With lawmakers back in Raleigh, we’re speaking with some of those members from out here in the west. Today, John Ager, a Democrat of Buncombe County. Ager is a farmer out of Fairview serving his second term in the North Carolina House.
Unlike most western lawmakers, Ager was in a competitive race in November against Republican Frank Moretz, but ended up winning by more than 10 percentage points. He had to overcome the odds in a year when Republicans scored big wins across the country.
“I’m really gratified. Right in the week or so before the election, I had a lot of people come up to me in the grocery store and different places and say ‘John I just wanted you to know I voted straight Republican and I voted for you.’”
Ager is the owner of Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview. He grew up in Atlanta, but he did have ties to the region.
“My grandfather had a farm in Black Mountain called Ager’s Acres and I would spend my summers from all over the country in Black Mountain. We’d wander out in the woods, we’d pick blackberries, we’d hike up High Windy, and we were more or less sort of Lord of the Flies boys. That was just such a happy time for me.”
His background in politics could actually be traced to his wife Annie, who was the daughter of the late Congressman Jamie McClure Clark. Ager actually met Annie in New England. He was going to school at Williams College in Massachusetts. Annie was going to Vassar College, which was an all-women's college at the time. When it decided to go co-ed, men from Williams were invited to attend for one semester.
“So Annie and I met. I was one of the first men to go for one semester to Vassar College, and met her, and then I came down here and I wanted to spend the summer on the farm, but you had to have a reason to do it, so I milked the cows that summer. And I fell in love with her and her farm and the chance to be back in western North Carolina.”
That was in the early 70s. But Ager would not run for office until 2014.
“I felt like there was a spirit of vindictiveness when the Republicans took over from the Democrats, that there was an agenda that I thought was going to be ultimately harmful for the state.”
Ager knocked off incumbent Nathan Ramsey by less than 500 votes. Now in his second term, Ager has found it tough in Raleigh.
“It’s frustrating because I was a freshman in the party in exile. We’re not really allowed to pass substantive bills.”
A highlight for him was when a number of Republicans joined him and fellow Democrats to vote down a bill forcing districts on the city of Asheville for city council races. He said at the time it restored his faith in the legislature.
“Yeah of course it’s come up again. I can’t tell you how aggravating it is to have representatives that represent mostly Henderson County try to come in and determine how Asheville should have its elections.”
Like the rest of the lawmakers, much of his time has been taken up by contentious issues like House Bill 2. He was against HB2 and voted FOR the repeal compromise that ultimately passed, which split him from his fellow Buncombe County Democrats in the House, Susan Fisher and Brian Turner, who wanted clean repeals, but put him on the side of Senator Terry Van Duyn, who also voted for the compromise. We spoke before that vote took place. Now, Ager is hoping the focus can stay on issues that matter to his constituents, like the opioid crisis, and rural matters, especially those that affect farmers.