Analyzing Pam’s Picks


Courtesy of Pam's Picks

A sample ballot marked by Pam’s Picks.

Will Hofmann, Enterprise Editor

Amid the beginning of the pandemic on March 3, 2020, the North Carolina Democratic Primary was well underway. 

For Bill Toole, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, the day would lead to defeat. Toole, an environmental lawyer, lost his primary, placing fifth and sending Yvonne Holley to the general election.

Toole failed to place first anywhere in the state except for Watauga County; a county he did not visit nor spend advertising money in.

Toole, whose campaign consisted of videos of him cooking “yummy gazpacho,” had been seen as “not having a ghost of a chance of winning anywhere,” said Pam Williamson, local progressive activist, and creator of Pam’s Picks.

Despite his unlikely candidacy, Williamson, after reading his campaign information and researching other candidates, endorsed Toole for the Democratic Primary for lieutenant governor in Pam’s Picks.

“You know, you got to pick the candidate that most espouses what you believe, or has demonstrated that, and that was that guy,” Williamson said. “And, so, I endorsed him.”

When Toole ended up winning in Watauga, Williamson said she received a phone call from the Toole campaign where Toole asked “what happened?”

“I said, ‘Well, I got your story out,’” Williamson said.

 Pam’s Picks are a set of conclusions and endorsements of candidates in upcoming elections. They are solely developed and researched by Williamson, and do not necessarily reflect a party preference. 

Bright yellow pamphlets indicating her picks are often handed out in front of polling sites in Watauga, along with her picks being available online.

Every year since around 1990, and sometimes twice a year, Williamson releases Pam’s Picks, identifying her preferred candidates from President of the United States to county Soil and Water Conservation Supervisor.

After Pam’s Picks are published, locals react in a variety of ways. On the official Pam’s Picks Facebook page, one person calls it an “invaluable service,” and another says they look forward to the picks “before every election.”

In 2012, one Watauga local wrote in the High Country Press calling Williamson “fanatical” and a “demagogue.” The same letter called her “Pam McNasty” and “Miss Piggy.”

Williamson wrote back, responded to the inquiry, and, ultimately, thanked them for reading Pam’s Picks.

“I used to cry about it 15 years ago,” Williamson, 69, said. “But now it rolls off my back.”

One time, when Williamson was about to go under anesthesia, a nurse looked at Williamson’s nametag and asked: “Are you Pam’s Picks?”

“I said ‘Yes, I am,’ and then she goes: ‘When is it coming out?’” Williamson said. “And I said: ‘Well, not today.’ And the next thing I know I was under.”

For almost every primary, general, midterm and municipal election, Williamson compiles Pam’s Picks alongside a questionnaire for candidates to answer. If candidates chose to answer the questionnaire, they are included in consideration for Pam’s Picks. If they do not answer, then Williamson will not choose that candidate; despite whether she agrees or disagrees with their politics.

Additionally, Pam’s Picks don’t reflect the official stances of the Watauga County Democratic Party, of which she is a member. Williamson says her assessments are not part of any larger political party or movement and makes sure readers know such in a short statement prior to her picks:

“Pam’s Picks is simply one person’s opinion about the 2022 General Elections Ballot,” Williamson wrote of the 2022 election on her website. “I am a progressive Watauga resident and have long held interest in local politics and issues.”

Rather, Williamson contends that her service acts as both a possible guide, and as a place for voters to know what candidates stand for.  

“The main reason I started Pam’s Picks in the first place was that there was no real place to find any information about the candidates; other than what they themselves say,” Williamson said. “But not how they actually acted or voted.”

For some candidates, Williamson’s endorsement can be seen as a sign of coming victory and may even lead to candidates doing less campaigning, said Jon Dalton George, one of Boone’s town council members. 

“I think some candidates very much rely on that endorsement, and maybe they take their foot off of the gas,” said George, who was endorsed by Williamson during the 2021 municipal election.

