By Hunter Hines
Christian Action League
November 21, 2015
NEWLAND – “We were hoping that something unique might take place,” said Dr. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “I have never seen or heard of a referendum that turned out alcohol sales. The numbers from the last alcohol election seemed to show it might happen in Newland, but it didn’t come down that way.”
Dr. Creech was referencing a decision made by the Town Council of Newland on August 11th to vote again on the sale of beer and wine. Voters narrowly approved beer and wine sales in 2009, 121 for malt beverages with 104 against and 121 for wine and 102 against.
The vote was so close people like Steve Nelson, who led the fight to oust the sale of beer and wine on November 4th thought victory was within reach. However, according to official election returns, Newland voted overwhelmingly for retaining beer and wine sales, 235 in the affirmative and 91 in the negative.
“The Lord just put it in my ear for about a year to do something about it. It’s just religious reasons,” Nelson told the High Country Press in an interview previous to the election.
Nelson told the Christian Action League he had secured promises from dozens of pastors who said they supported the effort to end sales, but they never came through with their support.
“If these churches would get involved, get out and vote, then they could make a difference around here,” said Nelson.
Asked how many of the churches that promised to help were from the town of Newland, Nelson responded, none. But he added many of the residents of Newland attended churches outside of the town limits, and if pastors had provided the kind of support needed, it would have helped get those people to the polls and changed the results.
Nelson also said the fight to end alcohol sales in the small town was very contentious.
He said he had a Kubota tractor on his property, which he parked near the highway with flashing lights and a sign to vote against alcohol sales on it. He also used a van for the same purpose. Both vehicles were vandalized at different times with empty beer cans and beer bottles strewn about them, and beer poured over each.
Nelson complained the signs he placed around the town against alcohol sales were often stolen. Others he set high upon telephone poles out of the reach of alcohol proponents. But he claimed, they were taken down by AT&T because of a legal threat from alcohol supporters against the company if they left them up.
Possibly the worst moment for Nelson was when he was arrested and taken into custody on election-day, charged with second-degree trespass.
According to the Avery Journal-Times, Nelson “had stationed himself on a small patch of grass outside of First Baptist Church of Newland to encourage citizens to vote ‘no’ on the referendum.” The Avery-Morrison Public Library polling place is also adjacent to the church. Nelson was within the North Carolina statute limiting campaigning within 50 feet of a polling place, but he was also on church property.
That prompted Dr. Bill Jones, pastor of the First Baptist Church, to approach Nelson and inform him that he was trespassing on church property. When Nelson refused to vacate his position, Dr. Jones called the Newland Police Department.
When the police arrived on the scene, Nelson still refused to move. He was subsequently charged and taken into custody.
Nelson said he felt at the time he had suffered all the harassment he could take and decided he was going to make a stand right there no matter what happened.
Dr. Bill Jones, however, pastor of the First Baptist Church, said no one from his church, including himself, ever wanted Nelson arrested. “We’ve had an understanding of our church for quite a while now that we don’t allow politicking on church property. We had people in our church on both sides of the alcohol issue,” he said. Jones added this was the church’s policy whether about alcohol or some other volatile issue like gay rights.
Jones also said the First Baptist Church sent one of its deacons, an attorney, to explain to authorities that the church had no desire to see Nelson prosecuted.
Charges were dismissed against Nelson.
Other sources, who didn’t wish to be named, told the Christian Action League they believed the alcohol election involved voter fraud. Sources told the League that some voted by giving fake addresses of residence. Some voted who simply had vacant lots in the town limits, while others who lived outside of Newland also voted.
The Christian Action League could not substantiate any of these claims.
Dr. Creech said, “I suspect much of what Nelson said happened is true. And I appreciate his strong stand. I’ve heard numerous similar reports from other towns about stolen anti-alcohol signs, the property of the anti-alcohol forces vandalized, and threats made against alcohol opponents. Emotions can run high on both sides and having a civil debate on the issue can break down. It’s most unfortunate. Of course, tensions are heightened when pro-alcohol folks fear you’re going to take away their business or income. That’s why turning alcohol out is always a heavy lift.”
“But it appears there was no organized campaign in Newland, no concerted effort; it was mostly a one-man crusade. That’s unfortunate. What is more, you can’t fight alcohol referendums today by religious objections alone. You have to be able to show a community reasons why alcohol sales pose a serious public health risk for them. Why it’s a drain on the local economy. Why it fails to produce the prosperity promised. You can do this, but it requires research and a lot of preparation with a good mix of religious and civil leaders participating,” added Dr. Creech. “That’s why the Christian Action League exists to help communities get ready and then fight a good fight.”
State law prohibits another alcohol election on beer and wine taking place in Newland for a space of three years.