By Jesse Wood
Dec. 3, 2012. When the Watauga County Board of Commissioners meets today, a familiar face in local politics, one who has been involved in a number of significant developments in the county, won’t be present.
Though former Commissioner Jim Deal was initially elected to the board of commissioners in 2004, his journey into Watauga’s political arena began decades ago.
Deal is as local as they come and his Cove Creek roots stretch back to the late 1700’s, but he wasn’t born in Watauga. He was born in Philadelphia, where his father was stationed in the Navy.
The lifelong Democrat seemed destined for a life in politics. At the age of 11, the enthusiasm and youthful vigor of John F. Kennedy’s campaign spurred Deal’s interest in politics that continues today.
He was student-body president at Watauga High School and a member of student government in college, where he spent his first year in Chapel Hill at University of North Carolina and completed his undergraduate degree in political science at ASU.
He returned to UNC for law school, and in 1974, he came back home to practice law. At the age of 25, he served his first stint as the county attorney, saying it was a “challenge to walk into that first meeting.”
But he was prepared, willing to work hard and surrounded with helpful resources, such as the N.C. Institute of Government, and a number of “smart people” like Kenneth Wilcox, a local Republican who was on the then three-member board of commissioners while Deal was county attorney.
“I look up to and think a lot of Kenneth Wilcox. He’s the kind of person who put politics aside to try to do what’s best for the people of Watauga County,” Deal said. “I have respect for people who see problems and/or solutions and react.”
Prior to serving on the school board and the board of commissioners, Deal also was a member of a number of planning boards and the Watauga County Board of Elections, all of which helped him experience and understand the political process.
In 1990, Deal, who had three children ready to start school, ran for a seat on the Watauga County Board of Education and was elected for the first time. He served for the next eight years on the school board. It was during this initial campaign that the foundation for what would become Deal’s crowning achievement nearly two decades later would be cemented.
“I toured all of the facilities as a candidate and afterwards as an elected official and I realized we had significant facility needs,” Deal said, adding that he then began working on a bond referendum that passed in the fall of 1992 to renovate every school and build the new Cove Creek School.
“We were able to address facility needs that the county had not been able to address for a long time,” Deal said.
“But we realized that was not going to be a solution for the next 50 years,” he said.
From the creation of the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority and Industrial Park, to the Watauga County Detention Center, Ted Mackorell Soccer Complex and the new Watauga High School, Deal wasn’t shy in spending taxpayers’ money today for what he felt would benefit the community down the road.
The new high school, in particular, which cost nearly $90 million for land and construction, substantially more than initially estimated, has caused a select few conservatives in the High Country to vilify Deal in person, on the phone, in emails and through letters to the editor.
“Certain people don’t believe in spending money. They thought the old high school is fine. I disagree with those people. I think the old high school was a detriment to education of young people,” Deal said in his office last week at the law firm Deal, Moseley and Smith, LLP, adding that the high school will return “dividends for years to come.”
Among the sources of contention with Deal and the new high school was the fact that the old high school was estimated to be sold northward of $30 million and put towards the debt of the new high school. However, that never happened, even though the county received multiple offers valued at more than $30 million before the Great Recession.
After sitting dormant for several years, the old Watauga High School property was just recently sold for nearly $19 million, although the sale hasn’t been finalized, yet.
If we had been geniuses and could have looked into a crystal ball and we could have seen the economy in the U.S and world wide was going to tank in 2008 would we have done something different?” Deal said. “Possibly – but you can’t live your life that way. You can say if things work out how we plan, this is what we are going to do. If things don’t work out how we plan, this is what we are going to do.”
Deal said that he is a “progressive” in terms of educational opportunities but that he is “relatively conservative financially.”
“I don’t want to spend money if we don’t have a plan to pay for things,” Deal said. “Looking back we didn’t spend without a plan.”
Commissioner David Blust, a Republican, has known Deal since the early ‘80s and served on the board of commissioners with Deal from 2005 to 2006 and 2011 to 2012.
“I disagree with him on how they pushed the [new Watauga High School] down everybody’s throat without a vote from the people with a bond referendum. I told him from day one to hold a bond referendum, so we would know the price tag,” Blust said. “It’s a nice building and I’m happy the kids get to use the building, but in my belief, I wonder where the money comes from. It comes from the people of Watauga.”
In what was an almost identical statement from Deal, Blust added, “We’ve had some major disagreements, but gosh we are good friends. I appreciate his service very much.”
Deal mentioned that the tax rate in Watauga is one of the lowest in the state and said the people who have supported and thanked him for his service have outnumbered those who been critical of the new high school “by a thousand to one.”
“What I find surprising is when someone comes up to me and says we really just don’t need all of this debt in Watauga County. The next question I say is ‘How do you feel about the new high school?’ And they say ‘Oh, it’s great. I love the new high school,” Deal said. “Well, you can’t have it if you don’t pay for it. If you are saying Watauga needs to be without debt, honestly you are saying we shouldn’t have the new high school.”
Along with education, Deal has been a devout supporter of nonprofits in the High Country and similar entities in need such as the Watauga County Public Library. While his first six years as a Watauga County Commissioner were on Democrat-led boards, his final two years were among a Republican-led board.
During this year’s budget meetings, Deal was visibly frustrated as the Republican-led commission struck down motion after motion to provide more funding to local organizations requesting more money than allocated, and he mentioned that the political process gets in the way of what’s best for the citizens of Watauga County.
If Deal would have ran for another term it’s likely the board’s political demographic would have remained the same, but that wasn’t the reason Deal didn’t run for re-election, having already decided not to seek re-election after he was selected to his four-year and final term in 2008.
“I tend to believe you serve for a period of time and then it’s time for to try new ideas and new thoughts with new people,” said Deal, who will continue to serve on the UNC Board of Governors. “I also felt like we had accomplished most of the things I pledged to do when I first ran as commissioner.”
Deal is quick to point out that those accomplishments like the creation of the Watauga County TDA, the new high school, expansion of Caldwell Community College campus in Watauga and so forth, were collaborative efforts that weren’t solely induced by him.
“It’s wrong to say Jim Deal accomplishments,” he said. “I was blessed to be fortunate enough to be put in a position to have some involvement in accomplishing what I believe are truly long-term achievements.”
He mentioned the behind-the-scenes work of former and current county managers Rocky Nelson and Deron Geouque and the employees of Watauga County, and he spoke lovingly of his wife Sheila who put up with all the meetings and not knowing whether or not he would be home in time for dinner.
On his wall in his office hangs a gift from his wife that he looks at everyday and calls his “guiding principle.” It’s a picture of Deal laughing with his three children and it contains one of his favorite aphorisms that reads:
“One hundred years from now it will not matter what kind of house I lived in, How much money I had, Nor what my clothes were like. But the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of a child.”
As for the folks who have personally attacked him for his liberal, spending ways, he said it doesn’t bother him.
“If you don’t have thick skin and don’t have enough confidence in yourself that what you are doing is in the best interest of the people you are serving, then you shouldn’t run,” Deal said. “People are going to say things that are untrue. People are going to say things that are tilted to their view point.”
For example, Deal recounted a story that he learned in a political science class while he was in college.
There was a race with only two runners. One was American and one was Russian. The American came in first place while the Russian was second. The following morning, a Russian newspaper proclaimed the headline, “Russia is runner up in international race. American finishes next to last.”
“Both are true, yet how they seem to color how one looks at something. Folks tend to look at things through their eyes and you can’t expect them to see anything differently,” Deal said. “But, I could be wrong.”