it a fair neighborly warning. Set expectations and apprise everyone of the consequences and then Follow Through with consistency. Consistency plus time/effort generally brings about great results. But this must be a community collaboration. Policies and consultants and committees won’t get us there.

  8. This AM [June 22nd] I heard an interview with Eric Johnson, Mayor of Dallas, Texas. A Democrat. He just won re-election to a second term with over 98% of the vote. The subject of the interview was how crime in Dallas had been dropping under his administration which operates under a structure similar to Asheville’s: city manager-council. He explained some of the steps taken and programs by him and the police chief. He mentioned that he refused the BLM’s efforts to defund the police department, if anything he went the other way.
    Maybe Asheville’s management team could spend some time with Mayor Johnson and implement some of his and the police chief’s programs. Give him and his family a vacation to the mountains with a little business on the side.

  9. Helen made a good comment. We don’t have needle exchange programs. We have needle handout programs which is why we see them discarded all over our city and parks. Perhaps our city government can update the policy to get this under control. This is coming at a cost to the majority of citizens. Our city is enabling people to do drugs anywhere they want and its ruining our neighborhoods. People come to Asheville because we are so easy and cheap to do drugs. Someone stop the madness before we become San Francisco and it’s too late.

Comments are closed.