The most visible and controversial local election campaign in Wilkes County doesn't belong to a Democrat or Republican this year, but to an unaffiliated candidate.
Tom Bowman is a former county commissioner and physician who resigned from the board of commissioners in 2001 as part of a felony-plea arrangement related to re-packaging prescription drug samples for sale. He is running as an independent to regain a seat on the board.
Bowman has far outspent the other six county-commissioner candidates, spending nearly $8,000 just in the month of June, the last period for which campaign-finance reports have been filed. None of the other commissioner candidates expect to spend more than $3,000 for the entire race, so they aren't required to file spending reports.
Bowman's money has gone for half-page and full-page ads in local newspapers, as well as lots of free food. His signs have advertised free community hot-dog suppers. Last weekend's free pig picking attracted more than 350 people, who ate 200 pounds of barbecue, 18 gallons of baked beans and 10 gallons of slaw.
He will have another free community meal tonight, a "Chickin Stew" at West Wilkes Middle School, and will raffle off a flat-screen TV and other items.
He needed to gather about 1,700 signatures to be listed on the ballot, and got more than 2,000 in less than a month.
"Most of the time running as an independent is a sure death sentence, and I don't see that this time," said Jim Beckwith, a friend and supporter who served with Bowman on the board of county commissioners in the mid-1990s.
"I'm hearing his name a lot," Beckwith said. "With that in mind, I think he's got a chance. I think he's a player."
But there's also been a lot of negative buzz.
When Jason Carlton, a local business owner, went to the polls yesterday, he didn't cast a vote for Bowman, he said, because he disagreed with Bowman's policies when he was in power but also in large part because of Bowman's criminal record.
Carlton runs a Web site called GoWilkes.com, which includes a lively discussion group where dozens of people have blistered Bowman.
"I would say the wide majority of people (on the Web site) have spoken against Bowman primarily because of his criminal record," Carlton said. "The ones who have spoken in favor of him say he's a nice guy and was a good doctor."
Bowman is attempting to get his medical license back. The N.C. Medical Board denied his application for reinstatement of his license in 2007, citing his criminal history, among other factors. Last March, Bowman's attorneys withdrew a request for a formal hearing before the medical board, but they said that Bowman was reserving his right to re-apply.
After he resigned his medical license, Bowman got a degree in accounting at Wilkes Community College. He works as the office manager of his wife's medical practice.
In pleading guilty in federal court to one count of conspiring to defraud the U.S. Drug and Food Administration in 2001, Bowman admitted to playing a part in an enterprise that began in 1996 and illegally sold drug samples.
He served a three-month active sentence in a halfway house and five months of home confinement, and paid a $150,000 fine.
Beckwith said that Bowman has been an imperfect person, but has a great heart and is someone who cares deeply about people, the community and the county.
Bowman had a large practice, seeing about 8,000 patients. He said he delivered babies, made house calls, cared for the elderly and generally took on too much work.
"I have been more than punished on whatever I did," he said. "I have apologized to everybody I can…. But on the other hand, I can do some good now."
He says he wants to cut spending by going line by line through the county budget and then reducing the tax rate. He says that much of the land in Wilkes County is overvalued for tax purposes, and he would give people a chance to earn refunds by proving their property should have a lower tax value.
Although he agrees that the county needs a new jail, he said that the current plan to spend an estimated $30 million on a law-enforcement center and jail is far too expensive. He proposes a smaller jail, pre-fab construction and other cost-saving measures.
As for people who won't vote for him because he was convicted of a felony, Bowman said he can't change that.
"This is America, they can do what they want to," he said. "They should decide what is important and who can do it best, and I would be unrelenting in lowering their tax rate, and if they don't want that, they can vote for Brother Sink, and they'll have four years of the same."
Sink is Charlie Sink, a two-term commissioner, the current chairman of the board of commissioners and a target of Bowman's criticism, singled out by name in some of Bowman's ads.
Both live in the small town of North Wilkesboro and belong to the same Sunday-school class. They sat side by side Thursday at a candidates' forum. They both say that they have never discussed Bowman's plea deal and resignation from the board.
Bowman said that his ads targeting Sink aren't personal.
"It's hard to ignore the fact that for eight years he has been the common thread and our situation has gotten worse," Bowman said. "I'm not really picking on Charlie the person, but he has a responsibility that has not been met."
Sink said that the attacks are personal, that Bowman has a vendetta against him, the sheriff and others. Sink said that the board has practiced sound fiscal management.
"We've done a good job of managing things and moving things ahead," he said.
Because three seats are open on the five-person board, control of the board is at stake in this election.
The election numbers favor Sink, a popular incumbent Republican running in a presidential election year in a county in which registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2-to-1. Wilkes County had 21,073 registered Republicans,11,868 Democrats and 7,083 unaffiliated voters, as of yesterday, according to the Wilkes County Board of Elections.
If Bowman can get elected and get back his medical license, he will have regained two things he lost in his plea deal. But he says that his medical license has nothing to do with the election.
He was a Republican when he resigned from the board and had been a Democrat for years before that, and he said he feels both parties have let people down.
"I decided that it would be harder, but that I would run as an independent," Bowman said. "I'd like to think that the majority of folks in Wilkes County are independent in their thought. These people are very strong minded and strong willed and determined to do what is right."
■ Monte Mitchell can be reached in Wilkesboro at 336-667-5691 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.