Debbie Starnes has never met York County Council candidate Alex Haefele. She isn't familiar with his views on most issues. Until a few weeks ago, she didn't know who he was.
But on Tuesday, Starnes hopes to make Haefele one of the most powerful people in the county. Her motivation is simple: Haefele opposes an overlay district that would tighten zoning rules in neighborhoods around the Rock Hill/York County Airport.
"He's the only one that definitely said he is not for this overlay," said Starnes, who lives in the Channing Park subdivision. "Therefore, he's got my vote. All I've heard from a lot of my friends is, this Buddy guy is for it."
This "Buddy guy" would be Buddy Motz, the council chairman who finds himself caught in a firestorm over the future of the airport. Motz supports an overlay district that is tied to plans to lengthen the runway by 1,000 feet. The goal is to attract more corporate jet traffic and bolster economic development prospects.
For Motz, the timing could not be worse.
Airport flap dominates contest
Haefele has moved to exploit the emotions of Starnes and others, hoping their fears over a larger airport will swing Tuesday's Republican primary in his favor.
"Alex is just eating it up because it's just falling in his lap," Motz told The Herald this week. "Knowing him, I'm not surprised that he's taking advantage of it. He wants to be elected, and so he's naturally not disputing it. If he had any character, he would dispute the facts they're putting out there."
At a neighborhood meeting this week, organizers handed out 5,000 fliers for attendees to distribute, each reading: "Vote for all challengers and send a message to the incumbent city and county officials that turning Rock Hill into Charlotte South is not best for our City, County or Children!"
The fliers warn airport growth will "injure our children," create "health issues" and cause "congestion to our highways."
Haefele spoke shortly before the fliers were distributed.
"I am against the extension of the runway, and I am against the airport overlay," he told the 250 people in attendance. "I need your votes. Bottom line, I can't help you if you don't elect me."
Responding later to Motz's comments, Haefele said in an interview that he isn't trying to taking advantage of anyone.
"I chalk that up to another incorrect statement from Mr. Motz," he said. "I could characterize it another way, but I'll leave it at not true. He's entitled to his opinion."
An estimated 18,000 registered voters live in District 6, where Motz and Haefele are running. If turnout is 10 percent, as has been the average in recent years, the contest could be decided by fewer than 2,000 votes.
Unaware of Haefele's history
Several neighbors interviewed by The Herald outside the meeting said they will vote for Haefele despite knowing little about him. What they don't know is that over the years, the 55-year-old homebuilder has earned a reputation for inserting himself into local controversies.
Most recently, Haefele, 55, has fought the city of Rock Hill over plans for a construction and debris landfill approved just south of town. Haefele acknowledges his significant other, Annie Williams, lives near the site.
Motz questions whether Haefele wants to join the council to continue his fight against the landfill.
"I understand he's been successful in his business, and in order to be successful he's had to fight government," Motz said. "He sees this as a way he can work from the inside to benefit his business."
Haefele declined to comment, citing ongoing lawsuits over the landfill.
Sending a message?
As the airport dispute drags on, opponents are pivoting to a new argument: that a longer runway -- and more planes -- will jeopardize the safety of children who attend nearby schools, including two within a mile of the runway.
"I told some of the County Council members, you can mess with my property values. You can mess with my taxes," neighbor Steve Duell said at the meeting. "But when you're messing with my child's safety, I'm coming at you. I'll spend every last time dime I have."
No one faces a harsher backlash than Motz, whose District 6 includes the neighborhoods around the airport.
Longtime friend Ida Newsom urged voters to look beyond one issue and take Motz's calls for compromises into account. Motz pushed for eliminating noise disclosure forms that had caused an uproar among neighbors.
"He has risked his political position to step forward and try to help," said Newsom, a former Rock Hill school board member who lives in Stafford Park.
Speaking to a Republican gathering last month, Motz described the turbulence he's encountering.
"Someone said a nail that stands the tallest gets hit the hardest," he said. "Sometimes I feel like that nail."