Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Jon Council, Testing the Power of the Unaffiliated in Watauga County


He's a construction worker living with his wife Peden in a reclaimed barn, with four dogs (Hannah  Jack, Bear, and Matilda), and 15 ducks on the Watauga River Road in Watauga, because it was the only available and affordable housing that Jon and Peden could afford in a super-expensive vacation destination like Watauga County. 

Jon Council just became a rare unaffiliated candidate for a Watauga County Commission seat (Dist. 3), "certified by petition" for the November ballot. No Democrat had filed for the seat against incumbent Republican Braxton Eggers. Council knocked doors to get the signatures he needed to qualify for the ballot because he believes that there should always be a choice of candidates and because he believes he can provide an important voice for working people in his district. Council may be the first unaffiliated candidate in Watauga County history to complete the petition process. He's certainly unusual in North Carolina.

Council has always been unaffiliated, and like many people who do not register as either Democrat or Republican, he sometimes has not voted in elections where he felt his interests were not being represented. Political scientist Chris Cooper at Western Carolina Univ. did research and found that some 261 unaffiliated candidates met the requirements and ran in North Carolina between 2010 and 2022. Almost all of them lost -- badly. During those years, 33 unaffiliated candidates (out of those 261) actually won their races, and frequently they were running for county commission seats. Can Jon Council beat the odds and join that rarest of rare winners' circle?

Unaffiliated voters now out-number both registered Democrats and Republicans in the state of North Carolina. And they out-number Democrats and Republicans in County Commission Dist. 3 of Watauga County, which includes the precincts of Watauga, Laurel Creek, Beaver Dam, Shawneehaw, Beech Mountain, and a portion of Brushy Fork. Here's the partisan breakdown of that district:

D 1,695
R 2,921
U 3,445

(Explains why no Democrat filed to run in the district.)

The Jon Council Story

Photo by Sophie Mead

Have you ever tried to live in the structure you're also trying to renovate? Carry on life while you add a kitchen and wood heat and a composting toilet to a structure that never had any of those "necessaries"? You may have to cover the bed with a tarp to protect it from falling construction debris and cook on a single-burner Coleman set on a desk. That's what Jon and Peden went through to have an affordable place to live, while (big irony here) Jon got up early every morning to go to work maintenance at a high end country club. Now he slings a hammer on construction jobs building summer places that he also can't afford. He's a keen observer of the realities around him -- a well informed, smart, and practical thinker who understands how the economy grinds working people. The crisis in affordable housing is a particular flashpoint for him. In a Barn Raiser online magazine interview last October, Jon pointed out that "development" in a mountain county is "just another extractive industry":

We’re in a place that’s got heavy tourist traffic at different times of the year with ski resorts and other recreation industries. We’ve seen a lot of single-family homes that have been turned into Airbnbs and short-term rentals, which makes it difficult for working-class people to find places that they can afford to live and work. Because we’re a pretty low-income community, we’ve seen how easy it is for outside interests with a lot of money to come in, buy up land, parcel it off and develop it, not for the people who live here, but for second homes or for short-term rentals for people that are living elsewhere.

That struggle for a decent place to live is coupled for Jon with a personal determination to heal and reclaim the two and a half acres of mountain hillside that he and Peden were able to afford in 2018. The land had been neglected for years, sprayed periodically with herbicides and pesticides to keep the scrub from taking over, but blackberry canes took over anyway.

Jon Council is characteristic of any number of smart and determined young people (he's 32), for whom college didn't click, which makes him not a candidate for a white-collar type job but worthy of respect for the struggle to live reasonably in a society that does not value physical labor and native smarts nearly enough. Jon and Peden have learned "make-do" -- living "on the cheap" -- but knowing the benefits and pleasures of a vibrant community of similarly struggling working people who help one another and understand barter/borrow. For Jon, duck eggs, which are significantly higher in both fat and cholesterol than chicken eggs and also higher in protein and omega-3 fatty acids, have become a valuable side enterprize. He's sold up to 200 duck eggs at a time to chefs for special event dinners featuring locally sourced ingredients. Jon and Peden trade and barter with other local small farmers for fresh vegetables and other produce during the warmer months. Jon told Barn Raiser

Jon and Peden's home. Photo Sophie Mead 

A lot of our friends are craftspeople. My wedding ring and my wife’s wedding ring were made by a friend, a woman we know in the community, which we traded for barter. There’s a lot of that.

Though Jon left college -- sampled but unfinished -- he's become skilled in a number of life-hacks, not just carpentry and renovations but also the nurturing of native plants and the health of the soil (not to mention the precious water). "I didn't do well in college. But I love to learn," Jon says, "and I'm often moved by novelty." So Jon is a deep reader widely curious about the world. He lights up when talking about favorite books and mentions the work of Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac), Peter Heller (a longtime contributor to Outside magazine), Craig Childs (The Secret Knowledge of Water), and Wendell Berry, whose Unsettling of America holds a special spot in Jon's library. He's a deep thinker on the ways and means that economic power gets wielded against the labor that sustains it, and the Barn Raiser interview quotes him at length on the failures of the two dominant parties.

Jon found a new local community organization, Down Home North Carolina, a member of the People's Action Network, dedicated to finding common ground with blue-collar working people and engaging them in action. The Watauga chapter was building a petition to the County Commission about affordable and fair housing (Watauga County has no minimal housing standards). Jon was also motivated by the repeated raw sewerage spills from a mega-student apartment complex on the west side of Boone. Those spills end up in the Watauga River drainage system, which runs it directly past Jon and Peden's homestead. Jon became an activist. He understands the cost-benefits for the corporate owners: They've been repeatedly hit with fines, "and they just pay the fine and everything still goes back into the watershed. And then it happens again, and they pay the fine." An endless loop of abuse.

He told Barn Raiser about what door-knocking and porch-sitting for Down Home taught him about human community:

When you can talk to somebody face-to-face and say, “Hey, man, we share a watershed,” or, “We rely on this mom-and-pop business up here that’s in danger of being run out by outside corporate interests,” I think you find that people are willing to cooperate with one another. People don’t have to agree on everything. But if we take care of one another, especially within a small community like this, it benefits everyone.

He told me, "Look, I'm not like a vigilante do-gooder. It's doing the simple stuff like helping someone get firewood or picking up trash on the road on a Saturday morning." Helping out. Building community. "Common Sense rules the day" is Jon's motto.

Down Home's petition for the county to enact minimum housing standards went nowhere, and that was under a Democratically dominated County Commission. So this unaffiliated activist is testing whether an amorphous non-party can also elect a representative to the partisan office of County Commission. 


Plant Woman said...

Jon is a truly unique and wonderful human. He needs your vote to mak a difference in Watauga! Vote Jon!

Anonymous said...

Great guy and great story!
Thanks for bringing this forward.
Jon is a guy who isn’t afraid of hard work and has a keen understanding of the true impact tourism and the local university have on working class Watauga residents.
As for him being unaffiliated he is a great example as to exactly who a lot of these unaffiliated voters are and the strength they can hold with a good candidate like Jon.
That should give pause to think by the politicians in Raleigh who meddled in how our local elections are conducted (Watauga County Commission) without consulting the residents who vote here.

Professor Past said...

Professor Past said

He's got my vote, and I'll spread the word where I can.