Pam’s Picks also allows candidates to understand who they are running against, which then helps inform the voting process, George said. 

“I actually used Pam Picks to see what my opponents were saying about the exact same questions,” George said. “I think the publishing of the information, in-full, unedited, was really useful.”

In the 2022 midterm, almost 23,000 Watauga County voters turned out for federal, state and local elections, according to the N.C. State Board of Elections. Out of those, Williamson believes Pam’s Picks might help those who are undecided on local elections.

“Another thing where Pam’s Picks comes into play is that a lot of people don’t move all the way down to the bottom of the ballot,” Williamson said. “They’re gonna go in and they’re gonna vote for president. They’re going to vote for governor, and they’re going to vote for some local candidate they know.”

The bottom of the ballot is typically where non-partisan elections occur, which includes positions like Soil and Water Conservation Supervisor and Board of Education; positions voters may know the least about, Williamson said.

The positions of Boone Town Council, Boone Mayor, Soil and Water Conservation Supervisor and Board of Education, are all non-partisan elected positions, meaning the ballot does not indicate what party each candidate belongs to.

By examining endorsements made by Williamson alongside election winners, research by The Appalachian indicates candidates selected by Pam’s Picks have made up nearly 80% of the non-partisan elected officials for the past 14 years.

Only statistics from “competitive races,” where more than one candidate is running, were used to analyze this data. Since data on Pam’s Picks only currently dates to 2008 on Wayback Machine, an online internet archive, only the last 14 years of general, midterm, and municipal elections were analyzed. Pam’s Picks is limited to the Watauga and Boone area for non-partisan elections.

Over 80% of endorsed non-partisan candidates have won their election.

Since 2008, 43 endorsed candidates won their election, making up nearly three-fourths of the 56 candidates elected. In total, Pam’s Picks endorsed 53 of the 104 non-partisan candidates running in various Watauga County elections.

96% of endorsed municipal candidates have been elected.

Boone’s municipal elections include the positions of Boone town council and Boone mayor.

Out of the 26 elected municipal candidates since 2008, 24 had an endorsement from Pam’s Picks. A 2019 election for Boone Town Council marks the only election where a municipal candidate with a Pam’s Picks endorsement lost, and only by a margin of 15 votes.

For the past 14 years, every candidate Williamson endorsed in mayoral races won. There have been four elections for mayor.

General and midterm elections show less endorsement power, more candidates.

General and midterm elections include the non-partisan races of Board of Education and Soil and Water Conservation supervisor. These are county-wide elections.

Out of the 30 candidates who won their election during competitive general and midterm elections, 19 were endorsed by Williamson: making up roughly two-thirds of the elected candidates in Watauga’s non-partisan positions in general and midterm elections.

“Why isn’t there Perry’s conservative picks?”

While data indicates that a Pam’s Picks endorsement may be connected to success in a non-partisan election, Williamson still wonders why anyone hasn’t come to step in.

“I mean, I’ve never understood why they let me just get away with it,” Williamson said. “Why isn’t there Perry’s conservative picks? I never understood it.”

Williamson says inquiries from individuals living in other areas of the state for picks are common, with individuals encouraging a Pam’s Picks endorsement in those areas. Some reach out from Charlotte, others from the Triangle, Williamson said.

“There is a market for it, but I’ll be honest with you,” Williamson said. “You gotta have the time to do it, and I just make the time.”

For George, Pam’s Picks is seen as more than just an endorsement, as much as a way of spreading information about candidates who voters might not know. 

“I think the information provided about local elections is super beneficial,” George said. “How many other places in the state have municipal elections where, you know, someone will kind of dig up everything that somebody’s done, and kind of put it out there?”

Williamson estimates that she spends days developing Pam’s Picks, which may be difficult to replicate. However, if one is willing to work on their own picks, Williamson contends “it is a hell of a model.”

“I think it’s the way the world is going. Everybody is sick of the partisanship,” Williamson said. “And they’re looking for information like that, but they’re not finding it.”