A third Democratic candidate is ready to make a run at North Carolina’s 11th Congressional district.

Eric Gash is a lot of things: a minister, a principal, a former football player and a coach, and now, he’s hoping to become Western North Carolina’s voice in Washington, D.C.

Gash, 51, and his wife of 25 years, Katy, 49, sat down with The Mountaineer ahead of a forthcoming announcement of his congressional run. Throughout the interview, Gash returned to a few themes frequently but focused most on the virtue leading by example, even pointing out that he has a board outside his office that reads “the world is changing by example not by opinion.”

“When folks see you lead by example, you can hold them to account,” he said.

Around the world and back again

Gash was born and raised in Western North Carolina, having graduated from Hendersonville High School in 1988. From there, he went to UNC-Chapel Hill, where he also played outside linebacker. While Gash eventually had the chance to sign with the New England Patriots, the team his brother Sam played for, he decided to go a different direction and get into business.

It wasn’t long before a new venture took him to the Caribbean, where he lived for 14 years training people in different countries to run direct sales operations.

Before long, Gash met Katy, who is from Barbados. The two quickly fell in love and got married a year later in 1996. The two got to travel frequently for work to countries all over the world and even lived in Guyana, the Virgin Islands and St. Lucia.

Eventually, in 2008, the Gashes and their three children moved back to Hendersonville to be closer to his family in the mountains.

“I was away for 20 years, almost to the day,” Gash said.

Gash got right to work in the school system. Beginning as a part-time teaching assistant, he became a math teacher before getting his master’s degree and going into administration. In January 2020, he became the principal at Bruce Drysdale Elementary School, which he himself attended as a child.

Since being back home, Gash also coached girls basketball and served as an assistant coach on the football team until 2014 when he was named Hendersonville’s head coach, making him only the second Black head coach in Western North Carolina since integration. Gash coached until 2016 when he stepped away to go into administration.

Journey of faith

Another major part of Gash’s life is his faith, which he said guides every decision. Since 2008, after doing missionary work during his last couple of years in the Caribbean, he’s been the pastor at the nondenominational Speak Life Community Church and is also currently the Hendersonville Police Department’s chaplain.

“It’s the faith that causes me to look at folks that maybe don’t believe what I believe or feel the way I feel with compassion and love and still be able to have a conversation with them,” Gash said.

Gash has long been active in the community, but it wasn’t until recently that he began seeing things through a more political lens. While he and Katy said they don’t consider themselves activists, between the COVID pandemic and racial unrest of the last year, they’ve felt compelled to make their voices heard.

“Something happened over the summer,” Gash said. “It was a paradigm shift, just in my heart, where I felt I had to do something.”

Katy echoed his sentiment.

“With everything that transpired, life doesn’t go as normal,” she said. “You can’t just say ‘oh well.’ We found coming out of that summer people started looking to Eric a lot more because he is a pastor and he is a man of color.”

Gash said he also was happy to go to other organizations to further the conversation, and through the church began hosting “community conversations” featuring church members and community leaders, such as the Sheriff and chief of police.

“We’re saying, ‘community, here’s our law enforcement officers; law enforcement officers, here’s our community. Let’s talk,’” Gash said.

“There’s power in knowing someone’s name and looking them in their eye,” he added.

In that effort, Gash has met all kinds of folks around the community and came to a conclusion.

“We have so many differences. Different cultures, different creeds different colors and races, and we are called to live in unity and live in harmony. Well, that’s going to take work,” he said. It’s going to take an effort to do so and an intentionality to do so.”

While Gash said his relatively new foray into activism led him to encourage folks to run for all kinds of offices, eventually he had to consider the obvious question: when should I run?

A congressional run

Because Gash has never run for elected office, his name may be unfamiliar to those who follow regional politics, but he said he’s working on developing a “ground game” to get his message out.

One man who encouraged Gash to run and worked with him along the way is former Rep. Heath Shuler. While the two men played sports against each other in high school, the two are now working together to make Gash’ candidacy as effective as possible.

“I have spoken to Heath a considerable amount and, yes, he has encouraged me to run,” Gash said.

While several challenges await any Democrat who decides to run in the heavily conservative district, one of the biggest obstacles may be standing out in what might be a crowded primary field with early frontrunner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara having already raised over $380,000.

“I’ve heard there are going to be a lot of folks possibly, but I’m not too worried about that,” Gash said. “I don’t want it to sound arrogant or boastful at all, but I know what we’re capable of. I want to earn every single vote and talk to as many people as I can to let them know that it’s not about me and it’s not about any other candidate. It’s about us. It’s about Western North Carolina.”

No matter how the district is redrawn by the general assembly toward the end of this year, there are still challenges simply with its size and geography, making it potentially difficult for the Hendersonville candidate to reach the far-western counties. Gash said he has a good plan in place to reach voters all over the district, including through relationships he established playing and coaching throughout the region.

“We’re getting the wheels going so when we do hit the ground we hit it running,” he said.

Among the most crucial elements for any successful campaign is a good fundraising structure. In the 2020 election, Democrat Moe Davis raised over $2.2 million and still lost to Republican Madison Cawthorn by about 12 points. While Gash offered no specific details, he said his campaign is assembling a team to work “behind the scenes” to ensure fundraising success.

Gash especially highlighted that the key to success in an election or anything else is “doing the best you can with what you have right where you are.”

While Gash didn’t talk specifically about any policy or legislation he would get behind, he did talk about how important it is to build relationships with constituents of all political persuasions to better understand their wishes and concerns to guide his decisions.

“Change moves at the speed of trust,” he said. “Trust moves at the speed of relationships. It’s about building those relationships.”

“There are going to be a lot of choices,” he added, noting that the primary election could indeed feature a crowded field. “I will listen, and I will step out and stand up for you. I will put District 11’s interests above my own. It’s not about me. It’s about representing the interests of District 11 here in Western North Carolina.”

So far, Gash will face Beach-Ferrara of Asheville, and Josh Remillard of Mills River in the Democratic primary.

Republican freshman U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn currently holds the seat.

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