Boundary bedevils Ramseur candidate
In 1978, Ray Isley built a house on a wooded elbow of Newell Street in Ramseur. Twenty-one years later, the county split it virtually down the middle – at least in a political sense – after surveyors redrew the town limits to exclude a bedroom and living quarters.
Isley did not often reflect on the layout of his house, a split-level number in brick and white trim, even after the surveyors visited. Town officials had laid a city limit marker in his backyard, but the Isleys kept paying municipal taxes on a part of the property and in turn received town water rates, voted in town elections and enjoyed regular garbage pick-up. Isley so engaged himself in Ramseur civic life that he served on the planning and zoning board and founded the Downtown Revitalization Committee.
In fact, the location of Isley’s house with respect to official city limits never became an issue until the Ramseur native elected to run for town commissioner earlier this year. In late summer, when the campaigns began to pick up steam, mysterious phone calls started circulating encouraging reporters at the Asheboro Courier-Tribune and officials at the county board of elections to look into Isley’s residency status.
“When the town changed the boundary line, they let me choose whether I wanted to be in or out,” Isley said. “I chose to be in.”
Now his word is being officially challenged by Roger Blayne Overman, who lives near the heart of downtown Ramseur and less than a mile from Isley’s house. And the outcome of that challenge will test a North Carolina statute enacted in 2006 that says that a person in Isley’s situation, that is, one living on a property split by municipal or county lines, officially resides where he sleeps.
“Yes, I do have a bedroom in that corner of the house,” Isley said.
Isley had just left his doctor’s office in late September when he received a call from the Ramseur town administrator, Kevin Franklin, who informed him that the Courier-Tribune and Randolph County Board of Elections were asking around about his residency. Isley said Franklin advised him to go down to the board and take his name off the ballot.
Franklin said he did encourage Isley to check in with the board – but only to offer his side of the story and see if a residency determination could be made.
“I knew Ray very well,” Franklin said. “But I’d never been over to his house, and he’d never been to mine. So I don’t know if he has a bedroom in that corner.”
Isley panicked. He drove to the board of elections and after a short conversation with Director Patsy Foscue, filed a withdrawal.
“Mr. Isley came in and wanted to give us his resignation,” Foscue said. “I told him he didn’t need to do that because there hadn’t been a formal complaint and he didn’t need to withdraw.”
The board had in fact met on Sept. 24 to discuss the odd case of candidate Isley. The residency issue had not yet come to Isley’s attention, but the board, which had been receiving phone calls from Ramseur town officials, was aware of the brewing controversy. At the time, the three board members voted against taking any action because a formal protest had not yet been filed.
“People who have concerns about residency are encouraged to file a challenge,” said Don Wright, counsel for the NC Board of Elections, “because a challenge is the best way to determine residency.”
Foscue contacted Wright before Isley’s residency troubles made the front page of the Courier-Tribune. The attorney advised her to wait for an official challenge, which can be filed by any voter in town and would be judged by the county elections board.
Up until 2006, boards and judges resolved most cases of disputed residency using the so-called “bedroom rule,” Wright said. A case in Iredell County inspired state legislators to insert a clause in the residency law that codified the rule for situations like Isley’s.
“What it says is that where the sleeping area is is where you live,” Wright said. “What you literally would do is impose an aerial map of the house over the political boundaries.”
The Isley case got even stranger when the mayor of Ramseur, Hampton Spivey, paid a visit to the candidate. He encouraged the candidate to rethink his withdrawal from the race. The two marched down to the elections office and demanded that Isley be reinstated. Foscue said Spivey did the talking, demanding Isley’s letter of withdrawal.
“I couldn’t give it to the mayor,” Foscue said. “That would be like you coming in and wanting to change something about somebody else’s voter registration. I can only give it back to the candidate.”
The elections board met again on Oct. 4 to consider Isley’s withdrawal and voted to keep him on the ballot. The county board will meet again before the election to determine Isley’s legitimacy.
“Municipal candidates are free to withdraw their candidacy at any time,” Wright said. “I’m unaware one way or the other of anybody ever withdrawing their withdrawal. Nothing in previous state law or statutes deals with this issue conclusively.”
Isley is one of four candidates running for three open four-year terms on the Ramseur Board of Commissioners. His opponents would not have to campaign if he were eliminated, and Isley and others detect the unmistakable scent of small-town politics in his saga.
“With me out of the picture, the other three automatically go in,” Isley said. “I’m in somebody’s way. I just wish whoever was behind this would have the decency to come out and say it.”
Isley said he suspects Overman, whose brother is running for one of the two-year terms, was put up to challenging his residence by one of his opponents. Overman did not respond to attempts to get in touch with him.
Now that the challenge is official, the Randolph County Board of Elections will determine once and for all whether Isley can run for office, and whether or not he should be considered a Ramseur resident for voting purposes. This time, the candidate is confident he will prevail.
“This is not even supposed to be a partisan election,” Isley said. “This is just a small-town election, and small-town boy running for a small-town office. What in the world is going on?”
To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.