Politics & Government

Rep. Tim Moffitt admits he asked Democratic opponent to drop out of state House race

Republican state Rep. Tim Moffitt of Asheville acknowledged Thursday that he asked his Democratic challenger Brian Turner to drop out of the race. But Moffitt vehemently denied suggesting he could help get Turner a state job in return.

This week, in interviews with reporters and an Asheville radio station, Turner said Moffitt asked him to back out of the race so he could focus on landing the House speaker position. He said Moffitt gave him the impression that if he withdrew, Moffitt would help him try to land a high-paying job heading the public television station UNC-TV.

The exchange occurred during an hourlong meeting Feb. 24 at an Asheville restaurant.

Turner is a former vice chancellor at UNC Asheville. He resigned from his university position late last year to challenge Moffitt. Gail Zimmermann was recently appointed as interim director and general manager at UNC-TV, and university system officials plan to begin a national search for a permanent director later this year.

Moffitt said he believed Turner was “trying to jump-start his campaign” and described any implication that he offered Turner a quid pro quo as “categorically false.”

“I take that allegation very seriously because it is extremely damaging to me personally and professionally,” Moffitt said. He said he knew Turner had worked at MTV and in the university system and figured the UNC-TV job might suit him. Turner is a former MTV producer.

“I was flattering him by saying with that great background, you ought to see if you could become the president of UNC-TV,” Moffitt said. “I wasn’t offering him a job.”

Moffitt added that he wouldn’t have a say in who gets the job at UNC-TV. “It would be easier for me to help him become the queen of Spain,” he said. Turner questioned why Moffitt mentioned the TV station at all. “UNC-TV is not something that’s brought up in everyday conversation,” he said.

Buncombe County Commissioner David King, a Republican who helped arrange the meeting between the two candidates, was the only other person present during their talk. He agreed with Moffitt’s account. He said Moffitt asked Turner about his motivation for seeking public office, and Turner responded that he wanted to serve the people. Moffitt, King said, then suggested that Turner should see if he could get the job with UNC-TV.

Turner and Moffitt are the only candidates for House District 116, which includes parts of Buncombe County. Unlike many state legislative districts, it isn’t considered a lock for either party. Moffitt owns an executive search firm, and Turner is helping his wife run a couple of small businesses. Moffitt, in his fourth year in the House, has earned top committee posts and is considered one of several contenders to take over as House speaker in 2015. Turner is seeking elected office for the first time.

Toxic environment

Turner said Moffitt asked him to withdraw his candidacy so he could focus on his speaker bid. Moffitt said there was no connection between asking Turner to withdraw and his hopes for speaker.

However, he acknowledged that he told Turner that having an opponent in November could hurt his chances of leading the chamber because it would hinder his ability to travel the state supporting other GOP House candidates and raising money for the caucus.

“I said it’s much easier to become speaker if that’s the only race you have to focus on, but if you have a race at home in your district, then your first responsibility is back in the district,” Moffitt said.

Moffitt, Turner said, also warned that outside political groups would work during the campaign to “destroy me and my family’s reputation and that I needed to give serious thought to how that would affect my wife and my daughter.” Turner is married with a 6-year-old. Turner said he perceived Moffitt’s words as threatening.

“I walked away from that meeting pretty taken aback,” he said.

Moffitt said he was simply trying to educate a political newcomer about what he could expect from the coming campaign, describing Buncombe County as a “toxic political environment.”

Moffitt said he was “blunt” and “honest” and described negative experiences he had in his first two election bids – from attacks on Twitter to defaced campaign signs – and how they affected his family.

“We’re all rookies at some point. ... I could tell that nobody had really sat down with him and said, ‘Hey, do you really know what you’re getting involved with?’ ” Moffitt said.

King said he didn’t believe Moffitt’s comments were threatening. “I do not think that either man went into that meeting with any intention of hurting the other,” he said. He added that he spoke to the media Thursday to try to put an end to the controversy.

“In retrospect, I wish I would have never accommodated them,” he said.

Gannon: 919-836-2801; Patrick Gannon writes for the NCInsider.com, a government news service owned by The News & Observer.