By Jesse Wood
Jan. 27, 2015. After nearly three decades as the Watauga County Elections Director Jane Ann Hodges is retiring in July, Hodges acknowledged on Tuesday.
Hodges cited medical issues – she’s had several bouts of cancer in the past few years – as her official reason to retire this summer. She also mentioned that this change will afford her the opportunity to spend more time with her three “most-precious” grandchildren – Gracie, 18, Judge, 12 and Emma, 11.
“I am looking forward to this new adventure in my life,” Hodges said. “I have been so blessed by this opportunity of doing this for almost 29 years and I just feel so honored and I look forward to the next person that comes forward to fill my shoes and feel the excitement that I have about the election process.”
The last two years as director have been rough on Hodges, although she has always taken the high road during public meetings or when questioned on the record by the media.
As soon as Republicans became the majority on the Watauga County Board of Elections, GOP members, Chair Luke Eggers and Secretary Bill Aceto, modified her directorial duties with the passage of a resolution at the very first meeting with the new board in August 2013. During those initial meetings, Hodges wasn’t privy to an agenda, which Eggers was now in charge of after stripping of some of Hodge’s authority.
In November of that same year, Eggers handed Hodges a letter of reprimand, where Hodges was requested to turn over her personal phone records – among other details that weren’t released to the public. At the time, Democrat Board Member Kathleen Campbell blasted Eggers and Aceto for “harassing Jane Ann like this.”
The other information that was in that reprimand is unknown. Because it was deemed a “personnel” matter, Eggers and Aceto wouldn’t speak to the contents of the letter and Hodges never released the letter or spoke about it to the media. When this matter came up, Hodges did say, however, that she’d hired an attorney.
Some of these first few meetings went viral on YouTube, something that the local county elections board was chastised for by members of the GOP-led State Board of Elections (SBOE) who said that the local director was a veteran expert to be relied upon.
In December 2013, SBOE Chair Josh Howard even went as far as to say that Watauga County might be better served by picking the “first three names in the phone book” for its three-member board and months later said that his “first instinct would be to make a motion to trade Watauga County to Tennessee.”
When asked about the controversial start, Hodges spoke diplomatically.
“I think you have growing pains, almost like in a marriage,” Hodges said. “You’ve got to learn each other and got to learn to work with each other and respect each other and go listen to each other. Maybe we had our bumps, but I think they will agree that I think they are very concerned about the elections in Watauga County and I respect that with all three [board members].”
In her time on the board, Hodges has been criticized for being partisan and going to bat for the Democrats. Republican Watauga County Commissioner David Blust said that he’s heard the same thing over the years, but “I’ve never actually seen it.”
“She’s always been there for me and always helped me get what I need. In fact, I went in there the other day and lo and behold, I had it in about 10 minutes on my email,” Blust said. “She and the staff have always treated me with kindness and respect.”
Hodges for her part is registered as an unaffiliated voter and has cast both Republican and Democratic ballots over the years, according to public voter information on the State Board of Elections website.
Asked about this criticism, Hodges said that she was fond of the color purple.
“I feel that I am probably the most nonpartisan person that has ever been born,” Hodges said. “My blood would run … what is the mixture between red and blue?”
She said that some of her best friends are both Republicans and Democrats, and she said she has enemies on both sides of the aisle.
“I take that as an accomplishment, too. That shows I am doing my job, and I do it in a fair, nonpartisan way,” Hodges said.
Campbell, the Democrat member of the Watauga County Board of Elections, who was sworn in at the same time as Eggers and Aceto, said that she believes that Hodges is being pushed out of her position as the director of the Watauga County Board of Elections.
“I think she was pushed out at the very beginning before I took office,” Campbell said. “They treated her with complete disrespect.”
She used other strong words such as “harassment” and “intimidation” and said that Hodges has been “humiliated” in her last two years on the job.
“The Republicans thought she was partisan. No, she was one of the most nonpartisan persons ever,” Campbell said, adding that Hodges has sent staff and board members to collect signatures from voters that were Republican – as well as Democrat.
“She doesn’t care,” Campbell said. “She wants to help everybody to vote and that’s her job.”
Both Chair Luke Eggers and Secretary Bill Aceto, the two Republicans on the board, said that Hodges isn’t being pushed to retire.
“It’s not true,” Eggers said, laughing off Campbell’s accusation.
Both Eggers and Aceto cited Hodge’s health and the fact that she wants to spend time with her grandbabies as reasons for Hodge’s upcoming retirement.
Eggers said that Hodge’s expertise has been a “blessing,” especially during his first go round as a board member on the Watauga County Board of Elections.
Like Eggers, Aceto was alerted of Hodge’s plan to retire last week. But Aceto said he didn’t hear from Hodges about the matter in person until today.
“I am happy for Jane,” Aceto said.
Asked about Campbell’s accusation, Aceto said: “I am disappointed Campbell is turning this into a political issue … I completely disagree with that. I think the most important thing is Jane’s going out on her own terms and made this decision, and the board will honor that decision.”
Last week, Hodges submitted her letter of retirement to Eggers and the board will address this personnel issue in its meeting in February. Then the board will turn its attention to search, within the state and across the nation, for a new director.
After the application and interview process, Hodges said that the board members will submit a recommendation to the State Board of Elections, which will then make the final say and appoint the new director.
As Aceto mentioned, Hodges said that the timing of her retirement will give the new director a chance to “get their feet wet” with the municipal elections of 2015 before moving on to the presidential election in 2016.